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Splitting The Atom: NVIDIA Tegra
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by Rob Williams on June 2, 2008 in Computex, Video Cards

NVIDIA took the opportunity at Computex to announce a brand-new chip series: Tegra. This high-performance/low power ‘system on a chip’ is set out to take on Intel’s Atom, and if all of NVIDIA’s claims are spot-on, everyone is going to want to have the chip in their mobile device once available.

Introduction

NVIDIA today announced a brand-new product lineup during a press conference at Computex, which surprisingly didn’t touch on their forthcoming GPUs, but rather their new Tegra ‘system on a chip’ solution. This mobile-bound chip will become a direct competitor to Intel’s Atom upon release.

Unlike Atom, though, NVIDIA decided to start from scratch with Tegra. This is one of the key reasons, as they point out, why Tegra is very powerful, very small and also very power efficient. Like Atom, a Tegra chip would disappear if a dime was placed on top of it.

Many companies tout “smaller and higher efficiency”, but Tegra might be in its own league. This chip will be destined for UMPCs and other MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) and offer fantastic performance (even enough for Microsoft Word or Excel), while sucking an incredibly low amount of power, at >1W.

One of the biggest features is 1080p H.264 encode support. The idea is that you wouldn’t watch the content on the MID itself (it’s doubtful a MID will support that resolution anytime soon), but rather allows the owner of the device to hook up to a TV or monitor via HDMI to do so. Sounds like the perfect solution for travel.


Michael Rayfield holding a Tegra chip

At the conference, a few guests were brought on stage to discuss the benefits of the new chip. First up was Ian Lao, a Senior Analyst at In-Stat. He commented on the fact that mobile computing is more popular than ever, and in the years to come, mobile devices will far out-sell notebooks and desktops. People like to be mobile, and have a keen desire to keep all their content mobile, which is why Tegra is being introduced at a great time.

NVIDIA licensed the ARM11 MPCore CPU for Tegra, one that’s completely dissimilar to x86 or x86-64, like Atom’s based off. But from what we saw and were told, ARM11 is completely capable.

Vice President of Marketing at ARM, Ian Drew, was brought on stage to discuss why the ARM11 MPCore was the perfect match for Tegra. He went on to claim that ARM is very, very power efficient, on top of being able to keep right up to Atom, clock-for-clock.

He went on to show Internet performance comparisons to Atom, and brought up the fact that Intel once compared an Atom chip directly to the latest ARM processor, but did so unfairly since the Atom chip was clocked at 1.6GHz, while the ARM was run at 400MHz. So Ian took the opportunity to show performance results comparing an 800MHz ARM11 MPCore to an equally-clocked Atom.

In the results shown, both Atom and ARM flip-flopped their performance, but overall, they were pretty even.

What’s not claimed to be even is the power efficiency. In another ARM11 vs. Atom test, it was noted that while Atom’s power capabilities are measured in hours, ARM’s is measured in days.

In a sleep mode, Atom lasts around 19 hours, while ARM can last weeks, and where only the CPU core is concerned, ARM can last almost 11 days, while Atom can’t pass 8 hours.

On another semi-unrelated topic, it was noted that a gripe from users in the past pointed out the overall lack of good web support, in that certain websites would either not work well, or at all. This was primarily due to the lack of support of various software technologies that were incompatible with its architecture.

Ian readily admitted to this, but noted all the appropriate steps were taken in order to improve both performance and compatibility. So now, all three of the popular web browsers (Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Opera), work without a hitch. In addition, Adobe’s Flash technology is fully-supported, as well as Microsoft’s Silverlight.

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1. Introduction
2. What's More? Final Thoughts