Nvidia plans tablet market assault with Tegra 3

Nvidia's recent announcements point to a serious commitment to products based around ARM's low-power chip designs, but what exactly does the company have planned for the coming year?

While the most exciting news to come out of the graphics giant's headquarters recently was Project Denver, described by Nvidia chief Jen-Hsun Huang as "a high-performing ARM CPU core in combination with our massively parallel GPU cores" and designed for desktop and server use, the company's movement in the mobile sector is likely to show faster results.

When Nvidia launched its original Tegra system-on-chip, it found it difficult to interest OEMs into using the design over competing offerings from other ARM licensees including Qualcomm, Samsung, and Texas Instruments. Since then, however, the company has redesigned its platform - and is meeting with considerably more success.

The Tegra 2 platform, developed as part of the company's commitment to releasing a new SoC design every twelve months, has enjoyed a massive boost in popularity thanks to the sudden growth of the tablet market. Many of the tablet designs on show at the Consumer Electronics Show this year featured Nvidia's Tegra 2 platform, and the chip is even rumoured to be at the heart of Sony's upcoming PlayStation Portable 2.

Now, a slide claiming to form part of Nvidia's planned product announcements at the Mobile World Congress event next month points to the future for the company's mobile offerings. If the figures prove accurate, Nvidia is looking at launching some seriously powerful hardware by the end of the year.

The slide, leaked to news site Bright Side of News, shows two devices replacing the current Tegra 2 system-on-chip design. The first, the speed-tweaked Tegra 2 3D with in-built support for 3D displays, we've already discussed - but the second shows where Nvidia believes the tablet market is heading.

According to the slide's timeline, Nvidia will be launching Tegra 3, the true successor to the Tegra 2 platform, in the third quarter of this year - and it hopes to be the first to market with a quad-core mobile design.

Featuring an updated version of the Cortex-A9 design from British chip firm ARM that appeared in the Tegra 2 last year, the Tegra 3 T30 SoC doubles the number of cores and ups the speed to 1.5GHz. Whatever future tablets look like, it's clear that Nvidia thinks they're going to need some serious power.

The Tegra 3 T30 also claims a three-fold improvement in graphics performance - a necessity thanks to the claimed support for 1920 x 1200 displays. Support for greater-than-HD display resolutions means Nvidia's betting on tablets as media consumption devices - confirmed by the mention of support for Blu-ray playback.

While the T30 will clearly be the flagship product in Nvidia's Tegra 3 range, it's joined by a more sedate version for smartphones. The Tegra 3 AP30 will, according to the slide, be available in both dual-core and quad-core flavours, with a more modest display resolution of 1366 x 768 supported.

Speaking to THINQ, Nvidia's Bea Longworth was unable to verify the legitimacy of the slide, stating: "Officially, we don't comment on unannounced products."

However, Longworth did confirm that the release cycle described in the leak matches Nvidia's plans exactly: "We've been pretty clear in the past that one of the unique things Nvidia brings to the mobile industry is a PC-like cadence of technology releases.

"While the release schedule for new silicon architectures from our competitors has traditionally been eighteen to twenty four months, we committed some time ago to a twelve monthly release schedule to ensure we can deliver cutting-edge capabilities to device manufacturers."

That commitment to a rapid release cycle, which is reflected in the leaked slide, has lead to the graphics giant scoring some major wins in the market. Most recently, long-term ARM licensee Texas Instruments was forced to admit that it had been beaten to the punch by Nvidia's Tegra 2, which was the first dual-core processor for tablet devices to hit the market.

The admission, which was reported by CNET following the company's most recent earnings call, is a particularly embarrassing one given TI's experience in the market. While Nvidia has only been shipping ARM chips since 2008, TI licensed its first design in 1993.

With Nvidia looking to become the first company to ship a quad-core tablet processor, the future of mobile devices looks to get very interesting indeed - and the industry's old guard need to step up to the challenge or risk being thrust aside.