Mobility Goes Mainstream

NVIDIA is in the console world, courtesy of Sony’s failure to predict how 3D graphics have evolved combined with the limitations of the Cell processor and archticture. NVIDIA was able to slip in with a console optimized GeForce 7900 GPU, and the PS3 was given the ability to compete with Microsoft and the XBox 360. Here we are six years later and NVIDIA is approaching the overall performance and capabilities of that console GPU in a mobile, low power form.
The NVIDIA press conference was not supposed to be all that exciting to people who have been paying attention.  It was expected that we would see the first Tegra 2 based phone, perhaps a few tablets, and some more talk about Tegra and the expected future of that family.  In many ways it was exactly as expected, but as the presentation went on, the enormity of where we are going as a society and where consumers will turn next started to really sink in.

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It took nearly 10 years for Windows adoption to match what has happened in the past two years with iOS and Android shipments.

Points in Tech History

CEO Huang was on stage talking the entire time, and he was his usual energetic self.  He went over a quick timeline about the major changes in the industry which have defined CES and Comdex conventions through the years.  1995 was a big one when Windows 95 was announced, and it was the beginning of the creation of the PC being the center of our digital lives.  Pictures, movies, games, as well as regular work related applications would transform that beige box by the desk into a beloved, daily destination for people everywhere.

The next change happened throughout the late 90s and early 2000s where the rise of the Internet and the mainstream adoption of 3D technologies.  Companies such as Google and Yahoo came to the fore, and the applications that began to stream from these companies were designed to make our online lives easier and more interesting.

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Now we are entering a true third age in how computer is changing our lives.  The iPhone and resultant handheld devices have truly paved the way for what we expect to see released this next year.  The software and hardware are at a point where most consumers can purchase a high end phone, allow the carriers (such as Verizon) to subsidize the initial cost of the phone, and then provide so many features and abilities that the average consumer will actually utilize the extra products that the carrier provides.

NVIDIA will not power every “Super Phone” that is shipped, as competing products like the latest generation of Snapdragon will certainly take up a good portion of the market.  But the features that NVIDIA is pushing and the partnerships they have made with content providers may help to increase the overall shipments from NVIDIA quite dramatically.

Tegra 2

The basis of this generation of “Super Phones” which NVIDIA is pushing is the Tegra 2.  It is a dual core ARM Cortex A9 based processor with NVIDIA graphics technology fused to the SOC.  NVIDIA did not cover the specifics of the processor to any significant degree, but we do know that the CPU portion does run around 1 GHz, while the graphics likely is around 200 MHz.

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The die itself is quite a bit smaller than a US dime, which makes it quite small.  It is 50X more power efficient than a full PC when it comes to energy consumption for most workloads.  It obviously cannot run as fast as a full desktop machine, but that is not the point of the product.  The primary objective is to provide the necessary performance to allow a wide range of applications run in a mobile environment, without the user feeling like the experience is sluggish and unpleasant.

The first expected Super Phone that we should see powered by Tegra 2 is the LG Optimus 2X.  If there truly is a super phone, this is a pretty good example.  It can output 1080p video to HDMI, decode HD video very effectively, play 3D games developed for the Android marketplace without a problem, and multi-task like a current desktop PC can.  The phone has a very nice screen, and also features an 8 MP camera on the back.   There were 10 applications running in the background of this demo, and performance was never an issue.

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NVIDIA has a very strong reputation for developer relations, honed from years of employing “The Way Its Meant To Be Played” program with PC gaming developers.  They have taken this experience, combined with their outreach with later programs like CUDA, to push out to the mobile application world in a way that has not really been seen before from hardware manufacturers in the mobile world.  The first big push is with Adobe, the makers of the nearly unavoidable Flash infrastructure.  By leveraging the power of the GPU on the Tegra 2 chip, NVIDIA is able to accelerate Flash 5X faster than by standard dual core Arm Cortex A9 processors.  It can also do that much more efficiently due to the needs of Flash on a GPU (highly parallel workloads) rather than a serial CPU workflow.

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