Today NVIDIA revealed its first mobile processor with a fully integrated 4G LTE modem, the NVIDIA Tegra 4i, which finally places them on an even playing field with Qualcomm. The Tegra line of chips have been successful in capturing a good chuck on the Android tablet market, but the lack of an integrated modem has slowed the adoption of Tegra in smartphones.
Tegra 4i should instantly increase the number of smartphone design wins for NVIDIA since it finally features an integrated LTE modem. Other highlights of the chip include a quad-core CPU based on ARM’s newest and most efficient core — the R4 Cortex-A9 CPU — with a fifth battery saver core, 60 custom NVIDIA GPU cores, and a unique computational photography architecture called Chimera.
Tegra 4 Performance in a Smaller, Cheaper package
We find the design of Tegra 4i interesting since it uses “R4″ Cortex-A9 CPU cores. This is a new revision of an older architecture, but it was jointly designed by NVIDIA and ARM who claim this is the “most efficient, highest performing CPU core on the market.”
“Tegra 4i demonstrates the ability of ARM and our partners to continue to push the performance of technology and create exciting user experiences,” says Tom Cronk, executive vice president and general manager, processor division, ARM. “ARM and NVIDIA worked closely to further optimize the Cortex-A9 processor to drive performance and efficiency in areas such as streaming and responsiveness.”
Even though the “R4″ Cortex-A9 CPU cores will run at 2.3 GHz, they still fall behind the newer 1.9 GHz Cortex-A15 CPU cores found in Tegra 4. We expect a newer CPU architecture to outperform an old one, but we note this because of the difference in clock speeds.
Compared to Tegra 4, the Tegra 4i chip features fewer GPU cores (60 vs 72), lower output resolutions (1080p vs 4k Ultra HD), and support for less memory (2 GB vs 4 GB). NVIDIA is positioning Tegra 4i as a cheaper alternative to Tegra 4, so that is why these sacrifices have been made.
World’s First Mobile Computational Photography Architecture
When NVIDIA announced Tegra 4 at CES, they showed off a new computational photography architecture. This cutting edge camera experience is also coming to Tegra 4i, but it has now been branded as Chimera.
Chimera Computational Photography enables the first always-on high-dynamic range (HDR) photos and video, HDR panoramic photos, and persistent tap-to-track capabilities.
“NVIDIA’s Chimera architecture takes mobile imaging far beyond what consumers have come to expect from the phones and tablets,” said Brian Cabral, Vice President of Computation Imaging at NVIDIA. “Capabilities that until now have been reserved for professional photographers – like instant HDR and HDR panoramic shots and flawless image tracking – are now within easy reach for the rest of us.”
The camera demos we witnessed at CES really impressed us, so it’s nice to see these features come to mainstream Android smartphones.
Unique Software-Defined Radio (SDR) Technology
Another cool feature of Tegra 4i is the Icera i500 LTE modem that has been optimized for integration. The i500 modem is a “future-proof platform” since it uses software-defined radio technology that can be upgraded over-the-air. This means the modem will ship with support for LTE speeds up to 100 Mbps, but it will receive a future update that enables speeds to 150 Mbps.
A software defined radio could also receive updates that tune the modem to work best in specific geographical locations. For example, one modem “profile” might be optimized for the best performance in an dense metro area, while another could be tuned to extend coverage in flat terrains.
Faster Than Qualcomm’s Snapdragon?
The war of words between NVIDIA and Qualcomm continues with today’s announcements. NVIDIA takes a shot at Qualcomm by calling Tegra 4i the “Highest performing single-chip smartphone processor”. Both companies are telling us that they have made the best mobile chip of 2013, so we are closely watching both platforms as they come to market.
According to results from R&D and publicly available data, NVIDIA claims that both Tegra 4 and Tegra 4i will outperform Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon S800. NVIDIA says their chips offer more performance per clock, higher max performance, and greater efficiency.
Qualcomm recently said that they clean Tegra 4′s clock, so it will be ineresting to see their response to the performance scores that NVIDIA is releasing.
Attack of the Cores
Qualcomm is still the king when it comes to single-chip solutions with an integrated modem, but today’s news is likely to become significant in the coming years for several reasons. Hardware OEMs will now have another single-chip solution to choose from and consumers will get premium camera capabilities in a device priced for the mainstream.
We will have to wait and see how the final silicon performs when it arrives in devices later this year, but NVIDIA appears to have done just enough to keep Qualcomm on their toes. As NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang says, “Ultimately the reviewers will tell us how their processor compares to ours.”