Earlier this year NVIDIA unveiled and demonstrated the world’s first mobile quad-core processor at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. This came the day after Qualcomm paper-launched their quad-core Snapdragon S4 (slated for a 2H 2012 release), so we were quite excited to see NVIDIA demonstrate a working quad-core Android tablet and commit to retail devices this year.
Initially we were expecting to see quad-core tablets with NVIDIA’s Kal-El (Tegra 3) platform in August. But there was some kind of delay, and the launch window got moved to October.
Today NVIDIA made a blog post where they released a series of white papers that might explain the change in release date. To great surprise, the quad-core Kal-El actually has five ARM Cortex-A9 cores instead of the four we were expecting. This was never revealed back in February. So either NVIDIA made some last minute changes to Kal-El, or they were keeping it a secret the entire time.
Update: We just learned that the companion core has always been a part of the Kal-El design from day one, but it was being kept a secret for competitive reasons. The cause for the change in release windows is due to the schedules of the hardware partners that NVIDIA is working with.
The “Companion” Core
Kal-El will now implement five identical ARM Cortex A9 CPUs. Four of the CPU cores were built with TSMC’s 40nm general purpose process, and the fifth companion core was built using a special low-power silicon process that executes tasks at a lower frequency.
Mobile use case studies show that mobile devices are normally in active standby mode for 80 percent of the time and process intensive mobile applications the other 20 percent. NVIDIA designed Kal-El so that the main four cores can be turned off while your mobile device is in active standby mode and all processes will happen on the low power companion core.
NVIDIA calls this their patented Variable Symmetric Multiprocessing (vSMP) technology. If you want more technical details, check out the 15-page white paper (PDF).
This is exciting news, because it should greatly enhance the battery life of Android smartphones and tablets. The companion core only operates at 500 MHz, so it uses very little power in active standby mode while your mobile device is syncing email, tweets and other background tasks.
When the user launches an application that requires more horsepower, Kal-El will be able to switch over to the faster four cores and deliver performance on demand.
This technology does not require any special application or OS modification, because Android has built-in support for multi-core processing and is able to leverage the performance of multiple CPU cores. NVIDIA’s patented hardware and software CPU management logic continuously monitors CPU workload to automatically and dynamically enable and disable the companion core and the main CPUs.
More for Less
In addition to the new vSMP technology, it’s important to remember that more cores are better for power management than fewer cores. NVIDIA puts it nicely by saying, “quad core CPUs deliver lower power at all performance points compared to dual core CPUs.”
When processing the same amount of work as a dual-core CPU, four cores can run at a lower frequency and thus use less voltage. The Coremark benchmark above shows Kal-El achieving the same performance as a dual-core CPU with 2-3x lower power.
Even when all four cores are cranked up for max performance, Kal-El still uses less power than competing dual-core CPUs.
NVIDIA further describes this scenario in their white paper. “A common misconception is that a multi-core CPU consumes more power than a single core CPU and causes significant reduction in battery life. On the contrary, due to variable symmetric multiprocessing, the main quad core CPU architecture of Project Kal-El is more power efficient and delivers higher performance per watt than competing single and dual core processors.”
Additional benefits of quad-core CPUs
Today’s white papers are mostly about the new companion core, but NVIDIA also shares a few details on the other benefits of quad-core CPUs. Kal-El promises to deliver lower power consumption, higher performance per watt, faster web page load times, faster multitasking and higher quality gaming.
The types of applications that could benefit from a quad-core processor include:
- High quality video editing
- Image processing
- Audio/video transcoding
- Physics simulations
- Numerous productivity apps
- Many forms of location-aware computing
- Facial recognition
- 3D stereo games and applications
- Virus scans
- File compression
Wrapping it up
NVIDIA shocked the mobile industry back in February when they demonstrated the first working quad-core Android tablet. Today’s news might surprise a few competitors, as well. We were already expecting Kal-El to offer better performance at less power usage, but this new companion core is an innovative approach that could deliver industry leading battery life.
We were already excited to get our hands on a Kal-El quad-core tablet, but we were also keeping our eyes on Qualcomm’s 28nm Snapdragon S4 mainly for its potential battery life. It will be interesting to see how the two competing platforms stack up, but NVIDIA will deliver their next-gen solution months in advance of Qualcomm.
NVIDIA’s dual-core Tegra 2 was a big success, mainly since it was available first and Google selected it as the lead platform for Honeycomb tablets. With the next version of Android, codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich, it does not appear NVIDIA will have that advantage. Kal-El will have to prosper on its own merit.
Based on everything we’ve seen, Kal-El is going to dominate the competition when devices start appearing next month. It will deliver the fastest performance, offer the longest battery life and have the best premium content from Tegra Zone.
Which mobile CPU do you want in your next Android tablet? I’m going with Kal-El.