At 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.
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?
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.
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.