CBR talks to the maker of the Tegra 3 quad core system on a chip (SOC) which is already powering some of 2012's most desirable mobile devices - including the high profile Google Nexus 7 tablet - the first real iPad competitor.
Nick Stam, Director of Technical Marketing at Nvidia gave us the low down on the company's transition from the desktops to mobiles.
Nvidia's Director of Technical Marketing Nick Stam
Why did Nvidia decide make the move from desktop based graphics card GPUs to smartphone systems on a chip?
"It made sense. Way back in 2001 we were starting to develop mobile strategies, with the understanding that consumers would soon desire powerful, handheld wireless mobile computing and communication devices. By 2002, we started actually building our mobile design capabilities. Over the next four to five years and a few acquisitions later, we created a number of low power mobile processors that were used for 2D graphics in devices such as the Motorola RAZR."
In 2005 our 3D-capable mobile 'GoForce" chips were used in various phones. In early 2008 we developed the powerful APX 2600, which was later marketed as Tegra 1. You may recall Tegra 1 was used in the Zune HD, Microsoft Kin phones, and Samsung M1 mobile player in 2009. While not terribly successful, we then started working on the Android operating system in mid-2009, getting it to work on Tegra 1, while concurrently developing Tegra 2."
Tegra 2 was quite important for the company, what did you learn en route to developing the quad core Tegra 3 SOC?
"Tegra 2 shipped in many devices in 2011, and we showed our first quad-core-based Kal-El silicon (codename for Tegra 3) running in demo devices at Mobile World Congress in February 2011. We then acquired Icera, a developer of software-based modem technology in mid-2011. The Icera acquisition allows us to integrate baseband and RF modem capabilities into future Tegra chips, permitting support of mainstream and low-cost smartphones, while also selling Icera technology to other vendors. The first Tegra 3 tablet shipped in Dec 2011, and many Tegra 3 products are now shipping, with a lot more expected throughout the year.
Was it a tough transition? Especially in the early days, the two seemed to be very different markets...
"It was certainly challenging to ramp up an entirely new business area, acquire top talent, and then define and develop products that provided advantages over some pretty heavyweight incumbents. And we're still ramping up of course. We're still the new kids on the block, relatively speaking. But Tegra 2 really paved the way, and Tegra 3 business is growing rapidly with many design wins year."
"And of course we haven't stopped making great GPUs for graphics cards."
NVIDIA Tegra 3 looks to be a big leap, and is appearing in most modern Android smartphones - why has it been so popular?
"We had time-to-market on our side being the first to deliver Quad-core capability in a mainstream mobile SOC, combined with innovations such as our 4-Plus-1 CPU architecture that allowed great performance with excellent battery life. For years NVIDIA was recognised for our ability to develop and ship complex, high-performance GPUs, generation after generation, at a very rapid pace. We applied the same design and testing methods to Tegra. NVIDIA is known for our graphics technology, and we've helped many mobile game developers deliver amazing mobile graphics on Tegra-based devices."
How do you get your foot in the door in such a competitive chip marketplace?
"Initially, a few years back, being the upstart, it was a bit more difficult getting in the door compared to some of our competitors who have been entrenched for years. Upon demonstrating our expertise to Google, Motorola, LG, Samsung, and others, they saw clear advantages with Tegra 2's dual-core technology, and Google selected it as the reference design for Honeycomb tablets. Vendors also saw how we could help their software teams expedite software development for their Tegra-based products. With Tegra 3, we've had some major phone design wins, and more to come worldwide across many carriers. We think we're pretty good marketers, but the products and technology innovations have to speak for themselves."
How much does NVIDIA charge for licensing costs, chip costs etcetera when compared to the opposition?
"We only disclose licensing costs to our customers. Of course, costs can vary based on volume, but suffice it to say we're very competitive. And given Tegra 3 is built on 40nm technology, we have plenty of production capacity and supply as needed, unlike the supply constraints that have befallen some of our competitors with their 28nm designs."
Already we are seeing some criticisms that perhaps quad cores are overpowered for smartphones, that there are no real applications for them yet - your response?
"Simply put, smartphones are your 'most personal computer', and just like desktop or notebook computers, they are required to perform multiple tasks, whether in the foreground or background. Smartphones are now constantly performing background updates of social media information, downloading large apps, PDFs, etc. and while concurrently surfing the Web, performing voice-driven tasks, taking photos, and so on."
