Sep 20 AT 1:51 PM Taylor Wimberly 56 Comments

NVIDIA sneaks 5th core into quad-core Kal-El for extra battery life


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.

Via: NVIDIA Blog

Source: NVIDIA Whitepapers

Taylor is the founder of Android and Me. He resides in Dallas and carries the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One as his daily devices. Ask him a question on Twitter or Google+ and he is likely to respond. | Ethics statement

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  • Sean the Electrofreak

    So… technically it’s a Penta-core!

    • Taylor Wimberly

      I prefer cinco-core.

      • Sean the Electrofreak

        Well, if we were sticking with Latin terminology, I guess it’d be a Quint-core, but that just sounds dumb. And then when we got to six cores (Sex-core), well, that would just be wrong!

        (But think of the marketing possibilities!)

        • Larrybud

          Instead of “sex-core”, let’s just call it “hard-core”.

          • Wow


          • Jason.Pinta

            Shouldn’t be Sexta-Core… ether way… i like the “Hard-core” for a change XD

      • Jess Blanchard


      • kazahani

        Dual core, quad core… MEH, I SAY!

        I’m waiting for Manticore processors!

  • Galen20K

    that’s a really terrific idea : ) I like the different tiers of usage versus power.

    • Sean the Electrofreak

      Well, ARM processors have been using low-power DSPs (Digital Signal Processors) for years, allowing repetitive simple tasks to be offloaded from the SoC to a dedicated low-power microchip.

      This really takes this concept and expands upon it, because the Companion Core (why do I keep thinking Companion Cube?!) is a fully-capable ARM Cortex A9 in its own right.

      What I wonder is if the “special low power silicon process” is on a smaller feature size than the other 4 cores, maybe 28 nm as well, or if it’s simply downclocked and tweaked for power efficiency over performance.

      • Taylor Wimberly

        The companion core is also 40nm.

        • Sean the Electrofreak

          Hmm, so it just must be ARM’s power-efficient hardcopy then.

          • Vinny

            it is just built on tmnc’s low power manafacturing technique instead of the the high power that the other cores are built on

          • Sean the Electrofreak

            It’s ARM’s low-power design, TSMC (which is what I assume you meant) is just a foundry.

      • Dragonithe

        Because portal is awesome :)

        • ben dover

          all this multicore talk… can I just have my cake!?

        • Sean the Electrofreak
        • Michael C.

          I was just thinking the same thing. :D

      • Qrkchrm

        Is this low power core build on SOI? I’ve read that SOI (Silicon On Insulator) technology can give a fantastic power reduction, but it is slightly too expensive thus far. Intel is looking at SOI to be the next “tick” after 3d tri-gate transistors.

        As far as I know, the only consumer devices with an SOI CPU are the consoles.

  • Nathan

    Give me another reason why I should wait for the next Gen tablet :)

    • kazahani


  • Interpol91

    Wow Kal-El is definitely going to be in my next tablet! Hopefully I can end this year right with both a Nexus Prime and tablet packing some Kal-El power.

  • Chahk
    • Dragonithe

      Awesome :)

      • Sean the Electrofreak

        Didn’t see your post… guess we had the same idea:

  • Interpol91

    I think Bender’s circuits would overload just by reading this article haha.

  • Jess Blanchard

    The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Companion Core cannot speak. In the event that the Companion Core does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.

    • SliestDragon

      “We at the Enrichment Center would like to remind you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you, and in fact, cannot speak”

  • SliestDragon

    Man, this processor looks like it’s shaping up to be something amazing(not that it wasn’t before)! Cannot wait to see how this compares to Qualcomm’s competing processor. Love processor wars! :D

    • Interpol91

      I’m wondering the same thing. It’s sure to be an epic battle for processing power.

  • J. to the O.

    I wonder now if the nexus is still worth the wait. I mean holding an upgrade for 4-5 months more with savings of almost 1,5 to 2x the power for me is a good deal. More so if we start talking about LTE, and imagine that with a 2250mAH battery, this should really make it trought the day!

    • Kye

      Damn you. You might have a point. It will kill me to wait tho….. My xperia x10 is starting to really piss me off!

      • J. to the O.

        Haha you are saying that you are getting tired of your x10 imagine me, since june with a lg p500 !

    • Taylor Wimberly

      Latest software > latest hardware.

  • Taylor Wimberly

    NVIDIA said Kal-El+ is coming mid 2012. I think it will be similar 4+1 core design but on 28nm and with higher clock speeds. Wayne should be coming tail end of 2012 or early 2013 and I’m guessing that will be 8+1 cores.

    • Sean the Electrofreak

      Mid 2012 will be when I’ll be on the market for a new phone… :D

      The irony is that by then, Cortex A15 SoCs will be looming over us!

      • Taylor Wimberly

        I don’t think OMAP5 will appear until LATE 2012. Samsung also has a chance to surprise with the first A15.

