Nvidia shows new Tegra chip, cloud gaming, handheld console

During Nvidia's pre-CES press conference last night, company CEO Jen-Hsun Huang took to the stage and unveiled a trifecta of new products. The most notable of the three was no doubt the new Tegra 4 system-on-a-chip, which Nvidia dubs the "world's fastest mobile processor."

The Tegra 4 features four primary processor cores based on ARM's Cortex-A15 architecture, an auxiliary power-saving core, and 72 graphics "cores." (When talking about graphics, Nvidia generally uses "cores" to refer to graphics ALUs, or stream processors.) Nvidia says the Tegra 4 has six times the graphics horsepower of its predecessor, which is no surprise, since the Tegra 3 has only a dozen graphics ALUs. During an on-stage demo, Nvidia also showed a Tegra 4-powered tablet loading 25 web pages in almost half the time it took Google's new Nexus 10 tablet—27 seconds instead of 50 seconds. The Nexus 10 has a dual-core, Cortex-A15-based processor inside, so that was no small feat.

The Tegra 4 speeds up the processing of HDR photos, as well, enabling what Nvidia calls "one-shot HDR." The company says the iPhone 5 spends about two seconds processing each frame of an HDR composite, while a Tegra 4-equipped device can cut that processing time to just 0.2 seconds per frame.

Oh, and remember that wireless chip design firm Nvidia acquired in 2011? The purchase is definitely bearing fruit, because Nvidia intends to offer the Tegra 4 with an optional 4G LTE chipset, the Nvidia Icera i500. That chipset purportedly has a 40% smaller die size than a conventional "state-of-the-art" LTE modem, yet it includes eight programmable modem processors and can handle the entire modem stack, including both 3G and 4G connectivity. Nvidia expects the Icera i500 to start sampling this month.

Huang showing the Project Shield handheld.

Next up was Project Shield, a handheld gaming console that runs a vanilla version of Android on top of the new Tegra 4 chip. The device has a five-inch 1280x720 multi-touch display, a "console-grade" controller, and a 38Wh battery capacity good for 5-10 hours of gaming or 24 hours of video playback. Connectivity includes USB, HDMI, and microSD. The device can drive 4K displays, and Nvidia claims the audio system is better than Beats audio on an HP laptop.

Part of the appeal of Project Shield is that, in addition to running Android titles, the device can stream Steam games from a user's gaming PC. Nvidia demonstrated NFS Most Wanted and Assassin's Creed III being streamed over Wi-Fi, with latency purportedly so low it feels "as if you're connected to the PC." The host PC was running a GeForce GTX 680. Multiplayer gaming using two Shield handhelds is also possible, of course, and Nvidia has made provisions to allow for multiple Shield users per household. Too bad there's no word yet on pricing or availability.

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang standing next to a Grid server rack.

Huang also unveiled Nvidia's Grid cloud gaming platform, which is just what it sounds like: server racks full of Nvidia GPUs. Specifically, Nvidia says each Grid rack contains 20 servers and 240 graphics processors churning out a total of 200 teraflops—the performance of about 700 Xbox 360s. Nvidia's VGA Hypervisor tech allows multiple users to share a single GPU, too. The company says each Grid "computing node" can serve up to 24 concurrent users.

Thanks to Grid, folks should be able to play full-fledged PC games in the cloud using devices like smart TVs and tablets. In its demo, the company showed how one can begin playing Trine 2 on an LG Smart TV hooked up via Ethernet, and then pick up from the last saved game on an Eee Pad Transformer Prime. Impressive stuff. Nvidia's partners for Grid include Agawi, Cloud Union, Cyber Cloud, G-Cluster, Playcast, and Ubitus.

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