Nvidia goes for Atom’s jugular with Tegra

As Intel prepares to unleash its Atom processor upon low-cost PCs and mobile Internet devices (MIDs), Nvidia isn’t just watching idly. In February, the graphics company announced the APX 2505, a system-on-a-chip for smart phones that includes an ARM11 processor, a GeForce graphics core, and plenty of high-definition ‘zazz. The APX 2505 doesn’t look like an Atom-killer at first glance, because Intel doesn’t plan to jump in the smart phone market with current-generation Atom chips. However, what Nvidia failed to mention is that the APX has two big brothers both aimed squarely at MIDs.

Nvidia officially unveiled the APX’s big brothers this morning and gave the whole family a name: Tegra. We’ve already covered the APX 2505’s basic specificiations, so let’s have a look at how it compares to the rest of the family:

  APX 2500 Tegra 600 Tegra 650
CPU speed 600MHz 700MHz 800MHz
Max. LCD resolution 854 x 480 1280 x 1024 1680 x 1050
Video decode 30 FPS 720p 30 FPS 720p 24 FPS 1080p
Video encode 720p 720p 720p
IDE support No Yes Yes
Memory speed 166MHz 166MHz 200MHz

The Tegra 600 and 650 stand out because of their higher speeds, support for higher display resolutions, and IDE connectivity support. All three offerings also have USB On-The-Go support, allowing Tegra-based devices to work as both USB hosts and USB peripherals, depending on the scenario.

To make Tegra seem like a compelling alternative to Atom, Nvidia will focus on its two main selling points: footprint and multimedia functionality. Tegra chips measure only 144 mm², and they include CPU, GPU, and chipset all in a single piece of silicon with (apparently) no surrounding package to take up extra space. By contrast, the Centrino Atom platform includes a separate Poulsbo core-logic chip, and the combined area for both Atom and Poulsbo (packages included) adds up to around 666 mm². Nvidia doesn’t disclose power envelopes for Tegra variants, but it claims devices based on Tegra can achieve over 20 hours of battery life, too—supposedly longer than Centrino Atom.

Tegra’s real ace in the hole is probably its multimedia functionality. Nvidia’s new chips can decode 720p high-definition H.264 or WMV9/VC-1 video at 30 frames per second (or 1080p at 24 FPS for the Tegra 650), and they’re all capable of encoding 720p HD video. Not only that, but all Tegra chips have Nvidia graphics processors powerful enough to render 3D user interfaces with fancy shader effects.

The UI for Tegra’s development system. Source: Nvidia.

So, what’s the catch? Tegra’s ARM11 processor core isn’t x86-compatible, so it can’t run straight Windows XP or Windows Vista with the same software as modern desktops or laptops. A 600-800MHz ARM11 core probably won’t be as fast as Intel’s speediest Atom. Nonetheless, Nvidia claims Tegra-based MIDs can run Windows CE with a 3D user interface. Considering WinCE’s already wide installed base on ARM-based handhelds, the software choices may not leave all that much to be desired, either.

At its Editor’s Day event for the press last week, Nvidia’s Mike Rayfield said he believes PC makers should be able to make Tegra-based devices similar to the Asus Eee PC that could sell for as little as $249 or perhaps even $199.

Nvidia plans a very aggressive development cycle for Tegra’s successors. The company says it will unveil Tegra II in 2009, followed by Tegra III in 2010. No word yet on what the new chips will bring, but they’ll most likely compete with Atom’s system-on-a-chip successor, Moorestown.

In the meantime, we should point out that Nvidia also plans to battle Atom in the low-cost desktop (and perhaps mobile) space. Nvidia’s CEO revealed two months ago that his company plans to release an integrated graphics chipset for VIA’s new Nano processor. Coupled with Nano’s low-power x86 architecture, an Nvidia "motherboard GPU" could be a potent alternative to Atom and the 945GC chipset it will come with in low-cost systems.

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