    • Lucian Armasu

      They won’t move to 8 core until they have a quad core Cortex A15 first at 2.5 Ghz. That’s probably what Wayne will be at 28nm. Also Cortex A15 is 1.5x-2x faster than Cortex A9. So they really don’t need to move to 8-core yet.

    • kazahani

      That’s insane. I just bought a brand new laptop with a dual core chip and it runs everything smoothly. Why the heck whould a phone or tablet need that much horsepower?

      • Rome


      • Jason.Pinta

        Heavy Gaming my friend… Look at ShadowGun running on kal-el…

  • Raptor

    A year ago when I was really angry at the battery life of first Android smaprtphones, i was wondering why the hell companies did not implement approximately such inhomogeneous design adding low power processor to handle background tasks. I switched the automatic updates off and bought 3500 mAh battery and decided to wait.

    Because my conclusion was that looking forward it’s not worth the headache when there will be 4, 8 or 16 progressively smaller and smaller cores eventually not 40 but 20 and 10nm (each 16 times smaller then today) as technology process shrinks. Each smaller core will consume less and less and will do the background tasks at no cost for battery. Plus the power management will improve (like it was with first several generations of multicore Intel processors)

    Will be waiting for “kailling” 13.6″ 2560×1600 SuperAmoled+ tablet with dual-boot of Android and Win8 and/or better the smartphone with 4.5-5″ high-res HD screen

    As to this design, at this point when the process is the same 40nm, 5th low power core seems worth it. Congrats to NVIDIA, they have pushing Moore’s law really well. Just in January we’ve seen first dual-core gadgetry and already in Oct we’ll see …hmm…eeh.. 4.5 cores ! It’s really crazy adoption speed.

    • Lucian Armasu

      Yes, Moore’s law says 2x in performance every 18-24 months. ARM chips easily advance more than 2x in just 12 months. This is why it will be very tough for Intel not only to catch-up in power consumption, but also to keep up with the performance, because ARM chips are advancing twice as fast as x86 chips.

      • Michael

        Because look at their past. From 2000 to 2007 they were not gaining much power. Maybe like 50 mhz to 150? no gigahertz or cores to speak of. Besides, you didn’t need much power for your 2.2 inch flip screen

  • Dr.Carpy

    I think the news is fantastic! I would like to know which CPU folks out there are more excited for (OMAP or Kal-El) as well, in regards to manufacturers who’s bringing out a Kal-El quad core phone first?

    • Lucian Armasu

      First manufacturers with Kal-El in phones should be Motorola and LG.

  • Richard Yarrell

    Rushing out to be first does not matter in the real world what matter is enhanced technology. I applaud what was done to bring dualcore devices to the market meaning the atrix 4g and Nvida but truthfully I roll with with qualcomm and htc and appreciated what they put out for there supporters. Next year it appears that in my world HTC and SAMSUNG will be leading the way and I support the direction they will be going. Software is so very vital and HTC leads the way in this arena and I can only imagine that ice cream on the new quadcore base evo brand of 2012 that will be introduced at CTIA in May will be something truly special to have. It’s ashame because I am a JUNKIE on technology and having to have the best device every year. I know I should be plenty of satisfied with the dualcore 1.2 dualcore processor which I know I can overclock to 1.8 Ghz I’m sure but I am look past this evo brand of 2011 to move on with quadcore. TRUST ME LEADING THE WAY IS SAMSUNG AND HTC IN THIS ARENA NOBODY IS BETTER OR WILL BE BETTER….…..

  • GuniGuGu

    Looks very exciting.. but Samsung chips are wiping the floor in performance vs. Tegra.. The S2 actually beat the Atrix in their international launch and completely destroyed it in every way.. I’m very curious to see where Kal-El’s competitors will be with their quad core chips.. But this does look very very promising..

    • Taylor Wimberly

      Tegra 2 was available loooong before the Exynos ever landed in a device. Of course the newer chip was faster. That is expected. I’m not sure what you mean by “wiping the floor”. I’m quite happy with my Tegra 2 tablet and we should thank NVIDIA for investing so much in the premium content they have brought to Android.

      Also keep in mind that NVIDIA has a refreshed Tegra 2 running at 1.2 GHz and it’s supposed to offer 30% faster performance. We will have to wait and see how it tests, but it sounds very competitive with the other 1.2 GHz dual-cores from Qcom and Samsung.

      • Boss

        Yes exactly the Tegra 2 was a really good processor and had access to the Tegra Zone which meant HD games and really added to the android experience although thanks to Chainfire we can all enjoy the Tegra games with a little tweaking. Just shows how awesome android is.

  • manusferrera

    wow its crazy to think that a few years ago 500mhz chips were running our android phones to its max and look how far we have come.

  • Charbax

    OMAP4470 at 1.8Ghz may be faster for many tasks than the Kal-El 1.2Ghz. Nvidia compares performance at same clock speed, but do they say if their Kal-El can for now not be made faster than 1.2Ghz? And by the time they crank Kal-El up to 1.8Ghz there will be a faster OMAP5 on the market?

  • davetheAndroid

    5th core? That like the 5th pocket in jeans?

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