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13
Feb
2011

Tegra - a way for the future?

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Written by Vedran Dakic   

NokiaIf you've been following the IT industry in the past 15-20 years, you might have noticed that a lot of things have changed. Terminals became desktops, desktops became mobile computers, mobile computers became ultraportables, and - on a side - mobile phones creeped in and took over pretty much everything. The same thing with devices that sit somewhere in the middle between mobile phones and mobile computers - tablets. There were tablets in the past (Toshiba Portege series comes to mind), but they were based on a different paradigm then ones released in the past couple of months.

With every mobile device - as with desktops - there comes a time where just end up wanting more, but without wanting to give much more - in terms of space, battery life, whatever. Apple struck the right chord with its iPhones in terms of tapping the market, making it alive and conquering a large portion of it, but also showed that closed platforms can lead to some (albeit minor) problems. If you've ever tried to load a webpage with flash on iPhone, iPod or iPad, then I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

This is what Google noticed and decided to play its hand with - to offer a bit more opened-system that will be supported by a huge company, in a similar business model that Apple has - offer software, OS and hardware as a complete platform and encourage developers to develop apps on their own. Android pulled that off, and offered quite a few manufacturers either room for progress, or for second chances. Motorola and LG come to mind...

Hardware-wise, vast majority of these devices are ARM-based, and have different solutions in terms of video support. This is also something that caught NVIDIA's eye, and with all-around problems and fights with Intel in desktop-space which ultimately led to complete halt of chipset development, NVIDIA needed some room to grow and make money. They decided to play a bit risky hand, develop a mobile supercomputing device (Tegra), adopt ARM and push their platform as hard as they can.

The original Tegra was OK, but probably not good enough. I've seen prototype devices behind closed doors with both Tegra and Tegra 2, have heard a lot of stuff about them, but it wasn't until this year's CES that things started to lift off heavily. Remembering a panel-discussoin we had with NVIDIA crew and its CEO at GTC in September/October, where they openly said that they don't like the fact that Tegra is late and that they hope it will be out in 2011, I was expecting something huge to happen in the end. And - quite frankly - it did.

Tegra 2 is a SoC (System-On-a-Chip) with integrated 1GHz dual-core CPU, GeForce ULV and the necessary controllers, encoders and decoders to make it a full-circle product, and a first one that can do whatever you want with HD video, HDMI mirroring and quite a few other things. It's also a first dual-core ARM-based CPU for mobile phones/devices/tablets, with two integrated A9 cores. This should - in theory - offer substantionaly more horsepower for anything from web browsing to Flash performance and HD video performance, with gaming on its mind. All of this should be helped by 8-core GeForce ULV, slimmed-down non-unified version of their GeForce GPU in small-footprint and less-power-hungry form. All of this horsepower can be used to control one 12MP and one 5MP camera, two displays (main one plus a second one via mini-HDMI output), and up to 1080p video support.

The A9 core inside Tegra 2 uses ARMv7 instruction set, has 8-stage pipeline and OoO (Out-of-Order execution, for relocating instructions to improve performance to avoid states when nothing's happening because of - for example - latencies of singular tasks). These cores have 32KB Data and 32KB Instruction cache, with one common 1MB L2 cache. All of this mobile power can be managed through advanced technologies (Dynamic Voltage, Frequency Scaling) to ensure optimum battery life. Also, this helps browsing, UI, gameplay experience and pretty much everything else.

Of course, we're not talking about linear gains here, or anything like that - but in general, whatever you can do on a mobile device to lower the power consumption without wasting a lot of dollars on hardware isn't only a good way to go, it's the only way to go. You could end up using a lot less power for CPU-intensive applications this way which would mean a lot for the battery life.

The general idea behind the multi-core architecture in this chip and the ones following isn't necessarily just the performance, this has huge implications on power usage, as well. NVIDIA makes a point here - they claim that it's much better to do the work split on two processing cores running at 50% then on one running at 100% (because chips can operate on lower voltages and overall use less power when they're running at 50%). This has quite a few implications on chip cooling. Also, this equation seems rather simple and goes a bit against the "usual" way of thinking about multi-core hardware as - in general - applications on PCs aren't all that parallel, unless we're talking about games. But if we're talking about games, then we need the multi-core approach to crunch more fps, not necessarily to "distribute the load so we can run cores at lower settings". But a whole host of usual PC/Mac applications running on CPUs aren't really multithreaded and quite a few of them will never be optimized in that way.

Let's see a couple of screenshots of new mobile games, running on Tegra and Android:

game1 game2 game3 game4

 

Apart from all the fanfare of iPhone, iPad and iOS devices in general, I think that general appeal Tegra-based devices lay in the symbiotic nature of the Tegra-Android platform. One of the by-products of this is Adobe Flash support, and a leading one on the market right now. Yes, I think that this is the part where Apple's got it wrong and everyone else is right. It's not pragmatic and wise to ignore huge Flash users base, but apart from that, I feel that "forcing" users to be unable to use something isn't the best way. Let's put that discussion down to - different opinions and nothing more. Also, in general, you can expect the best mobile experience with Tegra 2-based devices, offering fastest browsing, UI, and gaming. Pay close attention when new Tegra 2-based devices come to your stores and make sure that you check them out. And, just for fun and games, here's something completely new from the MWC '11 - a couple of screenshots from NVIDIA's presentation so you can deduce yourself what's next in line:

 

 

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