It basically goes without saying, but Tegra 4i, formerly Grey, is primarily a story about the modem. About halfway through 2011, NVIDIA acquired Icera, a player in the handset cellular baseband market who had managed to fit a software-defined radio into the power budget for a mobile device. NVIDIA clearly recognized the importance of being able to deliver an SoC with an integrated modem, and after the Icera acquisition, and later Grey’s appearance on the roadmap, it just became a matter of when that would happen. NVIDIA executed pretty quickly, it turns out, and the fruits of that work manifest themselves in two products — Icera’s standalone i500 and Tegra 4i which contains the same i500 IP block, minus USB interfaces and a different memory subsystem.

Icera was an interesting player in the baseband space because their architecture was that of a software defined radio on the digital baseband side. The reality is that nobody is either fully software defined or burned out to ASIC (hardware), but rather somewhere inbetween. For example, Qualcomm is a combination of software and hardware, though it’s never been entirely clear what functional blocks are ASIC and which other blocks are software, though I’ve been told this is often a matter of whatever is most advantageous for power and what gets re-used most. That said, Icera’s implementation is the furthest towards being pure software defined of anyone, with the entire digital baseband being just one big platform to run their own software atop. There’s an external transceiver which does downconversion, but after that it’s pure software. The question has always been how Icera could afford to build a power competitive platform with an entirely software designed stack, and the clue lies in their choice of 28 HPM instead of LP or HPL silicon for i500 and 4i. Icera designs to a high performance process, then turns off blocks when they’re not in use, rather than make a larger SoC that’s lower leakage. The result is that NVIDIA claims a 40% smaller die for i500 than MDM9x15.

Icera has maintained the same software platform across its modem portfolio, each time taking advantage of increased processing performance afforded by faster silicon to include more air interfaces and capabilities. The result is an interesting advantage when it comes to operator certification — they can make a compelling case for each new version being close to the previous one, since they run the same PHY and protocol stack entirely in software.

In the case of i500, it runs the exact same multimode modem software as the i4xx series, just with increased DXP support for 15 and 20 MHz channel bandwidths on LTE.

The entire stack ends up being 1.2 million lines of C and DXP code, with a total size of 7.7 MB compiled. NVIDIA gave a great breakdown of the protocol stack as well.

The real name for Icera i500 is ICE9045, and it is paired with a ICE9245 transceiver. ICE9045 is built on 28nm HPM as I mentioned before, and ICE9245 remains 65nm TSMC LP CMOS process which is RF friendly. ICE9045 supports basically all the 3GPP air interfaces, as mentioned in the earlier announcement piece. There’s up to Category 3 LTE on the baseband at launch, with Category 4 in the future. For WCDMA, up to Category 24 (42 Mbps) (dual carrier with 64QAM), and interestingly enough the same Category 18 16 QAM with 2x2 MIMO (28 Mbps) as earlier implemented in Icera 450, and an optional future upgrade to Category 28 64 QAM with 2x2 MIMO (84 Mbps). Of course there’s also TD-SCDMA, GSM/EDGE, full support for voice including AMR-WB and VoLTE/IMS. In addition to 2x2 MIMO the ICE9045 can also do 4x4 MIMO on LTE with a second ICE9245 transceiver.

NVIDIA broke down the ICE9045 functionally, which consists of two large DXP units and one smaller DXP unit which runs the rest of the software and management stack. The two larger DXP units run at up to 1.3 GHz. The Icera instruction set consists of two different fundamental sets. Icera refers to these as the “C” and “D” side, with C being rather obvious. The C side is unsurprisingly a C-complier targeted version of the 3GPP protocol stack, and manages the higher level functions of the modem above physical interface, and is a scalar machine. In the block diagram, the C side runs on DXP1, the D side runs on the larger beefier DXP0 and DXP2 machines.

The D side is a proprietary assembly language vector instruction set that runs the physical layer of the modem, this is a combination of specific libraries that really make up the magic and give the Icera platform its reconfigurability. NVIDIA gave an excellent breakdown of the data paths inside both sides. It turns out that in an LTE configuration one core does all the inverse FFTs and MIMO matrix math, the second core does rate matching and decoding. The ultimate goal is to have each of the cores processing around the same equal workload, and since it’s software these tasks can be shuffled in-between to get the i500 running each core at the lowest possible frequency and voltage. Each of the cores can also be individually power collapsed.

