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Tegra K1 - What it means for mobile gaming


Tegra K1

At CES 2014 back in January, graphics card giant Nvidia announced the follow-up to its Tegra 4 SoC (System on Chip) - and it wasn't called the Tegra 5.

The Tegra K1 was something else entirely. Something much more.

Here was a mobile chip that promised to place unprecedented graphical power into the palms of our hands.

Tegra K1: Performance

The Tegra K1 chip is special not because of its main CPU technology, which subscribes to a fairly typical high-end quad-core ARM A15 set-up (in its basic form at least).

No, what makes it special is its GPU, which is based on Nvidia's Kepler architecture. That's the same architecture that can be found in recent GeForce desktop graphics cards.

This means that the Tegra K1 supports all of the major graphics rendering APIs typically found on your average desktop, and not on your average smartphone or tablet. These include OpenGL 4.4 and DirectX 11.2.

To quote Tim Sweeney of Epic Games at the time of Tegra K1's announcement, "We can take absolutely anything that runs on PC or high-end console and run it on Tegra."

The result is that the Tegra K1's gaming credentials are not so much comparable with the likes of the iPad Air, but rather the Xbox 360 and Sony PS3 consoles. Last-gen consoles, for sure, but in the context of something you could conceivably throw in your jacket pocket, it's truly impressive.

In fact, with a number of more advanced features and DirectX 11 support, the Tegra K1 is potentially more capable than those aforementioned consoles.

Tegra K1The Nvidia Shield tablet includes the new Tegra K1 chip

Tegra K1: Devices

The Tegra K1 has already made its way into several devices. The Android-based Xiaomi MiPad is massive in its native China, but has yet to make its way to the West.

Benchmarks reveal that the MiPad is packing more than twice the GPU power of current mobile standards like Apple's A7 chip, all thanks to the K1.

There is a Tegra K1 tablet available to western users, and it's from Nvidia itself. The Nvidia Shield Tablet offers an 8-inch 1900 x 1200 display, stock Android 4.4.2 KitKat, and the Tegra K1 chip running it all. There's also an optional Xbox One-like controller for a full console-like experience.

It's not just tablets that are getting in on the Tegra K1 fun either. Most recently, the Acer Chromebook 13 has been announced as the first device of its kind to run on the chip.

This is a 13.3-inch netbook with the option of a Full HD 1080p resolution. It runs on Google's lightweight, browser-based Chrome OS. The addition of Nvidia's new chip could make for a great balance of price and performance when it launches in September, which is a balance most Chromebooks have struggled with to date.

It's also rumoured that Google's next (and possibly last) Nexus tablet, which may be known as the Nexus 8 or the Nexus 9, could feature the more advanced 64-bit version of the Tegra K1 (more on which in a moment).

Tegra K1The Acer Chromebook 13 is the first Google laptop to pack Tegra K1

Tegra K1: Issues

There are issues here that mean the Tegra K1 may not push mobile gaming forward quite as much as it could. As mentioned above, the chip is somewhat held back from achieving its full potential by being allied to old ARM CPU technology.

This makes for greater battery efficiency, of course, which is vital in a tablet or smartphone form factor. But it also means that the K1 can't quite stretch its legs when it comes to rendering advanced games.

Of course, there is a more advanced version of the Tegra K1 built using Nvidia's own Denver microarchitecture in the pipeline. This dual-core 64-bit chip promises to offer desktop-like performance in a tablet form factor that can really push that advanced graphics tech.

A bigger drawback is the fact that most of the devices that will sport the Tegra K1 will also run the Android OS. That brings with it a whole heap of problems.

Tegra K1

First there's a overheads involved with running this famously resource-inefficient mobile OS. Then there's the current state of gaming on the Android platform.

While it's vastly improved over how it used to be, with an impressive and ever-growing number of high quality mobile games available on the Google Play Store, Android still lags behind iOS as a gaming platform. What's more, your average Android game's performance is rarely optimised for specific hardware in the same way that it is on Apple devices, thanks to the sheer range of Android hardware out there.

Unless Nvidia gets directly involved with the process, or the Tegra K1 chip really takes off with handset manufacturers, we're unlikely to see game developers making the most of this exciting new hardware. If that proves to be the case, these Tegra K1-equipped devices could become the preserve of classic console emulation fans without really pushing mobile gaming forward.

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August 13, 2014, 3:26 pm

Trying to avoid overused cliche's, but this really does sound game changing....


August 13, 2014, 4:53 pm

What always astonishes me about these type of developments is the "Build it and they will come" attitude of the chip manufacturers. If they took a tiny percentage of the gazillion Dollars it will cost to develop this chip and went to a bunch of developers (say, 20 key titles) and said "Create an optimised version of this game for our chip and we'll cover ALL of your development costs, you keep the profit on sales" they'd be in a much better position.

As it stands all you're left with is some really clever hardware and a couple of demos.


August 13, 2014, 11:43 pm

You're not trying very hard ;-)

Tom Carter

August 14, 2014, 8:52 am

Agree, although to be fair to Nvidia they are already moving in this
direction of supporting developers as they have got games Portal and Half Life
2 ported across to android and as shield exclusives by Valve, and also Mount
& Blade (a seriously large game) ported by TaleWorlds, so they are
obviously talking to developers and getting more and more interest in bringing
out AAA type games on mobile devices.

What I think will be interesting is that I suspect that the
Shield may not do amazingly well, but hopefully Nvidia are in for the long game
and the more they talk to developers and the more games ported to Android (imagine if new AAA games were released on PC, consoles and Shield at the same time) then the more customers I think they’ll attract


August 15, 2014, 11:17 am

Game changing for who? Apple and Samsung will not buy this. Does not leave alot of other people to buy it.

Microsoft might stick it in there tablets but they are not huge sellers. Windows Phone will not get it. Googles nexus the only remaining major unit seller will not aquire it. ( HTC no longer have the market reach to be able to afford such a device )

Its a heavy power usage device in tests that have been ran on the tablet it gets 3-5 hours of gaming which is similar to the PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS. (anandtech)

Leaves Nvidia to make a tablet themselves to really show what it can do, They would not do this if they had somebody big to sell it to. The fact that most Smartphone and Tablet sellers are loosing cash makes it a very hard sell.

There not attracting the Smartphone and Tablet Customers cause there is none to Attract the big 2 have went there own direction and the other 3 cant afford it. As it will be a premium price knowing Nvidia these days.

micah kling

August 15, 2014, 7:44 pm

I'm pretty sure the new google devices will be using the 64 bit k1 they were showing unreal engine 4 running on something at google io and unreal has partnered up with nvidia I think not sure tho

Neel Gupta

September 13, 2014, 11:05 am

Devices that use Tegra K1:

Xiaomi MiPad
nVidia Shield Tablet
HTC Nexus Tablet
Project Tango Tablet

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