For decades, chipmaker Nvidia was very well known for its efforts on the graphics processing front. But over the past few years, the company has expanded its focus to include the burgeoning mobile space with its own proprietary system-on-chip design.
While the first generation of the Tegra line, which launched in Microsoft’s failed Kin smartphones, didn't garner Nvidia the market share it craved, the company has learned from its mistakes and found success by partnering with Google’s Android platform developers. Tegra 2 is featured in the majority of Android 3.1 (Honeycomb) tablets on the market today, and Nvidia has shipped over 10 million Tegra 2 chips through July of this year.
Tegra 2 includes two ARM-derivative cores for CPU and eight GPU cores, which are split up into four vertex and four pixel cores. This gives game developers the equivalent processing power of a mid-range PC from four years ago.
“This has opened up big advances in the tablet market in particular because you have the real estate and capability of putting higher clocked components within the architecture thanks to the ability to dissipate heat easier,” said Nick Stam, technical marketing director at Nvidia. “Manufacturers can step up the frequencies, add more memory, and improve the overall capabilities of a tablet form -factor.”
Tablets from companies like Acer, Toshiba, Dell, Motorola, LG, and Samsung run on Tegra 2 technology today, which is permitting more and more realistic-looking gaming experiences.
Titles like the Trendy Entertainment’s cross-platform Dungeon Defenders: First Wave and the aquatic racer, Riptide GP, by developer Vector Unit, already showcase the gaming capabilities of this chip set. Nvidia is attempting to reinforce this position with an initiative of its own – Tegra Zone.
Tegra 3: the first five-core tablet CPU
Any day now, however, the company's third-generation chip – the Tegra 3 – will make its debut in a variety of tablets, including ASUS' Transformer Prime tablet.
Tegra 3, which currently goes by the internal code name Kal-El, will feature four ARM A9 processors that can be clocked up to 1.3GHz.
The chip also includes a fifth "companion" A9 core, which runs at a lower frequency and has been designed to handle low-intensity housekeeping like audio playback and apps. In theory, this design will extend battery life by not taxing the quad cores unless they’re needed.
Tegra 3 also includes 12 GPU cores, which will offer an overall performance of graphics five times more powerful than Tegra 2.
“Even with Tegra 2-optimized games like Riptide, which includes dynamic water effects, physics, particles and smooth motion, we’re getting closer to console quality,” said Stam. “With Kal-El, we’ll be even that much closer, but I think that we’re still another generation or so away from truly rivaling the consoles like the PlayStation 3. But we’re close enough with Tegra 3 for many games that people won’t know the difference between a console and a tablet.
What's after Kal-El?
NVIDIA has already mapped out its next generation of Tegra chips. Following Kal-El is Wayne (Tegra 4) in 2012, Logan (Tegra 5) in 2013, and Stark (Tegra 6) in 2014.
Amazingly, Stark should offer one hundred times the power of the current Tegra 2 chip. Those wondering why Nvidia chose superhero names for this next generation of chips will find an easy explanation from Stam: Nvidia engineers thought they sounded cool.
“We’re talking about some significant improvements in Tegra technology thanks to Moore’s Law as well as new dye shrinks and fabrication processes that work in our favor,” said Stam. “We’ve designed a much more powerful and more intelligent management of power utilization with Kal-El called Variable Symmetric Multiprocessing (VSM) architecture." VSM allows efficient control of the companion core, and also manages the switch between the companion core and the four high speed cores.”