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Kal-El is named after the Kryptonian name of comics superhero Superman.  (Source: Warner Bros.)

Kal-El has a secret fifth low-voltage ARM core for battery life savings.  (Source: NVIDIA)

Cores will be able to be turned on one by one, depending on the processing demand.  (Source: NVIDIA)

NVIDIA is bragging that its quad-core chip is more power efficient than its dual-core Tegra 2 chip.  (Source: NVIDIA)
Revelation brings hope that the tiny powerhouse might not be the battery-destroyer some feared

The prospect of quad-core or higher smartphones excites many, but it also evokes fear.  Many already suffering from somewhat poor battery life so imagine such high core-count designs as being Shiva incarnate for smartphone batteries, a destroyer of your pleasant smartphone world.

But such fears may yet prove unfounded, as many manufacturers are cooking up unique solutions to having a high core count, while keeping a relatively lean power budget.

NVIDIA Corp. (
NVDA), makers of the Tegra series of ARM system-on-a-chip (SoC) CPU/GPU designs today unveiled the secret of its plans to make its upcoming Kal-El quad-core SoC more power efficient.  The secret is basically this -- NVIDIA's quad-core chip is really a penta-core.

Yes, Tegra 3 has a low-power fifth "companion" core that's essentially the kind of modest ARM design that power the superb power efficiency of devices like the original iPhone.  NVIDIA 
writes [press release]:

During less power-hungry tasks like web reading, music playback and video playback, Kal-El completely powers down its four performance-tuned cores and instead uses its fifth companion core. For higher performance tasks, Kal-El disables its companion core and turns on its four performance cores, one at a time, as the work load increases.

NVIDIA has published two white papers [1][2] on the technology and related Kal-El developments.

The incremental approach to enabling the cores means that Kal-El chips, which will likely be clocked up to 1.5 GHz and may deliver as good or better battery life as current models (providing you aren't doing video encoding and playing 3D games all day).  In fact, NVIDIA says Kal-El delivers better battery life than its current generation Tegra 2 (dual-core) chips.  In benchmarks, the new chips were also shown posting almost twice the benchmark score of rival Qualcomm Inc.'s (
QCOMMSM8660 dual-core SoC and Texas Instruments Inc.'s (TXNOMAP4 (1 GHz) processor.

Note, Tegra 2 and Tegra 3 are both 40 nm chips produced by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd. (
TPE:2330) so NVIDIA isn't "cheating" with die shrinks on that test.  However, Qualcomm uses TSMC's 45 nm technology in the MSM8660, while TI uses its own 45 nm process in the OMAP4 chips, thus the transistor size is slightly larger, so be aware that NVIDIA may not be comparing apples to apples, exactly, in its comparison with rival chip designs.

Kal-El tablets are now expected to be shipping this holiday season, in Q4 2011.  Initially the tablets were slated for a Q3 2011 release (summer), but that date was pushed back.  NVIDIA CEO Jen Hsun-Huang 
says that some of the delay is based on hardware partners "getting the industrial design as wonderful as possible, and some of it is related to tuning and performance."

For this holiday season the NVIDIA chip is expected to be found exclusively in Android tablets.  However, Kal-El and the more powerful Wayne (Tegra 4) chips are expected to be 
featured prominently in ARM-based Windows 8 tablet designs next holiday season.

NVIDIA is packing a more powerful GPU core into Kal-El, which packs 12 streaming multiprocessors (SMPs).  It says it plans to unveil more details about new features on the GPU side of the coin shortly.

The company claims to have a 70 percent market share among Android tablets and a little less than 50 percent market share in the smart phone market [
source], though recent reports have indicated that NVIDIA still trails Qualcomm slightly in the smart phone market.

For those who don't read comics, Kal-El is the original name of DC Comics superhero Superman. While Tegra 3 and 4 are named after DC superheroes, Tegra 5-7 are codenamed after Marvel Comics heroes ("Grey", "Logan", and "Stark", respectively).  Stark (Tegra 7) is expected to launch in 2014.

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Well, that finally explains the Superman reference
By torpor on 9/20/2011 6:14:51 PM , Rating: 5
Mild-mannered limp-ARM by day, Faster-than-a-speeding-bullet quad core at night when Lois is screaming for more.

I think I see what I'll trade in my Galaxy S for.

By BugblatterIII on 9/20/2011 7:05:48 PM , Rating: 2
No, Kal-El's the daddy!

By dsx724 on 9/20/2011 7:27:26 PM , Rating: 2
Are you on crack?

By icemansims on 9/21/2011 9:36:17 AM , Rating: 2
No, just ignorant.

