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More Details Emerge on Nvidia's Kal-El: Quint-Core?

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 30 comments

Nvidia's Kal-El chip's been touted as a quad-core solution, but we've found an additional core that will give the four others some needed companionship.

Two whitepapers published this morning by Nvidia reveal more details on the company's next-gen Tegra SoC, better known as Kal-El or Tegra 3. Previous reports pegged the Kal-El SoC with four ARM Cortex processors and an additional 12-core GeForce GPU. This combination was touted as being able to deliver unprecedented mobile performance at the same power consumption of the Tegra 2.

More cores generally means more power consumption, which is why Nvidia's previous claims seemed a bit unrealistic. However, it turns out that Kal-El is technically a quint-core SoC, because it features a fifth "companion" CPU core that handles low overhead tasks such as syncing email, playing a ring tone, and keeping applications alive in standby mode.

In its implementation, Nvidia's borrows a feature of Qualcomm's design. Dual-core Snapdragons are some of the best ARM designs because the company uses low-power silicon and an asymmetric processor scheme (like Intel's TurboBoost except that each core is allowed to run at a different speed). The result is a very low power consumption processor that delivers incredible performance. (Read Third-Generation Snapdragon: The Dual-Core Scorpion for more information on Qualcomm's SnapDragon.)

Kal-El
Companion CPU Core
Main CPU Cores (Symmetric Processing)
# of Cores
1
4
Function
Power-Optimized (Standby)
Performance
Architecture
Cortex A9
Cortex A9
Process Technology
Low Power (LP)
General
Operating Frequency
0 MHz to 500 MHz
0 MHz to Max GHz


There are two problems with Qualcomm's approach. One, the lower power fab process is expensive and the yields aren't nearly as good as they are with general-fab. Two, operating systems (such as Android) manage processes based on the assumption that each core runs at the same speed. This isn't a problem for an asymmetric multi-core processor since most tasks on ARM aren't that intensive. However, in the future, the desktop-friendly Windows environment is going to be shipped on ARM-based notebooks and tablets.

Asus Eee Pad Transformer: Docking Station

We've seen the consequences of using a tablet more like a notebook or desktop; most folks have a tendency to hunt-and-peck for keys when they type on virtual keyboards. As a result, you don't feel the lack of performance as acutely because there's plenty of time for the system to process between each action. However, with a physical keyboard attached, typing becomes second nature again. As you start working more productively, you're faced with the realization that long pauses between commands are going to become more common. (Check out the video embedded above for a demonstration of the Tegra 2-powered Asus Eee Pad Transformer.)

Kal-El: Four Tabs in Chrome on ARM-based Windows 8Kal-El: Four Tabs in Chrome on ARM-based Windows 8

Nvidia's quint-core Kal-El is an innovative way to forgo many of the technical issues with low power silicon while still reaping the benefit of long battery life and high performance. Early benchmarks are impressive. We've seen a case where two flash-heavy websites were running on a Kal-El tablet without any of the stuttering scrolling experiences on Tegra 2-devices.

On the graphics end, early benchmarks put Nvidia back in the performance game. Even with Honeycomb 3.2, Tegra 2 couldn't match the performance of the dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 found in Apple's A5 (iPad 2). The third-gen Tegra SoC is expected to deliver 50 percent better graphics performance, which puts Kal-El near (if not slightly ahead of) the SGX543MP2.

Project Kal-ElProject Kal-El

However, Nvidia has its work cut out with Imagination Technologies being the current graphics leader in mobile computing. Kal-El will give Nvidia a big step forward, but competitors aren't sitting still either. Sony's upcoming Playstation Vita will be powered by a quad-core SGX543MP4 (basically double GPU horsepower of the iPad 2). Apple's iPad 3 also is likely to use an upgraded graphics solution also contracted from Imagination Technologies. Nvidia may have another card up its sleeve with Wayne (fourth-gen Tegra) slated to be released in 2012.

Either way, you can expect third-gen Tegra devices to be available within the next couple of months (in time for Christmas).