On the transceiver side we have ICE9245 which is again TSMC 65nm LP CMOS. This talks over a digital interface to the baseband, and increases the number of primary RX ports from 6 to 8. All filtering and channelization is onboard the ISP. The goal is to keep all the A2D and D2A on the transceiver and away from the baseband. NVIDIA hasn’t quite given me the frequency breakdown for their low band, high band, and super high band, but you can figure it out just by looking. There’s also diversity ports for the same set of bands. All these ports are created equal and can handle 20 MHz LTE, in addition to inter-band and intra-band CA.

The big question is how well Icera’s i500 will stack up against the MDM9x15s and MDM9x25s of the world. Icera believes its ability to switch between four fundamentally different receiver types on the fly and dedicate processing to different functions based on the cellular geometry at the moment offers it an advantage in the long run.

NVIDIA demonstrated a Phoenix with Tegra 4i cabled up to a base station emulator doing full Category 3 LTE at 100 Mbps nice and steady. I asked whether they could go any higher to demonstrate the headroom in the current i500 architecture for upgrading to Category 4 and was shown just short of 120 Mbps on the two week old Tegra 4i silicon.

Tegra 4 Performance ISP - Chimera Computational Camera
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  • darkich - Monday, February 25, 2013 - link

    You should know better than to compare different platforms on sunspider.
    It's more software than hardware dependant benchmark.
    Read the jefkibuule's post
    Reply
  • danielfranklin - Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - link

    With my own testing ive managed to get my Nexus 10 at between 500-600ms on Sunspider. Clocked at roughly 2ghz. It depends more on the browser, the stock android browser is much faster at this than Chrome and doesnt come with the Nexus 10 or Nexus 4. Reply
  • ilihijan - Sunday, March 3, 2013 - link

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  • GiantPandaMan - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    Given the vastly different conclusions and what not, I think it would be interesting if Charlie and Anand had a roundtable discussion about the SoC space, both phone and tablet. Has Tegra had a noticeable lack of design wins? Has nVidia overpromised and underdelivered three times in a row? Or is Charlie exaggerating far too much?

    I'm making no judgement myself, since I really know very little about how phone and tablet manufacturers view the various SoC's.

    Have you guys reached out to manufacturers and gotten their takes at all?
    Reply
  • s44 - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    What, Charlie pushing anti-Nvidia storylines? Who'd have imagined that. Reply
  • lmcd - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    I feel like T2 underperformed because the software on it underperformed (see DX2), as Honeycomb was a pretty terrible release.

    Tegra 3 didn't do poorly at all. It performed phenomenally as a cheap chip (though the high-clocked ones on high-end phones made no sense). 28nm was a must-have for a high-end chip that generation.

    Tegra 4 looks about where everyone expected it. No one should have been surprised with any of those units on the performance levels.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    DX2 and Honeycomb not being the same subject of course.

    But 2.3 was equally bad
    Reply
  • rahvin - Monday, February 25, 2013 - link

    A lot of what Charlie said is easily check-able. Tegra2 had a ton of design wins and almost no actual sales. Tegra3 has done phenomenally, but only in tablets and it's already been replaced in one or two. I think the most prophetic thing he said is the most obvious, unlike every previous generation they didn't announce a single design win for Tegra4. That to me speaks volumes.

    We'll know in time if it's just the vendetta or if his sources are correct. I've never heard of a chip maker doing a reference design and personally I just don't see that having any effect or why they would even do it. The manufacturers like to differentiate and the reference design takes that away, which again speaks to lack of manufacturer interest. Charlie tends to over exaggerate things but IMO he's been fairly spot on. Even with the highest revenue in their history profit was down almost 25% (which I attribute to the change to paying for wafer instead of good chips).

    Again, time will tell.
    Reply
  • Kidster3001 - Thursday, February 28, 2013 - link

    FFRD is popular for companies that only produce the chips and not any phones themselves. Samsung has no need to do it, Apple either. Who's left? Qualcomm sells (almost) reference designs with their MDP, Intel's first two phones (Lava Xolo and Orange Santa Clara) were basically rebadged reference devices. Now NVidia's doing it. One advantage to having an FFRD is so that the customer can bring it to market faster and cheaper. OEM's like that and it also allows for chip manufacturers to get their stuff into the hands of smaller OEMs who don't have large R&D budgets.

