Tegra 3 chip shot

Damage effects in Shadowgun

Motion and camera effects in Riptide
Only one design win announced

NVIDIA is known primarily for its GPUs, but the company has been expanding into new markets in order to diversify its product lineup. It created the Tegra series of SoCs as a way of leveraging its chipset and GPU expertise into the smartphone and tablet segments, with mixed success. There are numerous design wins, but those pale in the face of staggering iPad and iPhone sales.

The new Tegra 3 could change that. NVIDIA is claiming a 5x performance increase thanks to the quad-core ARM Cortex A9 at the heart of the chip, formerly codenamed Kal-El. Graphics are improved by 3x using a revamped 12-core GeForce GPU with more pixel shaders and a higher clock speed. The integrated memory controller supports a single 32-bit wide channel, but can either be matched with low-power DDR2-1066 running at 1.2V or DDR3-L at data rates of up to 1500MHz. A HD video encoder/decoder, HDMI support, and on-die SATA II controller round out the feature set.

Power consumption is reduced by 61%, made possible by a new patent-pending technology known as Variable Symmetric Multiprocessing. vSMP can shut down 1-3 of the A9 cores when they aren't being used, or it can disable them completely and switch over to a "companion core" that is only used for background or low power applications. Clock speeds are limited to a maximum of 500MHz, which is how Tegra 3 is able to provide up to 12 hours of HD video playback while on battery.

“NVIDIA’s fifth core is ingenious,” said Nathan Brookwood, Research Fellow at Insight 64. “Tegra 3’s vSMP technology extends the battery life of next-generation mobile devices by using less power when they’re handling undemanding tasks and then ratcheting up performance when it’s really needed.”

The maximum frequency with 1-3 cores is 1.4GHz, but that tops out at 1.3GHz with all four cores working at the same time. Nevertheless, this is still up significantly from 1.0GHz in the Tegra 2 SoC.  Die size has also gone up, from 49mm2 to 80mm2.

The first tablet to use Tegra 3 will be the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime, set to launch in December. Priced at $499 for a 32GB version and $599 for a 64GB version, it will use 1GB of LPDDR2-1066. When compared with Apple's iPad 2, the Transformer Prime has double the cores, memory, and storage at the $499 price point. Its 10.1-inch IPS screen with a 1280x800 pixel resolution compares favourably with the iPad 2's 9.7 inch 1024x768 display.

NVIDIA has been actively enticing game developers in order to showcase its hardware. There are 15 games designed for Tegra 3 under development, while over 40 games will be available in the Tegra Zone by the end of the year.

While Transformer Prime is the first (and so far only) design win for Tegra 3, NVIDIA is confident that its Tegra 2 partners will use the new chip in their next generation of tablets. No smartphone wins have been announced yet.

Tegra 3 is manufactured by NVIDIA's foundry partner TSMC on its 40LPG process. Although the firm's 28nm process is now in mass production, it was deemed too risky and so Tegra 3 was designed for an older node. The huge power savings and performance gains possible at 28nm will have to wait until 2012 for the Tegra 4, codenamed Wayne.

“Then they pop up and say ‘Hello, surprise! Give us your money or we will shut you down!' Screw them. Seriously, screw them. You can quote me on that.” -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng referencing patent trolls

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