An Introduction To The Major ARM-Based SoCs

Nvidia's Tegra Line of SoCs

So far, Nvidia is the only company from the PC space working in the mobile SoC market and seeing at least some success. In light of its latest host and graphics processor designs, Nvidia appears to have a lot of potential in the tablet space, especially, that still hasn't been tapped.

Tegra Series

Tegra is the name Nvidia gives to its mobile SoCs, dating back to the company's first push into the media player and smartphone markets. The first and only contract for Tegra was signed with Microsoft for its Zune HD media player.

It wasn’t until Tegra 2, with its first-ever dual-core mobile CPU and GeForce graphics, that Nvidia was taken more seriously in the mobile space. Unfortunately, that processor shipped later than promised. And by the time it attracted attention, competitors were offering their own dual-core chips as well. Additionally, Tegra 2 had some performance issues related to design decisions Nvidia made, which ended up frustrating the early adopters willing to give the newcomer a shot. This resulted in recommendations to stay away from the company's SoC.

Still, when Nvidia announced Tegra 3, the first quad-core Cortex-A9-based processor, there was hope that the company had ironed out its problems. After all, we've seen one GeForce card after another do battle in the hyper-competitive world of PC graphics. But Nvidia didn't end up conquering its struggle against delays. By the time Tegra 3 arrived, Nvidia was forced to market it as a fast mid-range device.

This strategy proved somewhat successful, and Tegra 3 won a place inside the first Nexus 7 tablet from Google and in the first Surface RT tablet from Microsoft. The Nexus 7 sales alone made up half of the SoC's sales. However, despite a moderate win, the fact that Nvidia didn’t really have a high-end product in the mobile market couldn’t be overlooked.

Tegra 4

Tegra 4 appeared a year later with a four-core Cortex-A15 complex (plus another battery-saver -A15 companion), promising performance on par with some of the fastest SoCs out there, which it actually delivered. However, Tegra 4 also ran into a couple of issues. One was the fact that it used an old GPU architecture lacking unified shaders and limited to OpenGL ES 2.0-based games. Meanwhile, competitors were coming out with unified shader architectures and OpenGL ES 3.0 support.

Nvidia was actually supposed to deliver the Kepler GPU architecture with Logan in 2013. But because Tegra 2 and 3 were delayed so severely compared to their original schedules, Tegra 4 ended up rolling out in 2013, pushing what we now know as Tegra K1 to 2014.

The other major issue was that Tegra 4 isn’t terribly efficient, resulting in its use as a tablet-oriented SoC at best. Aside from a few Chinese OEMs, nobody's using it in a smartphone.

So, on one hand, execution problems and delays forced Nvidia to push a chip armed with obsolete graphics into 2013. And, on the other, design decisions Nvidia made regarding performance led to it not being well-suited for smartphones, barely qualifying it for tablet form factors. Unsurprisingly, Google dropped Nvidia as a partner for the 2013-edition Nexus 7, which was a major blow considering the previous-gen Nexus 7 represented so much of the SoC's sales.

Fortunately for Nvidia, Tegra K1 looks a lot more appealing to both consumers and OEM partners, and we’ll explore why soon enough.

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  • de5_Roy
    tegra and zune!?! rofl!
    the stark soc seems to have vanished from the latest soc roadmap... wonder what happened to it....
    wonder why mediatek, allwinner left out of the "big players" while nvidia in nowhere on the "competitive landscape" or anything that qualifies as such. :pt1cable:
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  • therogerwilco
    Yay! ARM chips!
    Half the cost and half the performance!
    1
  • pierrerock
    Power efficient does not mean performance wise ...
    2
  • InvalidError
    Anonymous said:
    the stark soc seems to have vanished from the latest soc roadmap... wonder what happened to it....

    The Starks have been dropping like flies. Maybe Nvidia got worried HBO would finish killing them off in the fifth season.
    3
  • adamovera
    Quote:
    tegra and zune!?! rofl!
    the stark soc seems to have vanished from the latest soc roadmap... wonder what happened to it....
    wonder why mediatek, allwinner left out of the "big players" while nvidia in nowhere on the "competitive landscape" or anything that qualifies as such. :pt1cable:

    Haven't heard peep about Stark for a very long time, but the followup article, scheduled for next week, focuses on lesser-known Chinese ARM-based SoCs ;)
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  • urbanman2004
    Tegra gives ARM a run for its money
    -3
  • Jak Atackka
    I'm interested to see how well the Tegra K1 performs in market. It would be great if it was successful, because that will push Qualcomm and other manufacturers to develop more powerful chips as well. Competition benefits us consumers, and technology as a whole.

    As ARM chips become more powerful and x86 chips become more power efficient, it won't be long until the two of them meet. I'm curious to see which format will win that war. One thing's for sure, the next decade will be a very exciting time for mobile computing.
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  • InvalidError
    Anonymous said:
    I'm interested to see how well the Tegra K1 performs in market. It would be great if it was successful, because that will push Qualcomm and other manufacturers to develop more powerful chips as well. Competition benefits us consumers, and technology as a whole.

    The Shield Tablet murders its battery in just over two hours when its IGP gets pushed to its limits so I doubt the K1 will be particularly popular for products where small size and long battery life are priorities. If it does manage to succeed, it will be in larger devices that can accommodate larger batteries like Chromebooks and mobile devices specifically designed for mobile gamers.
    1
  • palladin9479
    Tegra 4 was actually pretty powerful graphics wise. The problem is that it wasn't power efficient and thus got throttled when used in a smartphone. The Shield on the other hand actually lets it go full out, it's even got a small heatsink and airvents which do get hot after you've been using it for awhile. The K1 is similiar, it provides great visuals and is very powerful, but sucks power and generates heat doing so.
    1
  • slapshot136
    Is 702p a typo, or is Apple going to break another standard?
    0
  • somebodyspecial
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:
    the stark soc seems to have vanished from the latest soc roadmap... wonder what happened to it....

