GTC 2013: Nvidia doubles down on mobile

Nvidia has broadened its portfolio, stepped up product development, and bet everything on a version of Tegra with integrated 4G LTE wireless in a bid to become more competitive in the cut-throat mobile chip business.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Nvidia's original strategy to break into the cut-throat mobile business was simple. Already known for its powerful GPUs, the company built the most powerful chip it could, and waited for a hit product to come along. There were some moderate successes, but Honeycomb tablets were a dud and Windows RT has so far been a disappointment. Furthermore, the lack of a 4G long-term evolution (LTE) modem left it shut out of the phone business.

So Nvidia has refined its mobile strategy. Performance is still part of the plan, but rather than focusing on one high-end chip at a time, the company has broadened its product line and already started work on future generations. More importantly, it has put all of its efforts behind a version of Tegra with an integrated 4G LTE modem, the fruits of the Icera acquisition in 2011.

The previous generation consisted solely of the Tegra 3, a Cortex-A9 quad-core with a fifth "battery-saving" core. The current Tegra line, however, is broader. It includes the Tegra 4 application processor, i500 multi-mode LTE modem, and Tegra 4i with integrated LTE.

Tegra 4, which has four Cortex-A15 cores and a battery-saving core, came out a little later than expected and Nvidia missed out on some tablets, but it is in production now on TSMC's new 28nm HPM (high-performance mobile) process. The i500 is also in production and Nvidia claims it is the only non-Qualcomm modem certified for AT&T's LTE network. At Mobile World Congress (MWC), Nvidia announced the Tegra 4i, which has four updated Cortex-A9 cores and an integrated LTE modem based on the i500. It is currently sampling to early customers and will be in production in late 2013 — also on TSMC's 28nm HPM process.

Nvidia has also started to work on future generations. In addition to the Tegra 4 team, there are teams already working on Logan, the company's first mobile processor with a full-blown Kepler GPU, due in 2014; and Parker, which will have a next-generation Maxwell GPU and is slated for 2015.

All of this represents a big bet on mobile. This year, Nvidia expects to invest about $1 billion in its core GPU business and another $600 million on mobile. But the broader product line and faster development cycles should enable it to better compete with Qualcomm and Samsung, and to get its chips into more devices.

At its GPU Technology Conference this week, Nvidia did not want to talk design wins, but in a session for analysts, CEO Jen-Hsun Huang did say that it has more on Tegra 4 than it had on the previous generation at the same point in time. This is likely to include more low-cost tablets. The Kai platform, with Tegra 3, was the basis for the popular Nexus 7, and Huang hinted that it will push even deeper in this direction. "My sense is that every human will have a tablet and what new need to do is figure out how to build tablets that are great one the one hand and also very affordable," he said.

Tegra 3 is also at the heart of the Microsoft Surface tablet and Huang was frank about the state of Windows RT. "Windows RT is disappointing to us because we expected to have sold more than we did," he said. Despite the slow start, he said, Microsoft will ultimately get it right because ARM and Windows RT are so important. An ARM version of Microsoft Outlook wouldn't hurt either. "If Outlook were to show up on Windows RT, my life would be complete," he said. (It does look like many of the built-in apps will get updates soon, but the status of Outlook on Windows RT is less clear.)

The phone business will take longer to develop because of the lengthy certification process at wireless carriers. Nvidia claimed that the Tegra 4i chip is about half the size of competing solutions with integrated LTE, and said it has generated lots of early interest from customers. It expects it to show up in smartphones in early 2014.

Finally, there's Project Shield. After the launch at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Nvidia downplayed Project Shield a bit at this week's show. The Android-based gaming device was available to test out in the exhibit hall — and it worked fine with both local games and games streamed from a PC — but the company is still making changes to both the hardware and software. For example, it is tweaking the design of the buttons to make them more responsive. Nvidia is still hoping to have Project Shield available in by the end of the second quarter, but it is keeping expectations in check. It is unlikely to sell in huge numbers, but the real purpose of Project Shield is to showcase Tegra 4 and the Tegra Zone games optimized for its GeForce graphics.

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