nVidia’s Tegra CPU Gets Quantified And Qualified

Computex 2009: 25 days of music playback and HD video on one mobile device.

nVidia today unveiled its true intentions for its much talked about Tegra, system-on-a-chip. Dedicating an entire press conference to this very unveiling, nVidia’s CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang, revealed how this complete computing platform that’s no bigger than a typical USB memory stick would revolutionise the mobile computing industry.

Citing the fact this was the single biggest project outside of gpu development nVidia had ever undertaken Huang pointed out Tegra had so far cost 500 million dollars – probably peanuts to the likes of Intel but still a fair chunk of money.

Tegra, then, has been talked about before but it’s only today that nVidia officially announced the product and demonstrated working devices based on this new platform and what we can reveal is that Tegra certainly looks like something worth getting excited about.

From the ground up, Tegra has been designed to provide a high quality visual computing experience – that is HD video, gaming, etc. – in a very low power package. Indeed the system consumes a maximum of just 1W yet is capable of playing back HD video (nicely demonstrated using the trailer for the new Star Trek film running at a bitrate of 12-14Mbits), run older games like quake (yeah, I know, this really is an old game but remember – less than 1W!) at up to 46fps, and nVidia was making a particular point about its ability to fully accelerate flash video as well.

According to nVidia these figures relate to you having devices, like the ones shown, that would be netbook sized, or a little bit smaller, yet have enough battery life to last for not just hours but in some cases days. In particular you might be able to get 25 days of mp3 playback, or 10 hours of HD video viewing – a prospect that is almost enough to make one weak at the knees with excitement.

The way nVidia has achieved all this is by taking basic mobile CPU designs based on the ARM 11 and ARM 7chips (very common mobile device chips) and slapped on specific additional processors in the form of a GPU, a 2D engine, an HD video encoder, an HD video decoder, as well as Audio and Imaging processor. By targeting each of these computationally intensive tasks and dedicating hardware to them, nVidia can ensure its platform uses power in the most efficient way possible. Of course this means it won’t be a very good allrounder but it does mean you may soon be able to watch HD video on your mobile phone.

The devices we saw were not overly impressive, looking distinctly like prototypes rather than final designs and none were from tier one manufacturers (athough one did look suspiciously like an HP mini note). Also, the basic Windows CE operating system they were running (an indicator of the class of device these are likely to find themselves on) limited how much of a feel we could get for their performance. Nonetheless, we can’t wait for proper products to start appearing towards the end of the year.