    All the Tegra chips have had higher power consumption than their peers from other manufacturers. It looks like Tegra4 is no exception. They work well in tablets where it is less important, but poor battery life is a really good reason for OEM's to not make phones based on your chips.

    My personal opinion is that A15 (ARMs core) will never be a really good design for a phone. It has really high performance but the power envelope just isn't going to work. Those who design custom cores will come out ahead in the phone battle: Apple, Qualcomm, Intel and perhaps even NVidia if they move away from ARM IP with their Denver design.
    Reply
  • TheJian - Monday, February 25, 2013 - link

    Charlie has hated NV forever. He did the same crap at theINQ for years. At least he named his site accurately...ROFL. Actually I enjoy reading (used to) some of his stuff, but when he speaks about NV I'd say his site should have been named usuallynotaccurate.com

    Now he's actually charging for semiaccurate articles...LOL

    Seriously? If it was that important I'd rather pay for something like MPR. Charlie is usually good for a laugh and that's about it regarding NV.

    Though I've written some stuff about this site's bias recently (my titan article posts and the 660ti article comments), I don't think anandtech and semiaccurate sit at the same table. Anandtech isn't making stuff up, they're just leaving out 3/4 of the story IMHO (regarding my comments on the 14games etc that should be in the game suite & the two that shouldn't). Charlie just throws darts at a board for a large portion of his articles. IF you keep his articles (I did for a long time) and go back over them he's only right about 50%. Either he's getting WMD like UK info (ala bush and iraq, though I think they just moved them to syria...LOL we gave them ages to move them) or he just makes it up himself ("my deep mole in x company said blah blah"). There's no proof until ages later when most forget what he even said, right or wrong. Note there is NO COMMENT section on the site now. They're all blocked :) Ubergizmo called his site "half accurate". My data of old articles used to say the same :) I expect more than flipping a coin results in reporting. He gets credit for things like breaking the news on the bapco fiasco, but I'd say Van Smith gets credit for exposing not only that Intel OWNED the land they had their building on (they paid rent to Intel), Intel OWNED their domain name, and even had a hand in WRITING the code as Intel software engineers were on hand next door. Van covered it all YEARS before Charlie. Look up Van smith and vanshardware, a lot of that crap and the biased intel reporting forced Van to leave and probably dropped the price of Toms site to 1/4 of it's value when tom dumped it. He was worth MORE than anandtech before that stuff. Not sure of the value today, I'm talking back then.

    Biased reporting gets you killed if the right people keep pointing it out with DATA backing it. IF Tom's hadn't gone down that Intel love-in route he probably could have sold for much more. There's a reason Otellini said in 2006 that toms was his favorite tech site ;) Then in turn dumped the site as it's credibility tanked. Bapco was, and still is a sham. AMD/NV/VIA all left the consortium for a reason. I don't put much stock in anything from them (futuremark either). Tom's treatment of Van (even removed his bylines on stories) was downright disgusting. I stopped reading toms for about 5 years due to that crap in ~2001. He replaced every article the guy wrote with "THG staff". Total BS. Charlie does the same with NV hate as toms with Intel love. This crap costs credibility.

    Anandtech is coming close to the same thing on NV gpu's; Ryan's AMD love anyway, I'll bang away until he stops :) Funny how they never attack the data I provide here. I link to them at toms forums too, eventually that will begin to hurt as people look at the evidence and draw their own conclusions about his articles and in turn this site's credibility. If he continues on the next reviews (700's and 8000's) I'll get on a lot more forums linking the comments after the data dismantling (polite critique of course Ryan :)).

    The "Jian" is a double edged sword Ryan ;) Thin, light and very maneuverable...LOL
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jian
    In Chinese folklore, it is known as "The Gentleman of Weapons"
    I'm not hostile Ryan ;) Wikipedia says so. :)
    Google this: thejian anandtech
    Data piles up don't it? I save all my posts (before posting) anyway, but google does too.
    Reply

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