Integral to its plans
NVIDIA announced its new Tegra chip at Computex 2008. It represented a major departure for the graphics chip-maker, as it had previously focused on making powerful, power-hungry GPUs for PCs. Tegra was not only designed to run handheld devices, but it also featured a CPU (ARM 11) as well as a GPU.
In retrospect it was a classic bit of NVIDIA over-hyping - talking up the potential of the chip with insufficient acknowledgement of the realities on the ground. But even allowing for the over-exuberance of NVIDIA's charismatic CEO - Jen Hsun Huang - surely nobody thought it would be two and a half years before Tegra made a meaningful appearance.
In an exclusive interview with HEXUS.channel earlier this year, NVIDIA mobile boss Mike Rayfield admitted that one of the reasons for this was an over-emphasis on Microsoft as the main OS partner, while in retrospect the smart money was on Android. This mistake was amply demonstrated by the failures of Microsoft's Zune and Kin devices - both of which contained Tegra - and a slap in the face from Microsoft when it chose Qualcomm as its exclusive WP7 chip partner.
But the stars seem to be finally aligning for Tegra, or to be precise the second generation, dual-core (ARM Cortex A9) version - Tegra 2. Not only has Android continued to go from strength to strength, but it has emerged as the default platform to take on Apple in the tablet market. Tegra 2, with its emphasis on graphics, is arguably better-suited to tablets than smartphones as there are a lot more pixels to process.
To be fair to Huang, he was banging the Tablet drum pretty hard at the start of the year at CES. The problem is that most OEMs waited until the launch of the iPad before dipping their toes in the water, and then it turned out that Android is far from optimized for these larger screens. But products like the Samsung Galaxy Tab have shown you can still get close to the iPad, and the next version of Android promises to be geared towards tablets.
Talking about the next Android, which will be called Honeycomb, there are extensive rumours that Google plans to optimize the platform for one chip, and that will be Tegra 2. That would be huge for NVIDIA, as it would pretty much guarantee that the majority of Android tablets launched next year will run Tegra 2.
This would potentially even include OEMs who make their own chips, specifically Samsung. AnandTech recently did some benchmarking of Tegra 2, and compared it to the other SoCs out there. The Tegra 2 platform used was one of the first Tegra 2 tablets to hit the market - Viewsonic's G Tablet, while it was compared to the Hummingbird SoC inside the Samsung Galaxy tab. Tegra 2 came out on top in most benchmarks.
Incidentally, some US retailers have been withdrawing the G tablet due to ‘manufacturing issues', leading to speculation that there are problems with Tegra 2. Today, however, Viewsonic issued a statement blaming the issues on the software - i.e. Android.
"We always listen to customers; while they love the hardware, they raised several issues about the user interface," Jeff Volpe, VP and GM for ViewSonic Americas. "As a result, our software partner is releasing an upgrade that will address customer concerns. Along with great performance improvements, customers will have the flexibility to use both a standard Android interface as well as a user-customizable interface which has been significantly enhanced since the product launch."
Whether Tegra 2 fares as well in smartphones as it's set to do in tablets is another matter, however. The first one was launched by LG last week, and we've no doubt it will deliver great performance, but you have to wonder how much it's possible to appreciate superlative graphics rendering on a four inch screen.
The smartphone chip ecosystem is already very well established, with Qualcomm the clear top dog, but the likes of TI and Marvell also competing for the attention of those handset-makers that don't make their own chips. If there is either a price or power-consumption premium to pay for Tegra 2 over its competitors, many OEMs will question whether it's worth it.