Calling it one of the “worst kept secrets” in the industry, NVIDIA CEO Jen Hsun Huang launched the Tegra 4 system on a chip at his company’s CES press conference Sunday night.
Initially, NVIDA’s first and second generation Tegra chips failed to generate much in the way of manufacturer support, being utilized in only a few devices. Tegra 3 on the other hand has proven to be quite popular, making its way into devices like Microsoft’s Surface RT and Google’s wildly popular Nexus 7. Tegra 4 meanwhile is looking to improve upon its predecessor’s success by remaining faithful to NVIDIA’s core mobile design philosophies while also expanding capabilities in several key areas.
In order to align the Tegra platform with today’s expectations, NVIDIA is using the first commercial implementation of ARM’s quad core A15 architecture. This is paired up with a fifth “low power” core which will pre predominantly used in situations where the A15’s full (somewhat power hungry) performance spectrum isn’t needed. For example, this architectural design can dramatically increase battery life when reading an e-book or viewing a static webpage but also has the capability to deliver vastly improved performance when its needed.
Alongside the four A15 cores, NVIDIA continues to focus upon graphics horsepower and has added a whopping 72 GPU cores to Tegra 4. This should help game developers create more detailed environments in their titles without having to worry about constrained system resources.
“This thing is flooded with GPU cores. I just wish we could flood more GPU cores in here,” said Mr. Huang, “The Tegra 4 is the fastest mobile application processor in the world today.”
Wireless connectivity hasn’t been left out in the cold either since NVIDIA has built a 4G LTE modem directly into Tegra 4’s die. Not only will integration of native LTE broadband support help push the standard to more users but the move away from a dual-chip solution also ensures better system efficiency.
At the press conference Mr. Huang demonstrated the speed of the Tegra 4 by providing a (simulated) head-to-head demo of a mystery Tegra 4 tablet loading websites next to a Nexus 10. The Tegra 4 was able load 25 webpages in only 27 seconds, with the Nexus 10 taking 50. It was quite impressive but actual performance remains to be seen.
Mr. Huang claimed that when its launched it will be the fastest chip on the market, beating Apple A6X and becoming the go-to solution for flagship Android phones. Ironically, NVIDIA also showed Tegra 4 being used on Windows 8 devices so the market will likely see Surface RT-like devices sporting this new architecture in the coming months. Unfortunately, there was no mention of Windows Phone 8 compatibility.
The ability of smartphones to provide quick, easy access to an onboard camera is an integral part of today’s mobile market. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and countless other social networking sites have flourished because of people’s newfound ability to document their lives instantaneously. Unfortunately, while the quality of these cameras varies wildly with very few actually being able to deliver photographs of sufficiently high quality. According to NVIDIA, the issue lies with a lack of (or at least access to) quick HDR modes
Currently, many high end smartphones are able to capture High Dynamic Range images but they do so slowly, thus limiting their use to static scenes. The Tegra 4 meanwhile is able to leverage its processing speed advantage and GPU cores in order to provide an “always on” HDR shooting mode that utilizes what NVIDIA calls computational photography. This basically means it can capture an HDR image seamlessly, without any perceptible delay and should even be able to offer HDR panoramas, burst shooting with HDR enabled and dynamic object tracking. On Tegra 4 HDR can even work during video recording.
While the raw computational power of Tegra 4’s GPU plays a large part in the HDR equation, NVIDIA has also placed the GPU’s capabilities “closer” to the image processing pipeline. Since HDR requires two photos to be taken and then stitched together in order to create a composite image, leveraging the GPU earlier on allows this process to happen instantaneously (at 0.2 seconds per frame) rather than the two or more seconds it takes on competing solutions.
As expected, gaming is a big focus with the Tegra 4. To preview the Tegra 4’s gaming power, NVIDIA showed off a copy of the game ‘Dead Trigger 2’, a shooter which appeared to have early PS3-esque graphics fidelity.
On stage, Mr. Huang said that the Tegra 4 will also have an Icera i500 modem 4G LTE modem — an after product of NVIDIA’s acquisition of Icera with additional built-in support for GSM, CDMA, HDPDA+ dual band. It’s a software modem with fully programmable blocks that can be easily modified depending on handset and carrier requirements. Essentially, these programmable blocks allow it to dynamically adapt to an environment, providing quicker, more efficient mobile performance under a wide variety of circumstances. Dynamic programability even saves die space as the i500 modem will have a footprint that’s 40% smaller than competing solutions. It will also support over the air updates.