Why am I still not excited about Tegra?

nVidia Tegra LogoAt Computex, nVidia is keen to show off it Ion and Tegra product lines. Ion is a new chipset that turns Intel’s Atom processor into a multimedia powerhouse by adding a proper GPU. The first products are available and have been met with critical acclaim. But I find Tegra a much more interesting product. Not in the sense that I’m going to run to stores when the first Tegra-packing devices hit retail, but in the sense that I’m curious to see where this is going.

Tegra is a system-on-a-chip that uses an ARM processor and an nVidia graphics core. It’s aimed at portable devices ranging from phones to netbooks. There are a lot of demo videos out there that show off the 3D and video playback capabilities of this combo, but I can’t help but wonder how I’m ever going to use a Tegra device.

Operating systems

An ARM processor is fundamentally different from ‘normal’ x86 ones, which means none of the world’s major operating systems will run on it. Even Ubuntu’s MID edition targets other hardware. For now, this seems to leave Windows CE, an ancient Microsoft product that I thought had vanished altogether. Will that even run a current browser? That’s the very least I’d want it to do.

HD video is great, but how about work?

Also at Computex, Adobe, nVidia and Broadcom annouced that they’re working on hardware acceleration for Flash video. Tegra will support this new technology alongside its other HD and 3D features. While this is truly great, it simply adds a new trick to the list of things it can offload to the graphics core. But when I’m done watching the video, how snappy will my email client be? Will the 750 MHz processor slow everything else to a crawl?

Pros

There’s one thing I really really like about Tegra. Depending on the exact version of the chip it uses between half a watt(!) and four watt under full load. When performing generic tasks it apparently uses 50 mW. I’ve written about low power computing before, and Tegra could definitely be a major player in that field.

And hey, Hardware accelerated 1080p, Flash video and 3D are all great things to have. Don’t get me wrong.

Alternatives?

The Tegra chip that’s most likely to end up in netbooks and nettops is the 650, which uses up to 4 watts of power. This puts it in direct competition with Intel’s US15W chipset, which is x86. When combined with an Atom Z530, a complete PC based on this chipset uses only 8 watts, and that’s while playing back 1080p video. The number also includes the power used by the hard disk and memory. I hope to be able to write about that machine in the near future, and I’m curious how it would compare to Tegra. Perhaps then I’d get a feel for what makes Tegra special.

UPDATE: Gizmodo just posted a great post about low power computing platforms. It points out that Tegra is commonly associated with Windows Mobile (bummer) and it includes the similar Snapdragon platform. I knew so little about that I felt uncomfortable including it in my post. But from what I read it looks like a very interesting offering too.

6 Comments

  1. “For now, this seems to leave Windows CE, an ancient Microsoft product that I thought had vanished altogether.”
    What about Android? NVIDIA is working on a version of Google Android that plays 1080p HD videos:
    http://news.cnet.com/8301-13924_3-10252757-64.html

    I would not want to have a device running Windows CE without a possibility to install any other operating system, but if Android becomes an alternative… why not? And perhaps some freak decides to port Ubuntu Mobile for Tegra…

    Comment by Lightmaster — June 3, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

  2. Android would probably be great! I’ve not played with it for more than 5 minutes, but it’s open source, built for the web and lightweight. But it’s not here yet. I think Tegra is going to have a hard time achieving any kind of market penetration without proper software. At least in netbook-like situations. Phones and MIDs are probably fine, most consumers don’t expect a full-fledged OS on those.

    Comment by Roy — June 4, 2009 @ 8:14 am

  3. So it runs desktop Firefox 3.5 with flash and it looks fast. can play 720p (or 1080p on top version) can stream HD over net and draws very little power even playing HD.

    CE was never dead. Most SatNav’s run it. Windows Mobile runs on top of it. And you would be surprised how many embeded devices (industrial or consumer) run CE.

    Ok so it’s not a full desktop OS like you say but if it can run firefox 3.5, it’s stable (soft re-sets in a second) offers instant on, offers sync of pims from desktop then I can’t see why the OS is an issue. In the past software availablility may have been an issue for CE but if Nvidia can get the Desktop Firefox running on it and Adobe working on flash then I am happy to say I think Nvidia isn’t having any trouble attracting apps for it. Open Office next anyone?

    If Nvidia can attract the apps and has a nice UI, runs faster than most cheaper atom netbooks, lasts longer than most atom netbooks and costs less then I for one will be happy to stump up some cash. My only hope is the do include syncable PIM software and don’t just sell them through mobile telco’s. Nvidia must sell some of these units direct to consumers in the way the original netbooks did.

    JOhn

    Comment by john — June 6, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  4. Question is of course whether all that will happen. Firefox alone is nice, but I think I’d prefer some brand of Linux because of the abundance of (mostly free) software that usually comes with the penguin. But that’s just me I guess. I just hope Tegra won’t be let down by its software options.

    Comment by Roy — June 7, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  5. So it runs desktop Firefox 3.5 with flash and it looks fast. can play 720p (or 1080p on top version) can stream HD over net and draws very little power even playing HD.

    CE was never dead. Most SatNav’s run it. Windows Mobile runs on top of it. And you would be surprised how many embeded devices (industrial or consumer) run CE.

    Ok so it’s not a full desktop OS like you say but if it can run firefox 3.5, it’s stable (soft re-sets in a second) offers instant on, offers sync of pims from desktop then I can’t see why the OS is an issue. In the past software availablility may have been an issue for CE but if Nvidia can get the Desktop Firefox running on it and Adobe working on flash then I am happy to say I think Nvidia isn’t having any trouble attracting apps for it. Open Office next anyone?

    If Nvidia can attract the apps and has a nice UI, runs faster than most cheaper atom netbooks, lasts longer than most atom netbooks and costs less then I for one will be happy to stump up some cash. My only hope is the do include syncable PIM software and don’t just sell them through mobile telco’s. Nvidia must sell some of these units direct to consumers in the way the original netbooks did.

    Comment by webtimi — June 11, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

  6. one thing missing regarding who great Windows CE is and the Tegra platform, Windows CE only supports one CPU and a max of 512 MB of memory. So why would anyone consider the Cortex-a9 dual CPU based Tegra SoC with Windows CE? It is not a smart move for Nvidia to stay so close to Microsoft on this when all indications are showing that multi-core ARM SoCs are present and future. I think even TI has a dual CPU a9 SoC out and there are going to be many more this year( 2010 ).

    it sure looks like on phones, the iPhone knocked Windows CE with an upper cut but Android hit it with a flurry( many many devices released ) and it’s knocked out. Windows Mobile 7? Really? And with GPS in all these new smartphones, how much longer does WindowsCE have in dedicated GPS units? Garmin already has started using Linux in some of theirs and the Garmin phone runs Linux too.

    If Nvidia sticks with Microsoft and only give Linux a glancing effort on Tegra, developers will look elsewhere for their multi-core ARM chips and Tegra will go nowhere evermore.

    Comment by Doug — February 19, 2010 @ 9:40 pm