    The Starks have been dropping like flies. Maybe Nvidia got worried HBO would finish killing them off in the fifth season.


    It's not related to the HBO show. Rather related to IRON MAN. As in, Tony Stark. His movies are still doing very well (a billion well that is, and so is downey's salary at about $80mil+ for ironman3...LOL). I think it's just delayed after erista/parker chips. These are superhero's, not hbo characters.

    I believe most of the moves are due to NV (and others) not being able to count on fabs to get what they wanted in their chips (based on previous history), so we have a few stopgap chips now as CYA stuff I guess. A few years ago they probably started wondering, will they get to 20nm ok or not, will they get to 16/14 or not, will finfet be in or out and at what node, will we be able to do 3d stacked ram etc etc. Tons of questions so they put more chips on the roadmap just in case. Wise IMHO, based on fab track records, even if they do seem to be getting their crap together finally for these last few big moves at TSMC/Samsung/GF. TSMC seems to be on schedule and GF/Samsung have swappable process etc now since working together with IBM.

    Maybe you guys should get on the right roadmap instead of the wrong show ;)
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  • somebodyspecial
    Anonymous said:
    Tegra 4 was actually pretty powerful graphics wise. The problem is that it wasn't power efficient and thus got throttled when used in a smartphone. The Shield on the other hand actually lets it go full out, it's even got a small heatsink and airvents which do get hot after you've been using it for awhile. The K1 is similiar, it provides great visuals and is very powerful, but sucks power and generates heat doing so.


    But you don't HAVE to run it full out as anandtech showed, you can drop it to a 30fps limit (still beating everyone else) and avoid the problems you're talking about with battery and power sucking. They also mentioned it isn't bad on heat.
    http://anandtech.com/show/8354/tegra-k1-lands-in-acers-newest-chromebook
    Very battery efficient at 11.5-13hrs in a chromebook.

    http://anandtech.com/show/8329/revisiting-shield-tablet-gaming-ux-and-battery-life
    "In addition to the low GPU clocks, we see that the skin temperatures never exceed 34C, which is completely acceptable."
    So once you drop the perf some instead of running the chip in a way NO GAME will run it (maxed permanently for a test), the temps drop and so does battery. Games don't do what their benchmark does as they clearly showed in the "revisiting shield" article. Which comically anandtech make not so easy to find...ROFL. K1 tag won't get it, you have to hit joshua's articles. AMD's checks are still coming I guess...ROFL. ***cough, AMD PORTAL, cough ***
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  • InvalidError
    Anonymous said:
    But you don't HAVE to run it full out as anandtech showed, you can drop it to a 30fps limit (still beating everyone else) and avoid the problems you're talking about with battery and power sucking. They also mentioned it isn't bad on heat.

    If you cannot use the chip for more than 50% of what it is worth without murdering the battery, might as well make the chip 50% weaker in the first place and not have to bother with throttling to make battery life reasonable; it would still beat everything else currently on the market without having to bother with artificially capping its performance. The chip would be a buck or two cheaper to manufacture and yields would likely be better on top of that.
    0
  • somebodyspecial
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:
    But you don't HAVE to run it full out as anandtech showed, you can drop it to a 30fps limit (still beating everyone else) and avoid the problems you're talking about with battery and power sucking. They also mentioned it isn't bad on heat.

    If you cannot use the chip for more than 50% of what it is worth without murdering the battery, might as well make the chip 50% weaker in the first place and not have to bother with throttling to make battery life reasonable; it would still beat everything else currently on the market without having to bother with artificially capping its performance. The chip would be a buck or two cheaper to manufacture and yields would likely be better on top of that.


    Why remove the OPTION to run full out if desired? That is ridiculous. I can plug in and use FULL power all day, which is how most would use it if hooked to a TV as noted in reviews (for gaming with a gamepad).

    You're arguing to limit choice of something they are giving you for free...LOL. Ok. Whatever. Manufacturers can put the chip at whatever they want, as Acer did running it at 2.1ghz instead of 2.3ghz, thus giving it massive battery life for their chromebook. They can also govern the clocks of the gpu any way they want (sure I can override whatever they do in most cases, but they can set it at whatever for sale). Should AMD sell all their gpus with less power because they use more watts than NV cards? That's dumb and they wouldn't be competitive then.

    The point of having the power in there is you can use it WHEN DESIRED (like next year or the year after when games using this kind of power actually land). Your way, would have you require a NEW device at that point because they chose to artificially limit the soc forcing a new purchase. Your argument is ridiculous and even at 750 you get better battery than 852mhz it's clocked at, no need to drop it to half.

    The user has no idea anything is happening anyway. Bother? Bother who? Logic in the device does all this for you, just like a desktop drops speed when not used etc. No difference here. The ONLY correct move is giving me full power that won't damage the device (if you get to damage levels THEN and only THEN is it giving me too much). I'd rather have a super-powered device I could plug in and use for an extra year or two in really intense gaming, than be forced to buy a new product because they limited me for ABSOLUTELY no reason. I want the fastest clocks my gpu in my pc can run at, unless it damages the unit. ALWAYS. I'll gladly turn it down if I don't want as much heat in my room etc (or too noisy), rather than NOT have the ability to use the free power.

    By your logic they should just start shipping all current laptops as half speeds (heck ship everything at half), for great battery...LOL. What? Whatever. I'll plugin when needed and run intense games IN the house where I have a power outlet.
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