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11/9/2011
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NVIDIA Tegra 3: Tablet Chip With A Twist

Bonus CPU core in this mobile processor for phones and tablets helps NVIDIA keep power consumption low, while boosting performance.

NVIDIA announced on Tuesday that it had released the Tegra 3, the first quad core mobile processor. The first Tegra-3-based tablet, the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime, also debuted. Demonstrated back in February, the long-anticipated chip sports a unique design that delivers a considerable boost in performance while maintaining the low power draw required for phones and tablets.

At a feature level, the new chip will support higher resolution screens (2048 x 1536) and 3D stereoscopic video. Camera support tops out at 32 megapixels. The four main CPU cores and 12 GPU cores promise improved gaming and streaming video support.

NVIDIA's truly unique twist in the Tegra 3 is the addition of a fifth CPU core that runs transparently to the OS. In NVIDIA's new architecture, the fifth core is identical to the four main cores--they're all ARM Cortex A9 CPUs. However, the added core is built to consume less power in standby mode and run at a lower clock speeds. The four main cores remain off while the device is in active standby mode (say sitting in your pocket or briefcase,) or while playing back music.

NVIDIA uses two different processes to build the cores because the usage model for the cores is different. The fifth core is always on, but often idling when the device is on, so it's built with a process that's optimal for that mode of operation. The other CPUs will be off much of the time, and they're built to consume less power but offer higher performance when they're active. By combining the processes on one chip--which isn't a trivial task--NVIDIA gets the best of both worlds.

[ Want to make your Android phone or tablet into a smarter team player? See 10 Great Android Apps For Collaboration. ]

NVIDIA calls its core management technology vSMP. The technology implementation is transparent to the operating system, because an OS like Android 3 (Honeycomb) assumes that all cores available to it are identical, and so it schedules them accordingly. NVDIA hardware and firmware do the job of managing the fifth low power core, and so it takes no modification of the OS to get the benefits of the different power usage profiles. NVIDIA says that because of the unique power saving architecture, the Tegra 3 will consume anywhere from 14% less (for MP3 playback ) to 61% less (for HD Video Payback) power than the Tegra 2 did, depending on the task.

The central core architecture is augmented by NVIDIA's 12-core GeForce GPU, which will allow mobile games to be just as eerily realistic as console games have become, including supporting 3D stereoscopic displays. The chip supports HDMI, so if you've got a bigger screen available, you can get the full immersive experience. NVIDIA says the graphics performance of the Tegra 3 is a three times improvement over the Tegra 2. System memory is also doubled on the Tegra 3, as is the memory bandwidth.

All in all, the Tegra 3 delivers all the punch y ou'd expect from the next generation of NVIDIA chips. While the ASUS Transformer Prime is the first device to use the new chip, it doesn't fully exploit all of the capabilities of Tegra 3. Given the timing of this release, we expect a flood of new Tegra 3 devices to hit the market between now and the January Consumer Electronics Show.

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