Android / Mobile Processors (SoCs) / nVidia

MWC 2013 (PART THREE): nVidia gets a Quad Core makeover. Enter the Tegra 4 and 4i

Initial Bad Gambles:

nVidia: A vendor we usually associate with desktop and laptop graphics cards, has come a long way in its strive to push into the mobile market space; and it has decided to go the mobile microprocessor route instead of just producing graphics processing units. Considering their humble beginnings as a non-SoC provider, the graphics Giant has managed to keep up with the likes of SoC vendor heavyweights like Texas Instruments, Samsung, and Qualcomm. As of recent though, Qualcomm has been hogging all of the spotlight with some really compelling offerings.

With its last generation offering (the Tegra 3), nVidia started  gaining some traction in the smartphone/tablet space. But this attention was short-lived with the advent of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4, which offered a much better option in terms of power, power consumption, feature-set and price. Tegra 3 devices began to fade into the background as Qualcomm’s devices began to take center stage. Devices like the North American Samsung Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X and HTC One S all came equipped with this SoC as it provided the best of every world.

nVidia needed to go back to the drawing board. To design a mobile SoC that could survive in a market held in the death grip of  Qualcomm. There were a few reasons why the Tegra 3 platform went out of style so quick: Lack of LTE integration, Performance, and Power Consumption.

With an increase in LTE enabled wireless providers, smartphone manufacturers were looking for All-in-one solutions that they could design with minimal effort and cost, and yet target the highest portion of the smartphone wireless spectrum. Qualcomm’s designs offered these All-in-one packages.

Performance on the Tegra 3 platform was impeded, not due to core efficiency, but more due to memory throughput design. While Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4, Texas Instruments’ OMAP4 and Samsung’s Exynos 4 had already moved on to Dual-Channel memory access systems on each core, Tegra 3 was still a generation behind, employing a single-channel memory architecture. Similar performance to its competitors could be achieved, but clock speeds would have to be almost doubled, which was not physically feasible from a power consumption and stability stand point. As most other SoC chipset provider had moved over to fabrication on a 22 nM and 32 nM HKMG (in the case of Samsung’s Exynos 4412) process, nVidia was still using a 45 nM process. This difference meant a big difference in power consumption efficiency.

The birth of Tegra 4

Enter Tegra 4, nVidia’s answer to Qualcomm. With tegra 4 and tegra 4i, nVidia hopes to address all of Tegra 3’s shortcomings and go beyond. With Tegra 4, nVidia also jumped onto ARM’s more powerful next gen SoC architecture: Cortex A15. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 is already using an architecture similar to this without the issue if higher power consumption that is usually faced by SoCs based on this tech. It should be noted that Tegra 4i is not based on the Cortex A15 architecture. It is actually based on the previous generation Cortex A9, but the most recent and most highly optimized implementation of this architecture, with nVidia’s own performance touches. The Tegra 4 includes a 72 core GPU that handles all of the graphics tasks and a separate but brand new Icera500 LTE modem. The Tegra 4i on the other hand, employs the same modem but it integrates it into the SoC at the expense of GPU size. The GPU on the Tegra 4i is a 60 core unit. Considering how tegra 3 had only a 12 core GPU, nVidia claims graphics performance will jump 5 times on the tegra 4i and correspondingly 6 times on the tegra 4. Bold claim, but its a possibility as it is not just the GPU that gains performance improvements, but also the CPU.

Phoenix

NVIDIA-Tegra-4i-Phoenix-reference-575x323

With tegra 4 (and specifically tegra 4i), nVidia has gone the route of Qualcomm`s MDP and designed a reference unit: basically a smartphone with top notch features.  This gives device manufacturers a blueprint to follow when designing a smartphone based on this SoC. 

phoenix_tegra4_tegra4i

There are rumors that the Nexus 5 will be using Tegra 4 internals for its next devices. That’s isn’t a bad thing. With the introduction of the Phoenix reference device, nVidia has drastically simplified the hardware design process cutting down on production time and virtually eliminating the hardware design cycle. This in turn, reduces final device costs. And considering the fact that google plans to sell its nexus devices at relatively cheaper prices, this is something google is definitely looking at.

Chimera

The smartphone war is reaching a stalemate with respect to performance. Almost every single ARM based quad core SoC chipset seems to heave reached a point where performance difference may be observed in benchmark numbers but  is barely noticeable in everyday usage. So we have reached a point where SoC manufacturers now have to distinguish themselves by adding unique and innovative features. One of these areas is imaging. nVidia is attacking this front, with technology it has dubbed “Chimera”. This is technology we definitely need to look out for as it promises some serious improvements over its current crop of competition. One unique feature to look out for is its Always-On HDR mode. Unlike most other ISP(Image signal processor)s, nVidia’s Chimera technology merges all the images taken at different exposures and combines them in real-time. The process can be explained better in this Anandtech.com article. Suffice it to say, if you have been dissatisfied with the current crop of smartphone cameras, and you are looking for something better, nVidia tegra 4 is definitely something to look out for. Smartphones using this chip will definitely offer much better imaging capabilities and camera modules.

Conclusion

With Tegra 4, nVidia has definitely learnt its lessons and has made a compelling offer. Price-wise, it has also promised to deliver. This level of competition is definitely healthy among SoC manufacturers, as us, the consumers, ONLY stand to gain from it. I am definitely looking forward to Tegra 4 powered nexus devices from Google. It won’t be a bad investment on Google’s part. I am particularly looking forward to improved imaging capabilities on Future nexus devices. Now all that remains, is to see this chipset implemented in some beautifully designed smartphones and tablets. The future looks impressive!

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