Nvidia goes after Intel with Tegra processors

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Nvidia jumped into the market for mobile Internet devices (MIDs) on Monday with the introduction of a processor family based on the Arm processor core.

Tegra will primarily compete against Intel, which released a chip platform called Centrino Atom in April. Atom is designed for MIDs, a general name for portable computers that can be used for Web access and other activities while being small enough for users to carry them around in a pocket.

“This is a complete computer on a chip. It’s got CPU, graphics, GPU, all the imaging and all the peripherals necessary to build a Mobile Internet Device,” said Michael Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia’s Mobile Business group.

“It’s aimed at devices that want ultra-long battery life, that want to do great Web browsing, great video, run your productivity tools but not be caught into a form-factor that looks like a PC,” he said.

Nvidia’s Tegra chip, at the center of this board that represents an entire PC on a 43-millimeter square circuit board. (Photo by Martyn Williams, IDGNS)
The Tegra line comprises three chips, including the 800MHz Tegra 650 and 700MHz Tegra 600. The lineup will also include the APX 2500, an Nvidia processor designed for cell phones and smartphones that was announced earlier this year.

The heart of the Tegra chips is an Arm11 processor core from Arm. The chips also include a GeForce graphics core, high-definition video decoder and other components, allowing them to perform functions normally carried out by several different chips.

Putting all of these capabilities in a single chip allows system makers to produce smaller devices and reduces the amount of power these devices consume, allowing longer battery life.

To illustrate how Tegra can save space, Nvidia showed an Eee PC from Asustek Computer with the motherboard removed and replaced with a Tegra-based board that measured 43 millimeters square. The only other component required for the computer to function was a battery.

The Arm processor core uses a different instruction set than x86 processors made by Intel. This means that software written for a PC or laptop cannot run an Arm-based computer. But Arm processors have long been used in mobile devices and generally consume far less power than x86 processors, making them ideal for small, portable devices.

Indeed, two of the most successful devices that fit Intel’s description of a MID are based on Arm processors: Apple’s iPod touch and Nokia’s N800.

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