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Quad Core CPUs for Mobile Devices – Ups and Downs
NVIDIA decided to spur the market and show their rivals like Qualcomm some hard times. They released NVIDIA Tegra 2 in early 2011 and did not stop there. We have reviewed Tegra 2, its performance upsides and downsides on several occasions so I want to move on.
Over the last six months a lot has changed on the market and if initially NVIDIA Tegra 2 was positioned as flagship solution today you can buy a $300 tablet with Tegra 2 onboard. The market has shifted Tegra 2 into the mid-range segment and there are around 10 to 12 million devices (according to NVIDIA) with this chip. It’s a very impressive result for a neophyte fresh on the market. In 2011-2012 the popularity of Tegra 2 in phones and tablets will continue to grow. The next milestone for NVIDIA will be to improve the architecture to increase the life cycle of the chip set. However, they key product of the company for 2011-2012 will be NVIDIA Tegra 3 and the main feature of this chip set is the Kal-El processor. It will be one of the first quad core processors packed with a bunch of unique features.
Kal-El Project: Four is Better than Two
We are quite used to the quantitative growth of CPU clock and the number of cores. We take it for granted that processors get faster every year. Back when the first dual core CPUs hit the mobile market most users feared that the higher performance of two cores would dramatically reduce the battery life. Luckily it did not happen and dual core mobile devices have the same battery life as their single core counterparts. The battery life is affected a lot more by the screen, settings profile than by the CPU. So I believe that the upcoming quad and octocore (8 cores) CPUs will hardly have any effect on the battery life. However, NVidia is trying to prove me wrong with some studies. But right now I want to discuss the key feature of the Kal-El processor and that is its fifth core. Yep, that’s right – this CPU uses four primary cores and another detached one called CPU companion. The figure below explains it.
This SoC uses NVidia’s Variable Symmetric Multiprocessing (vSMP) patented technology. The basic principle is very simple: most of the CPU usage covers calls, messaging etc. not performance hungry games or HD video viewing. So most of the time there is no need for a high performance CPU and that’s where the companion CPU does his part. The chip set distributes the workload between the primary and the companion CPUs. Naturally, the companion CPU has a very limited clock for the sake of saving the juice.
The table illustrates that thanks to the lowered clock the companion CPU is a lot more power efficient. The chart below proves it.
Kal-El can also work with all the five cores simultaneously as the chart below illustrates.
In this case the companion CPU is used for routine tasks like apps running in the background, messaging, non HD video viewing etc. But as soon as more performance is required the primary CPU’s first core kicks in. Then if that’s still not enough the chipset enables all four cores of the primary CPU.
The idea is not new – we have already seen separate DSP like in old Nokia phones which had a separate music processor and it also helped increase the battery life time. NVidia has applied this idea differently. However, NVidia, unlike Qualcomm or TI, still does not have a SoC product that would also cover the radio module. Also, using Tegra 2 costs manufacturers more and is technically more complicated than using similar Qualcomm products. NVidia’s strong side is that the company offers new products earlier than rivals and finances game development for new CPUs. The Kal-El project is the company’s first step towards the future SoC that will cover not only the CPU and graphics but also the radio module.
NVidia is playing a hardball pushing the market with new high performance solutions at a rate no other manufacturer can. Besides Samsung there is no manufacturer that will be able to offer quad core CPUs in 2011. Other manufacturers like Qualcomm are falling behind in this race by months.
Performance and Power Consumption of Kal-El
Until first NVidia Tegra 3 products see the market we can only rely on the manufacturer’s data concerning the performance and the power consumption. There are no other quad core solutions on the market at the moment so we will put Kal-El up against the best of the dual core CPUs on the market. This might not be a valid test but it can give us an idea of how good Kal-El is.
The table below illustrates the performance as compared to NVidia Tegra 2 and it speaks for itself.
NVidia managed to gain some power efficiency in the test app by using only two cores.
The next chart is an impressive proof of Kal-El’s performance and power efficiency.
Naturally, in real life the Kal-El’s performance won’t be so impressive as there are a lot of other factors that affect the performance (OS version, phone’s specificity etc.).
A few more charts for bench geeks.
NVidia is trying to make the phone and tablet market play by their rules. So far the company has been only successful on the tablet market while on the phone market the company has not been doing so well as their partners LG and Motorola are not doing so well also. But I think as the company continues to raise the bar in terms of CPU performance and the products release rate they will surely have all te chances to take rivals’ positions on the market. NVidia has already won about 12 million units from them recently which is an excellent result for just a year. The company expects to sell 40 million chipsets in 2012. This and many more will be the topics we will be discussing with NVidia’s vice president Tony Tamasi.
If you want to learn more about Kal-El you can see these two NVidia’s press releases:
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Published 01 November 2011
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