CES 2012: Nvidia talks Tegra 3 and tablets

At its CES press conference today, Nvidia focused almost exclusively on tablets including the announcement of an Asus 7-inch tablet with a quad-core processor and Android 4.0 for $249 and a demo of a Tegra 3 tablet running Windows 8.

Today there are two Nvidias. There's the company known for its GeForce graphics processors used for gaming, and increasingly for GPU computing applications. Then there is the mobile computing company known for cramming more cores into its Tegra application processors.

At its CES press conference today, Nvidia focused exclusively on the latter--in fact, CEO Jen-Hsun Huang never even mentioned the company's upcoming 28nm Kepler GPUs, even though rival AMD will ship its first Radeon 7000 series GPUs this week. But the press conference wasn't without news; highlights included the announcement of an Asus 7-inch tablet with Tegra 3 and Android 4.0 that will cost $249 and a demo of a Tegra 3 tablet running Windows 8.

Huang began by talking about tablets. He noted that the tablet has become the fastest-growing consumer electronics device in history with sales growing from 20 million in the first year to more than 60 million last year. "At this point, it is relatively clear that category is going to continue to grow and evolve," Huang said. "It is going to be a very large industry."

But it won't all be Apple iPads. Just as people have a lot of choice in cars, there will be a lot of choice in tablets as well, he said. The problem is that last year, when the industry released the first Android tablets, the market became fragmented--Honeycomb essentially became an ecosystem of its own. But Huang said that Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich, has now solved that problem delivering one Android for all types of devices.

To illustrate this, Huang gave a demonstration of an Asus Transformer Prime convertible running Ice Cream Sandwich including popular apps such as Fandango and Nik Software's Snapseed (already the number one app on iPad, according to Huang). Manuel Wille, Senior VP of Engineering at Nik Software, showed how you can use Snapseed to apply Photoshop-like effects using only touch input and they are applied immediately because the app is using GPU hardware acceleration.

Games are another big category of apps and Nvidia has developed its own store, Nvidia Tegra Zone, to promote and distribute them. On the Transformer Prime tablet, he gave demos of Riptide GP, a graphical jet ski racing game, and ShadowGun, a multi-player first-person shooter, at high-definition resolution running at 60 frames per second.

Splashtop THD is another popular iPad app for remotely accessing a PC. The problem with many of these remote-access programs, he said, is that the resolution is often low and it isn't very responsive. Huang showed how Splashtop can remotely access a desktop PC at a higher resolution and "treat it like a server" playing iTunes content and watching videos on the tablet. "Everything just works," he said. For a bigger challenge, he then used the tablet to play Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim-a graphics-intensive DirectX 11 game--streaming over Splashtop.

Huang announced that the Transformer Prime will be available with Ice Cream Sandwich starting today, which had been expected. Asus CEO Jerry Shen then came onstage to the new 7-inch tablet with Tegra 3 and Ice Cream Sandwich, which he said will be priced at $249. At that price the new tablet will rival products such as the Amazon Fire and Nook Tablet that do not offer the same performance or features.

Huang talked about the new tablet technologies that Nvidia has developed including the Tegra 3's companion core for longer battery life and PRISM display technology that preserves color fidelity when diming the backlight to save battery life. The news was DirectTouch, which does the analog-to-digital conversion of touch input directly in the processor, rather than in a separate touch controller that costs more and consumes power. DirectTouch can also process three times the number of samples per second of a separate touch controller, Huang said, resulting in a more responsive user experience.

In addition to Ice Cream Sandwich, Tegra 3 is also designed for Windows 8. Huang said that Windows 8 would usher in a whole new class of mobile devices. Microsoft's Aidan Marcuss gave a demo of a Tegra 3 developer platform running the latest build of Windows 8 including features such as connected standby; Picture Password to login to Windows; the Start menu, which has the Metro-style user interface; and the Microsoft Store. Marcuss also showed a Metro-style app written in HTML5 that, he said, leverages all of the cores in Tegra 3.