Graphics giant Nvidia, which recently celebrated a billionth GeForce chip sold, is adamant to become the key silicon provider for portable gear. It's no secret that Tegra 2 has "failed to launch" in 2010 and displace chips from Qualcomm, Samsung and Texas Instruments in world's most popular smartphones and tablets, all of which are built on the ARM ecosystem.
Learning from its Windows Mobile disaster, Nvidia has plotted an ambitious plan to put its silicon inside more gadgets by focusing on Android and improving its Tegra architecture.
At CES 2011 we learned that existing Tegra 2 chips will power flagship Android devices like the LG Optimus 2X and Motorola Atrix 4G smartphones, as well as Motorola's Xoom tablet.
That's just a taste of things to come in the near future. Think new breed of portable devices incorporating glass-less 3D displays, Blu-ray support and enhanced graphics, paving the way for stereoscopic 3D gaming, exciting user interfaces and other perks.
Motorola Atrix 4G runs Nvidia's Tegra 2 chip. The phone can be docked via a special accessory to serve as a portable computer, thanks to its speedy processor and graphics.
In short, your mobile phone will become kinda computer, Mike Rayfield, Nvidia's General Manager for Tegra Business Unit, told Hexus in an exclusive interview:
In 25 years I can't remember a show that was this impactful. I've known for a long time that Tegra 2 is a kick-ass part - your phone is now a mobile PC.
All the pieces of this puzzle are finally falling into place. Nvidia has finally settled its licensing dispute with Intel for $1.5 billion and introduced ARM processor designs into its ecosystem. The latter deal is crucial for it enables Nvidia to merge ubiquitous processor designs from fabless British chip designer ARM Holdings with its own GPU designs, the initiative known as Project Denver.
It could finally enable Nvidia to crack open mobile space where ARM-based chip designs are a norm. An ARM CPU ticking inside a Tegra system-on-a-chip [SoC] also benefits from Nvidia's GPU architecture known for the speedy communication between the cores and the integrated memory controller.
Current-generation Tegra 2 chips for smartphones and tablets include the AP20H and T20 SoC solutions, both built around ARM's 1GHz dual-core Cortex-A9 processor. They are to be replaced soon, however, with Tegra 2 3D architecture consisting of the T25 and AP25 chips for smartphones and tablets, respectively. Upping the CPU frequency to 1.2GHz and adding built-in support for 3D displays makes these chips the world's first mobile 3D processors, according to a leaked Nvidia's roadmap seen below.
nVidia Tegra Product Roadmap slide from leaked presentation located somewhere in Far Eastern cyber wilderness
Provided vendors embed these chips in their products, your next smartphone or tablet will come with autostereoscopic 3D displays that needn't special glasses, like on the recently unveiled Nintendo 3DS handheld, paving the way for gaming in stereo 3D on mobile devices. There are several players on the autostereoscopic market, such as Sharp, xyz3D, MasterImage 3D and others. For more on this, check out the below interview by Neil Schneider from MTBS3D with Roy Taylor, executive vice president and general manager with MasterImage 3D.
Game developers are already taking notice. Nvidia at CES showed off a demo of the upcoming role-playing game Soulcraft, being developed by MobileBits and published by Electronic Arts's Chillingo subsidiary. Optimized for the current-gen AP20H and T20 chips, the game runs smoothly on the LG Optimus 2X smartphone even though it uses a lot of shaders - something we see as a capital advantage for Nvidia in this field. Nvidia's competitors mostly do not develop their own GPU IP, but rather license PoverVR technology from Imagination Technologies. The problem with such approach is that the competition uses Tile-Based Rendering principle, while nVidia utilizes its ultra-successful GeForce architecture and more efficient Shader principle.
As you can see for yourself in the clip below, Soulcraft proves that even current-generation Tegra architecture packs in enough oomph to drive amazing 3D games with complex graphics. Apple, are you seeing this?
While the upcoming Tegra 2 3D architectire is effectively a speed bump for the existing Tegra 2 design, the forthcoming T30 and AP30 chips represent a generational shift compared to what's currently available on smartphones and tablets.
The T30 tablet chip sports four ultra-low power Cortex-A9 processors [quad-core] clocked to up to 1.5GHz and three times faster graphics that can output Blu-ray video and drive displays with up to 1920x1200 pixel resolution.
Its AP30 smartphone counterpart, available in dual- and quad-core flavors, will support up to 1366x768 pixel resolution. And you thought Apple's Retina display at 960x640 pixel resolution and 326 pixels-per-inch density was special?
If Nvidia's roadmap holds true and display vendors keep pace, expect 720p [HD Ready] smartphones and 1080p [Full HD] tablets to be launched at CES 2012. First samples of the T30 and AP30 should be available in the fourth quarter of this year and not at the Mobile World Congress next month, as many blogs incorrectly reported.
This information came to light in Nvidia's leaked roadmap and Rayfield's comment made in the Hexus interview:
I'm going to come pretty close to my cadence of a launch every year. It will be in production around the same time as my competitors' first dual-cores will.
Looking at 2013 and beyond, Nvidia is working on the Maxwell generation described as the "first end-product using Project Denver," resulting in a significant performance increase over Kepler architecture. Nvidia hopes the high-end Maxwell chip will go down in history as the world's first consumer solution that will effortlessly run full-blown operating systems from companies such as Microsoft and Google entirely off a GPU core. Note that Nvidia abandoned its work on a Fermi-powered Linux build.
Nvidia's Architectural Roadmap revealed at last year's GPU Technology Conference
Such an aggressive planning on Nvidia's part puts a lot of pressure on companies like Apple, the consumer electronics powerhouse that has chosen to ignore Nvidia and is instead pursuing its own custom silicon with the A4 chip. Even Microsoft said that Windows 8 will support ARM architectures through a unified code base designed to run efficiently on both desktop computers and mobile devices, putting Nvidia into position to reap the benefits of its ARM licensing agreement.
Jen-Hsun's Keynote at CES 2011 adamantly market where the company is heading with Tegra SoC processors