Can nVidia’s Tegra Chip Smash Atom?

After four acquisitions in the mobile computing space, nVidia today announced the end result of those purchases, the Tegra line of multicore chips for ultramobile PCs, mobile Internet devices and smart phones.

The Tegra 650 and 600 processors combine an ARM processor, a GPU based on nVidia (NASDAQ: NVDA) technology, a media processor, a system memory controller and peripheral controller all in one ultralow power chip that is smaller than a U.S. dime.

nVidia’s mobile buying spree has netted the company MediaQ, Pace Software, Hybrid Graphics and PortalPlayer, which did the chipsets in the first five generations of iPods. This gave the company a starting point and the expertise to go after the ultralow power handheld market, rather than take one of its enormous GPUs, which require more cooling than a CPU, and shrink it down.

“We’ve built Tegra from zero watts up, rather than shrinking an existing design,” Mike Rayfield, general manager of the mobile business unit at nVidia told “By doing that, we think we’ve built the most efficient design on the planet.”

It certainly has an edge on Intel’s (NASDAQ: INTC) much-hyped Atom embedded processor when it comes to power draw. Tegra draws around 100 milliwatts of power, compared to the 0.6 to 2 watt draw of Atom.

Even the next generation of Atom, codenamed Moorestown, is still measured in watts, as opposed to milliwatts, which is problematic for phones, said Roger Kay, president of market research firm Endpoint Technologies.

“When Intel says four to six hours is good enough for most people, they can’t be talking about a phone. It’s got to be able to run in standby mode for four to six days,” he said.

Nearly a day of Web browsing

Rayfield said the Tegra supports up to 22 hours of Web browsing from a handheld devices, compared with four hours on an Atom-based system, and can do up to 26 hours of high definition video playback, compared with four hours of standard definition playback on Atom.

In addition to the video playback, the Tegra can handle up to 130 hours of audio playback, is optimized for HD image and video processing and supports 1080p HDMI, WSXGA+ LCD and CRT, and NTSC/PAL TV-Out output. It also has support for Wi-Fi, disk drives, keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals.

While Atom is targeted mostly at so-called Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPC)s, nVidia has its eyes on both the UMPC/MID (Mobile Internet Device) market and smart phones, where the iPhone has proven very popular for non-phone calling uses. Count Rayfield as an iPhone fan.

“iPhone is the benchmark for portable entertainment devices, designed from the ground up for great music and great video,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of that device because it has fundamentally raised the bar of what people can do with a handheld device, and very few people can do it properly, one of which is nVidia. So I’m the biggest fan of that thing for someone who has no silicon in it.”

nVidia has worked with Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) to optimize Windows CE and Windows Mobile for the Tegra. Rayfield said to expect design wins coming out of Taiwan this week, with the first Tegra-based devices available in stores this fall.

Kay said the MID/smartphone market is still pretty new, and nVidia not only can play in it, it has some advantages. “nVidia has one pretty good advantage in that they are used to working with a high number of cores,” he said. “Working with 128 cores is no big deal for them. While Intel is ramping up in multi-core, nVidia is already well positioned there.

“I can’t say nVidia is better positioned than anyone else, but they certainly are strongly positioned to win,” Kay added.

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