Nvidia unveils Tegra 4 processor, first quad-core Cortex-A15 chip

Nvidia needs the new chip to remain competitive in the smartphone and tablet computing market

Nvidia has unveiled its Tegra 4 processor, a chip that will bring consumers more power in mobile devices and help Nvidia remain competitive in the fast moving mobile market.

The Tegra 4 is based on ARM's quad-core Cortex-A15 processor and also packs in 72 graphics processing unit cores.

"This thing is flooded with GPU cores," said Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang.

Those processing cores will provide consumers with faster performance, but pre-launch speculation about the chip had centered on whether portable devices really need more processing power.

Huang sought to address that issue during a demonstration on stage when he pitted a Nexus 10 tablet, which he called "the fastest tablet in the world today," against a Tegra 4-based tablet. The two tablets were set to load 25 high-traffic web sites: the Tegra 4 did it in 27 seconds and the Nexus 10 tablet in 50 seconds.

That works out to an average page load time of one second versus two seconds, so consumers can decide for themselves if they really need to save that second.

Huang also showed other tricks that could be done with the faster chip, such as HDR (high-dynamic range) photography. HDR combines a series of photographs taken at different exposure settings to provide a wider dynamic range and is processor intensive. The iPhone 5 takes about 2 seconds to capture an HDR image, said Huang, while the Tegra 4 can snap two shots almost simultaneously and combine them.

"It basically is a one-shot HDR," he said. "Whatever you can take with one exposure, you can now take in HDR."

The new chip is important if Nvidia is to remain competitive in the smartphone and tablet computer marketplace.

Its previous chip, the Tegra 3, scored some notable successes, including in smartphones from HTC and LG, and tablets such as Google's Nexus 7, Microsoft Surface and Asus's Transformer. But the chip was produced on a 40-nanometer semiconductor production process.

Rival Qualcomm has already moved to a more advanced 28nm process for its Snapdragon S4, which competes with the Tegra.

The nanometer measurement indicates the smallest feature on the surface of the chip, and each jump in technology brings advantages for consumers. Newer production processes mean lower power consumption and smaller chips, or more performance in a chip of any given size.

So chips manufactured on a more advanced production line can be attractive to device makers. Snapdragon's growing influence in the smartphone and tablet space is one of the factors pushing Nvidia to upgrade its Tegra chip.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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