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  • 17 Hide
    tului , September 20, 2011 5:19 PM
    I wonder if that fifth "companion" core is on a separate die called "The Fortress of Solitude"
Other Comments
  • 5 Hide
    ikyung , September 20, 2011 5:07 PM
    Yup. Waiting for that Asus transformer 2!
  • 9 Hide
    beckstrom12 , September 20, 2011 5:17 PM
    Am I the only one that thinks it's cool that a tablet/phone proc can run Lost Planet 2?
  • 17 Hide
    tului , September 20, 2011 5:19 PM
    I wonder if that fifth "companion" core is on a separate die called "The Fortress of Solitude"
  • -1 Hide
    tului , September 20, 2011 5:27 PM
    The "Snapdragon" story URL links back to this page. Not wherever it was supposed to go.
  • 8 Hide
    amk09 , September 20, 2011 5:39 PM
    falchardStill sucks compared to AMD Fusion platform.


    that's like comparing apples to oranges. These are SoC's we are dealing with with extremely low power profiles, AMD fusion is desktop and notebook CPU's/APU's that consume high amounts of power.
  • 1 Hide
    gm0n3y , September 20, 2011 5:43 PM
    Let me know when a netbook can play Starcraft 2, then I'll be interested.
  • 5 Hide
    stingstang , September 20, 2011 5:45 PM
    2010-tegra with one core
    2011- tegra with two cores+tegra with 4 cores
    2012- tegra with...(8?) cores.
    2015- tegra with 64 cores! Wooo! exciting future!
  • 3 Hide
    acku , September 20, 2011 5:58 PM
    tuluiThe "Snapdragon" story URL links back to this page. Not wherever it was supposed to go.

    Fixed!

    Cheers,
    Andrew Ku
    TomsHardware.com
  • -6 Hide
    scrumworks , September 20, 2011 6:19 PM
    Kal whatever. AMD destroys that thing.
  • 5 Hide
    mavroxur , September 20, 2011 6:22 PM
    Very good idea. Instead of making it a race to pack as many cores in as possible, start tuning cores to specific applications.
  • 5 Hide
    mrmaia , September 20, 2011 6:28 PM
    Very good energy-saving idea by Nvidia. Even gamers don't need ultimate energy monsters all the time. Now I wonder how long it will take for people to start asking if it runs Crysis 2 at full.
  • 9 Hide
    makafri , September 20, 2011 6:49 PM
    mmm companion core... is like the companion cube, but a core?
  • 3 Hide
    sonofliberty08 , September 20, 2011 7:13 PM
    gm0n3yLet me know when a netbook can play Starcraft 2, then I'll be interested.

    the netbook with AMD APU can play it :) 
  • 5 Hide
    aftcomet , September 20, 2011 7:14 PM
    Anyone else see the term "Console Class Gaming". If you're trying to promote high-end gaming you should call it "PC Enthusiast Gaming".

    Console class is a bad thing. 30FPS at sub HD resolutions.
  • 1 Hide
    dread_cthulhu , September 20, 2011 7:23 PM
    Hmm... is the companion core Krypto the Superdog? LOL
  • 0 Hide
    jryan388 , September 20, 2011 9:50 PM
    That GPU looks pretty small...
  • -3 Hide
    Anonymous , September 20, 2011 10:01 PM
    Tegra 3 (Transformer TF201) doesn't really come near the iPad 2's graphics performance, but nVidia achieved their goal of 2+ times the performance of Tegra 2.

    http://glbenchmark.com/result.jsp?benchmark=glpro21&brand=&gpu=&orderby=438&subtest=-2&screen-group=true&var=top&oldal=0
  • 2 Hide
    Vladislaus , September 20, 2011 11:34 PM
    verdantchileTegra 3 (Transformer TF201) doesn't really come near the iPad 2's graphics performance, but nVidia achieved their goal of 2+ times the performance of Tegra 2.http://glbenchmark.com/result.jsp? [...] op&oldal=0

    How do you know if it's come near the iPad2 performance if the chip isn't even out yet? There isn't even an tegra3 powered device on the list you mentioned.
  • 2 Hide
    dalethepcman , September 21, 2011 12:33 AM
    verdantchileTegra 3 (Transformer TF201) doesn't really come near the iPad 2's graphics performance....


    Since when was the iPad 2 1280x720? Here's the Tegra 2 Vs iPad2 from the same site.

    Notice how the Tegra2 outshines the iPad2 in most tests... strange.

    Check out GL1.1 this was before this site sold out to the Ipad and optimized their code to run on Steve's cool-aid
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