Final Words

NVIDIA’s Tegra 4 is a significant step forward in both CPU and GPU performance. Although Tegra 3 was decent in both areas, Tegra 4 really moves things forward. ARM’s Cortex A15 is an excellent performer, although that performance comes at a high power cost. In a tablet, as we’ve already seen with Google’s Nexus 10, the power consumption associated with the Cortex A15 core is manageable. If NVIDIA’s data is to be believed however, Tegra 4 can get into a smartphone just by aggressively controlling frequencies. At reduced frequencies, Tegra 4 can draw less power than Tegra 3 but with no performance advantage. NVIDIA could then scale up performance (and power) to offer an improvement over Tegra 3. The real question at that point is whether or not Qualcomm’s Krait 300/400 designs offer better efficiency at these intermediate points on the performance/power curve. We’ll be able to find out for sure later this year when both Tegra 4 and Snapdragon 600/800 based devices are shipping.

Icera i500 looks like an interesting competitor in the modem space, which presently is dominated by Qualcomm. More competition is always good, and before the NVIDIA acquisition Icera was on the up and up with impressive performance and interesting SDR architecture. In addition the integration into NVIDIA's own SoC seems to have taken place pretty quickly, and we had the opportunity to see it in the flesh doing over 100 Mbps on a test box.

On the imaging side NVIDIA's Chimera ISP architecutre looks intriguing, though it is obvious that NVIDIA is trying to craft a compelling story for leveraging the GPU. What we did see of HDR video capture and assist looks better than some of the other solutions out there, and object tracking does make for a compelling demo even if it requires user training.

NVIDIA’s biggest advantage hasn’t been architecture, but rather being in the right design wins. Without a doubt, the Nexus 7 and Surface RT were significant wins for NVIDIA last year and they really helped ensure a successful year for NVIDIA’s Tegra business. Whether or not NVIDIA will be able to guarantee similarly key design wins with Tegra 4 remains to be seen. The architecture looks good enough on paper, now it’s just up to NVIDIA’s sales teams to get it into the right devices.

Hands on with the Phoenix, NVIDIA's FFRD
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  • klmccaughey - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    Definitely. All good for us too! :) Reply
  • twotwotwo - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    > In the PC industry we learned that there’s no real downside to quad-core as long as you can power gate individual cores, and turbo up to higher frequencies when fewer than four cores are active, there’s no real tradeoff other than cost.

    I'm not completely sure, because there are always other possible uses for die area.

    You could do the big/little thing with A7 'companion' cores, like Samsung. You could use even more area for GPU, like Apple. Wiki suggests you could double the L2 cache to 4MB (though more cache would always be eating power, even with only one core turned on).

    But in favor of quad-core: software might start using cores a little more effectively w/time--Google and Apple are apparently trying to make WebKit able to do things like HTML parsing and JavaScript garbage collection in the background, and Microsoft's browser team backgrounds JavaScript compilation. And the other uses of space are also only sort-of useful, and cores (like GHz) are handy for marketing. I can't say I know what the right tradeoff for NVidia is, only that there were were other seemingly-interesting options.
    Reply
  • guidryp - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    "there are always other possible uses for die area"

    Yes, in the case of Tegra 3, they could certainly have used extra GPU power more than 4 CPU cores. But they seem to have remedied that this time.
    Reply
  • twotwotwo - Monday, February 25, 2013 - link

    Def possible, and what they disclosed in this presentation would suggest they've handled it.

    All that's working against them, GPU-wise, is that user expectations increased since last gen, and Mali/PowerVR improved. So now T4i needs to drive 1080p phone screens and T4 needs to drive screens like the Nexus 10's, if they want to be the most bleeding-edge, anyway.

    But they did talk about large integer-factor improvements in the GPU, so maybe they haven't merely built the GPU that would've been nice to have last gen, but moved up enough to be great this gen.
    Reply
  • sosadsohappy - Sunday, February 24, 2013 - link

    Samsung has just said it is doing A15-A7 pairing. Saying out the future plans just to keep the crowd excited is not new. That does not rule out the possibility of Qualcomm or Nvidia going for similar big.LITTLE designs. They are for the next-gen I would think. (Tell me if I am wrong but have anyone sampled big.LITTLE based SoC yet?)

    And talking about die area, what is impressive about Nvidia is how their chips are always smaller. Quad-core A15 is about 80mm^2 while you can check for the sizes of Qualcomm's or Apple's chips! FWIW Apple's are not in 28nm but still they don't scale equally.

    I am excited to see the 60mm^2 (right?) chip (Tegra4i). If it is what they claim, it should have great battery life for a smartphone.
    Reply
  • s44 - Monday, February 25, 2013 - link

    4+1 is Nvidia's version of big.LITTLE. The 1 low-power A15 is about the same die space as the 4 A7s on the next Exynos... Reply
  • sosadsohappy - Monday, February 25, 2013 - link

    Yes. The only difference is that the big.LITTLE will sport different architectures on the big and LITTLE while NV's 4+1 will have the same arch (A15 for both).

    And personally I think 4+1 is better as of now until we have Atlas and Apollo combination of big.LITTLE because (correct me if I'm wrong) A7 does not have as much of memory parallelism, it is to weak as well...

    No matter what, it has been impressive that Nvidia chips have significantly lower die size than the competition's dual-core chips!
    Reply
  • Krysto - Monday, February 25, 2013 - link

    Too weak? For what? Receiving notifications? We'll see if Tegra 4 is more energy efficient than Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa later this year. Then we might get a better idea whether Nvidia or ARM's implementation is better.

    And I agree. Nvidia managed to have the same graphics performance + a quad core Cortex A15 CPU in 80mm2 vs Apple with a dual core CPU and same graphics performance in 120 mm2. That's pretty impressive, even if it arrives half a year late.

    I still wish Nvidia would actually want to compete at the high-end though, with a 120mm2 chip, and beat Apple. It annoys me that they are still trying to build only "good enough for most people" chips. They should be trying to be the king of mobile graphics. They are freaking Nvidia, and they can't even beat a mobile GPU maker? Come on, Nvidia.
    Reply
  • name99 - Monday, February 25, 2013 - link

    > In the PC industry we learned that there’s no real downside to quad-core as long as you can power gate individual cores, and turbo up to higher frequencies when fewer than four cores are active, there’s no real tradeoff other than cost.

    Sony Ericsson recently released a paper claiming this was not true, even apart from the die area issues. In particular they claimed that with current technology, coupling capacitance, ground plane issues, communication (with the L2, including coherence) and suchlike, quad-core imposed something like a 25% reduction in peak MHz possible for two cores, compared to those same two cores isolated rather than on a quad-core die.

    Now obviously any company publication is talking up its book, but I imagine they're not going to make a statement that is blatantly false in a technical publication, implying there is some truth to what they say.
    Reply
  • Wilco1 - Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - link

    Given Tegra 4i achieves 2.3GHz in a quad core with shared L2, way more than Krait which uses per-CPU L2, I think the claim that a shared L2 is clock limiting seems more marketing than substance. Reply

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