Tablets get speed boost with Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 3

Tegra 3 is the first quad-core chip for tablets, eclipsing the performance of dual-core tablets like iPad and Motorola's Xoom, the company says

Tablets and smartphones will soon get quad-core processors with Nvidia's new Tegra 3 chip, which will eclipse the application and graphics performance provided by dual-core processors found on tablets like Apple's iPad and Motorola's Xoom.

The Tegra 3 chip, announced Wednesday, is the first quad-core processor for tablets and smartphones, Nvidia said. Its performance will be five times better than Tegra 2, the dual-core predecessor found in tablets from Dell, Lenovo, Acer, and Toshiba.

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The chip, formerly code-named Kal El, will run at up to 1.3GHz in a quad-core configuration and appear in Asustek Computer's Eee Pad Transformer Prime tablet, which was announced on Wednesday. The Transformer Prime tablet will have 12 hours of battery with the help of a Tegra 3 chip, a Nvidia spokesman said.

Tegra 3 is based on the Cortex-A9 processor design from ARM, whose processor designs are found in most tablets and smartphones today. The chip will run Google's Android OS. A Tegra 3 tablet with Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 was shown at the software giant's Build conference in September. Smartphones with the chip are expected in the first quarter next year, an Nvidia spokesman said.

The chip combines CPU cores with a number of processing units for tablet and smartphone functions. It has 12 GeForce graphics cores, which could provide a massive multimedia performance boost. A low-power fifth core can run secondary tasks to reduce the processing strain on the four main CPUs. For example, the low-power fifth core is activated if a user wants to listen to music, and the four high-performance cores are shut down to extend device battery life, Nvidia said.

Though advertised at 12 hours, the battery life of devices like Asus' Eee Pad Transformer Prime with Tegra 3 could vary with tasks, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

"It's going to depend on the workload. We'll see once we get our hands on the hardware," McCarron said. "The general rule of thumb is the more intense the workload, the less life you get out of the battery."

Nevertheless, Tegra 3 provides more performance headroom, McCarron said. Mobile devices are demanding more computing power and many form factors are evolving, and Tegra 3 could be an effective gaming platform, McCarron said.

The additional performance provided by Tegra 3 may not be needed every time as most tablet and phone applications run well on single-core or dual-core processors, McCarron said. The Tegra 3 chip architecture provides a way to activate only the necessary cores to run programs, McCarron said. The chip also consumes very little power in idle mode, McCarron said.

Nvidia's prime competitor is Qualcomm, which is also heading in the direction of quad-core chips with its Snapdragon S4 integrated chips, also built around ARM CPU architecture. They will have an integrated 3G/4G radio. On the other hand, quad-core chips are not a top priority for Texas Instruments, which argues that software hasn't yet been designed to take advantage of four processing cores, and that it will bring those chips to market only when they fit in a device and meet the thermal budget.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.