Kal El = Superman.

Jor El = Supes dad.

By ClownPuncher on 9/20/2011 7:26:53 PM , Rating: 2
I'm just glad to see the green team staying pretentious with their naming.

By Lord 666 on 9/20/2011 9:40:05 PM , Rating: 1
Green as in kryptonite?

I'm more a fan of Kara Zor-L aka Power Girl

By Fritzr on 9/21/2011 1:01:00 PM , Rating: 2
How has the green team resisted using one of the lanterns?

Die shrinks
By phatboye on 9/20/2011 6:47:58 PM , Rating: 1
I thought Kal-el would be a 28nm part. This news is very disappointing as I've been holding out on upgrading my phone till 28nm SOC came out for better battery life. The battery life of current generation phones suck. When can we expect 28nm ARM chips?

RE: Die shrinks
By JasonMick on 9/20/2011 6:52:06 PM , Rating: 2
I thought Kal-el would be a 28nm part. This news is very disappointing as I've been holding out on upgrading my phone till 28nm SOC came out for better battery life. The battery life of current generation phones suck. When can we expect 28nm ARM chips?

2012, according to NVIDIA's roadmap. They're scheduled to first switch to TSMC's 28 nm process with "Grey", aka Tegra 5 (assuming they stick to their current branding scheme).

That's also assumed to be NVIDIA's first chip to use an on-die 3G/4G modem from recent acquisition Icera.

So in late 2012 "Grey" should be bringing you all sorts of ARM goodness.

RE: Die shrinks
By gookpwr on 9/20/2011 7:43:07 PM , Rating: 2
Q4 2011 Qualcom Krait 28nm AKA MSM8960-MSM8260A should be out. The rumor is the upcoming Nexus 4 will feature this chipset and be released sometime in November with Android 4.0 (Ice cream sandwich). It's what I'm holding out for. AS I have the original Nexus one, and I love it but its time for an upgrade.

RE: Die shrinks
By tviceman on 9/20/2011 9:51:51 PM , Rating: 2
Nvidia's recently released roadmap, here , shows that there is a enhanced version of Kal-El coming mid 2012. While I am making a subjective guess, I am guessing that this will be a 28nm version of Kal-El, with improved clock speed and likely lower power draw.

quad core on a phone?
By zephyrprime on 9/21/2011 11:08:51 AM , Rating: 3
This is a good idea but quad core on a phone isn't a good idea in my opinion. How often will we need that sort of power on a phone? How many phone apps are multithreaded that well? Hardly any and maybe none at all. And this extra multithreading power comes at the expense of single core power.

RE: quad core on a phone?
By MozeeToby on 9/21/2011 11:14:53 AM , Rating: 2
If the other cores aren't being used they're powered down. If they can be used they will complete the work faster and power down sooner. Even when they are running full out, 100% this processor will almost certainly use less energy than the previous generation of processors which was already significantly less than a modern smartphone display does.

RE: quad core on a phone?
By theapparition on 9/26/2011 9:21:45 AM , Rating: 2
Exactly right.

While impressive (if you believe Nvidia's marketing), it's only a fraction of the biggest power draw on a moder phone, the display.

I guess you could say...
By geddarkstorm on 9/21/2011 2:20:10 AM , Rating: 2
... it's a sidekick ;)

Green vs. Supes?
By Apone on 9/21/2011 12:27:46 PM , Rating: 2
Great, all these comicbook references has got me thinking about another DT article posted today that talks about pint-sized gamma radiation. So now I'm thinking, who would win if Hulk and Superman decided to squab? (Yes, I already know about the 1996 Marvel/DC Crossover special edition comic where Hulk and Supes fought)

5 cores into 1?
By ballist1x on 9/23/2011 7:01:33 AM , Rating: 2
During less power-hungry tasks like web reading, music playback and video playback, Kal-El completely powers down its four performance-tuned cores and instead uses its fifth companion core.

If just 1 core can be used for these tasks, then why do you need another 4 cores at all? Web browsing seems to be the most intensive thing i do on my phone and if they are saying that one low powered chip can do this, then why do my old phones struggle with this? For tablet form factors i can see why you *might* need extra power if more complex appgs get designed but for 90% of the population who will use these as mobile web browsers with the odd video included.

Most games and applications for my PC dont even tax all 4 cores concurrently on my PC...(because the applications are designed poorly obviously, but unless android can do something different to windows, how will this be addressed in the phone market i have no idea).

"If you look at the last five years, if you look at what major innovations have occurred in computing technology, every single one of them came from AMD. Not a single innovation came from Intel." -- AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in 2007

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