Isn't that kind of power only really needed for gaming though?
"The new console-quality games running on Tegra-based smartphones are prime candidates for quad-core usage. Games use multiple CPU threads to handle the game logic, AI, physics, dynamic lighting and dynamic texture generation, multi-player network interactions, and the like. There is never enough CPU or GPU processing power for games."
Won't that kind of power also adversely affect battery performance - that really is the most vital importance on mobile devices...
"Nvidia's '4-Plus-1' design allows each of the four main cores to be powered up as needed. For example, only one main core may be required for less intensive tasks, and additional cores will be powered on as needed.
"When the phone or tablet is in active standby, or running low-performance tasks like background email or social media updates, Tegra 3 can dynamically and seamlessly switch to its Power-Saver core, which consumes significantly less power.
How reliant are you on the battery makers to keep up?
"We do work with battery makers to help them build and deliver batteries with great battery life, thin designs, and lowered operating temperatures to permit more efficient integration. We work together with our customers to try to optimise all the key vectors, but it is ultimately up to the smartphone makers to optimise their finished devices."
The HTC One X has sold pretty well internationally, powered by your chipset. The US version however is powered by rival Qualcomm's dual core Snapdragon CPU - why is that?
"Yes, the US version does use Qualcomm primarily for the reason that they were able to ship an [4G] LTE-based design for the US market faster than we could do."
So the Nvidia Tegra 3 doesn't work with 4G LTE yet?
"Contrary to misinformation likely spread by our competitors, Tegra 3 does work with external LTE modems, and we announced many LTE partners at Mobile World Congress back in February 2012, including Renenas, GCT, and ST Ericsson.
"Fujitsu will be shipping their Tegra 3-based Arrows X LTE phone starting July 20th, and more Tegra 3-based LTE phones from other vendors are coming later this year. Also note that our Icera 410 LTE modem has been certified for the AT&T network, and our upcoming Icera i500 modem will support next-generation LTE speeds and be integrated into our future "Grey" SOC processor coming next year."
The Tegra 3 is also powering the Google Nexus 7 tablet which is selling out worldwide - what kinds of differences are there in designing for smartphones and tablets?
"We're very excited about the highly positive world-wide reception of the Google Nexus 7. With the additional real-estate of a tablet, the thermal constraints are relaxed a bit, so you can run your chips at higher clock speed for higher performance. Also, tablets can use larger screens with higher resolutions, higher-capacity batteries, additional memory, and include more types of I/O interfaces with the extra space along the device edge for the connectors, without requiring separate dongles that attach to proprietary connectors, for example."
Did you have any input into the design of the Nexus 7 before launch?
"We worked with Google and Asus to optimise the Nexus 7 tablet design and software stacks to work well with Tegra 3. But both Google and Asus are world-class companies with excellent hardware, software, and UI design engineers, so they did all the main design work."
How do you rate your chips against Apple's A5X? Have you done performance tests to compare?
"One of the biggest differences is in user gaming experience. The combination of Tegra 3's quad CPU cores, 12 GPU cores, the ability to process higher levels of geometric complexity, and excellent drivers contribute to the Tegra 3's better gaming experience over A5X." [see 'further reading' below]
What other challenges are there in the marketplace, and where do you intend to take the company in 2012?
"We are continuing to work with numerous companies worldwide to deliver many more Tegra 3-based products this year, while also continuing to build our Icera software-defined modem line, and our next generations of Tegra chips.
"We're quite excited about the upcoming Microsoft Windows RT operating system that works with Tegra as well. On other fronts, we'll see our new Kepler-based GPUs shipping in millions of Intel Ivy Bridge-based notebooks and Ultrabooks, in graphics cards for personal systems and killer gaming rigs, and in professional workstations. Our HPC Tesla line will be used in more and more supercomputers, and our automotive business is growing with both Tegra and mobile GeForce."
What about longer term?
"As we showed last year at Mobile World Congress, our upcoming superhero Tegra chips - Wayne, Logan, and Stark - will provide significantly more processing power for advanced mobile applications and usage models, delivering incredible new user experiences. Expect our upcoming Wayne chip next year to provide double the Tegra 3 performance, and Stark a few years from now should provide up to twenty five times the Tegra 3 performance."
NVidia Tegra 3 vs Apple's A5X chipset [Youtube]
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