Nvidia targets low-cost LTE smartphones, tablets with Tegra 4i chip

Set to show off new Tegra 4i processor, Nvidia's first with integrated LTE modem, at Mobile World Congress

Nvidia hopes to power sub-$200 smartphones and tablets under $300 with its latest Tegra 4i processor, which is also the company's first chip with an integrated LTE modem.

The quad-core Tegra 4i will be used by device makers in LTE-capable smartphones and tablets that could arrive by the end of this year. Nvidia did not announce any customers, but will show off a Tegra 4i smartphone prototype with a 5-inch, 1080p high-definition screen and LTE at the upcoming Mobile World Congress show to be held in Barcelona next week.

Nvidia is not necessarily aiming Tegra 4i at very low-end smartphones under $100, said Philip Carmack, senior vice president of its mobile business unit. The quad-core chip has fast processing capabilities and can play full high-definition video, so it is targeted at value smartphones priced under $200.

The low-cost smartphone market is growing fast, especially in developing regions like Asia-Pacific, South America and Africa, where unlocked smartphones with basic multimedia are in some cases available for under $100.

"We've built a really compact quad-core processor," Carmack said. "It's a triumph of efficiency."

Tablets with 7-inch screens are the sweet spot for Tegra 4i, Carmack said. Nvidia has provided a tablet reference platform called Kai for companies to build devices under $200, and 4i can provide consumers with more bang for the buck with integrated LTE, Carmack said.

The Tegra 4i chip is based on a modified ARM Cortex-A9 processor and runs at a clock frequency of 2.3GHz, and has a fifth core to handle low-power tasks like phone calls. The chip has an integrated software-defined modem, and can support multiple 3G and LTE technologies. The chip will support wireless connectivity standards in a majority of countries, including China.

The Cortex-A9 processor design is also used in Nvidia's old Tegra 3 chip, which is in many tablets and smartphones. But the 4i chip is an architectural improvement over Tegra 3, with a smaller, more power efficient and faster version of Cortex-A9.

"It has a brand new CPU architecture that we co-developed with ARM," Carmack said. "It's not a simple rev of A9, but a pretty heavy improvement."

ARM designs processors that are used in most of the world's smartphones, like Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy S III. Nvidia licenses processor architectures and designs from ARM, much like Apple, Nvidia, Samsung, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and others.

Last month, Nvidia announced the Tegra 4 chip for tablets and high-end smartphones, which the company claimed was the world's fastest mobile processor. Tegra 4 is based on ARM's Cortex-A15 design, and is being used in Nvidia's Project Shield, a handheld gaming console which was also announced last month and is scheduled to ship in the second half.

Nvidia is primarily known as a graphics company, and the 4i chip enables booming multimedia, Carmack said. Users will be able to play high-definition Android video games on handsets. There are 60 graphics cores in Tegra 4i, while Tegra 3 had only 12 such cores. The Tegra 4 chip has 72 graphics cores.

The 4i chip is more than half the size of Tegra 4, which could lead to thinner and power-efficient smartphones, Carmack said, adding that the board size for 4i is much smaller than competitive offerings from companies like Qualcomm.

"Nobody can build a smaller quad-core LTE smartphone," Carmack said.

The new chip adds many more hours of video playback to a smartphone or tablet compared to its predecessors, Carmack said.

The battery life of a tablet or smartphone is determined by the amount of power drawn by the screen, battery capacity and other components. Nvidia has also made some improvements so the 4i chip package can make components like screens more power-efficient without sacrificing display quality.

One of the biggest advancements in 4i is the integrated modem, while Nvidia's earlier chips had to be attached to a separate modem, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"I didn't expect to see the integrated baseband this quickly," McGregor said. "This puts them in the realm of selected companies with integrated modems."

For example, Qualcomm offers Snapdragon S4 chips with integrated modems. Integrating components makes chips faster and more power efficient.

A challenge for Nvidia could be finding buyers for the Tegra 4 chips, McGregor said. The number of third-pary chip buyers has shrunk as companies like Apple, Samsung, Huawei use internally designed chips in their devices. Up to 60 percent of the mobile chips used in devices are homegrown, McGregor said.

But the new Tegra 4i chip is impressive and Qualcomm's lead in the chip category could be challenged by Nvidia.

"They have emerged as a competitors," McGregor said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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