Can Nvidia's Tegra capitalise on the Zune HD?

Microsoft's media player is the first confirmed user of Nvidia's Tegra System-on-Chip

The Zune HD is the first confirmed user of Nvidia's Tegra System-on-Chip (SoC).

The Zune HD is the first confirmed user of Nvidia's Tegra System-on-Chip (SoC).

Nvidia Inc., the PC graphics chipmaker that is trying to break into the portable computing electronics market, needs the upcoming Zune HD media player to be successful as much as the player's maker, Microsoft Corp.

Expected to be officially announced today by Microsoft, the Zune HD represents Microsoft's third attempt to break into the music/video device market almost totally dominated by Apple Inc.'s iPods and iTouches.

The Zune HD is also the first publicly confirmed user of Nvidia's Tegra System-on-Chip (SoC), which makes up most of the internal electrical guts that run the the media player.

The leading maker of high-end add-on graphic cards for PCs, Nvidia is moving quickly into areas such as netbooks, tablet PCs and portable media players.

Tegra takes Nvidia's graphics technology and combines it with two low-powered ARM-based CPUs and other specialised chips to create a powerful but small package optimized for devices such as the Zune HD, whose purported specs -- 720p high-def video optimised to display Flash-based YouTube videos on its bright OLED touchscreen, the ability to play 25 days of HD radio on a single battery charge, all at a lower price than Apple's iPod Touch -- have many early adopters drooling.

"Apple probably builds a pretty good SoC [System-on-Chip], but in terms of what they have already enabled [on the iPod Touch], I don't believe it has nearly the graphics and power management that Tegra does," said Mike Rayfield, a general manager at Nvidia. "We've benchmarked against everyone out there, and we are the most advanced in terms of graphics and overall power management."

That's a fair claim, said Jeffrey Orr, an analyst with ABI Research, though he notes that certain components of Tegra, such as its core ARM A11 chips are "a bit out of date at this point."

To address that, Rayfield strongly hinted that the next version of Tegra, which Nvidia says will perform four times faster while using the same amount of power, will use state-of-the-art ARM Cortex A9s.

"We are publicly licensed for the A9, so I'd be crazy not use it," he said.

And to catch up and stay ahead, Rayfield said Nvidia will upgrade Tegra every year, compared to once every three years for other SoC vendors.

That's both admirable and "pretty ambitious," Orr said, pointing out that it increases the risk of Nvidia producing buggy chips, which can be a "death knell."

Besides the Zune HD, about 50 devices, including smartbooks, car computers and Tivo-like devices, are being designed to use Tegra, said Rayfield, up from 42 several months ago.

That is an "interesting" number, Orr said, because so many of Nvidia's competitors, such as Texas Instruments, Freescale Semiconductor, Broadcom, Qualcomm and Intel, are so tight-lipped about such information.

At the same time, it's not enough that it "necessarily makes me stand up and ask, 'How did you do that?'" Moreover, Orr said, "the thing to monitor is how many of those 50 designs actually come to market."

Relying too heavily on Zune HD to open doors could backfire on Nvidia, Orr said.

For instance, Texas Instrument's OMAP platform is being used in the even more-hyped Palm Pre smartphone. But disappointing sales of the Pre are preventing TI from taking advantage, Orr said.

Tegra's edge is its video capability, but others are catching up. TI, for instance, plans to release version 4 of its OMAP platform early next year that will support 1080p high-def playback, according to Orr.

The majority of the devices being designed with Tegra today, such as the Zune HD, run Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, though Nvidia also supports Google Inc.'s Android and Chrome, Linux and Windows Mobile, Rayfield said.

That's the result of Windows CE's historical popularity on ARM, not because new Tegra customers demand it. "People are familiar with it, they know how to program to it," Orr said.

Tegra's association with Windows CE could prove to be a double-edged sword if customers flock to Google's pair of OSes, or some variant of Linux.

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