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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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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.

"Game reviewers fought each other to write the most glowing coverage possible for the powerhouse Sony, MS systems. Reviewers flipped coins to see who would review the Nintendo Wii. The losers got stuck with the job." -- Andy Marken

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