Summary:

Nvidia took a big step toward becoming a complete smartphone silicon vendor, announcing today AT&T has validated Nvidia’s new LTE chipset for its 4G network. The news paves the way for Nvidia’s first LTE phone, but competitor Qualcomm still has one key advantage.

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Updated. Nvidia took a big step toward becoming a complete smartphone silicon vendor, announcing today AT&T has validated the vendor’s new LTE chipset for its 4G network. The news paves the way to Nvidia’s first LTE phone or tablet, but the chipmaker has yet to fully integrate its radio chips with its applications processor. That leaves it at a disadvantage in the mobile silicon market.

Nvidia acquired baseband modem maker Icera only a year ago, so it’s by no means slacking off. The company has continued to sell the processor and baseband lines as separate components, and in February it revealed its first combo deal, supplying both the Tegra 2 processor and HSPA+ radio for ZTE’s new Mimosa X smartphone.

But Nvidia also missed out on some key wins as well. While it’s supplying its Tegra 3 processor for the global HSPA+ version of HTC’s new flagship phone, the One X, Nvidia was absent from the U.S. launch of the device with AT&T. Tegra simply wasn’t compatible with LTE radios. Instead, HTC went with Qualcomm’sSnapdragon S4 system on a chip (SoC), which integrates both the 3G/4G radios and the processor on the same silicon. HTC is now taking that AT&T variant global – complete with Qualcomm guts – and selling it to other LTE carriers.

In fact, Qualcomm has been landing a lot of wins for its S4 combo chip of late. It may not have yet have the quadruple cores of Nvidia’s Tegra 3, but its dual-core Krait architecture is nothing to scoff at. What’s more, Qualcomm’s integrated silicon cuts down on power consumption. That’s a key selling point for any 4G device, given LTE’s notorious battery life problems.

We’ve asked Nvidia if the validation of its LTE chip with AT&T now means its 4G support problems are over – just because it has an LTE chip doesn’t mean its processors will cooperate with it. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear back.

Update: We heard back from Nvidia. A spokesman explained that Tegra 3 can work with other vendors’ radio chipsets — it’s signed integration deals with GCT Semiconductor and Renesas Mobile — but Qualcomm’s baseband doesn’t play nice with Nvidia processors. Given that Qualcomm currently dominates the LTE radio market, Nvidia doesn’t have much competitive recourse. Getting it’s own LTE modem to market was therefore a big imperative, allowing it to challenge not only Qualcomm’s dominance in radio silicon, but clear an LTE path for its applications chips. “We’re looking forward to having Tegra 3 LTE devices in the market soon,” the spokesman said via e-mail.

If Now that Tegra is capable of playing nice with Nvidia’s own and others’ 4G modems, Nvidia will be able to sell its complete lineup in the emerging, yet quickly growing, LTE device market. That market is of vital importance because the new high-end smartphones Tegra targets are all headed in LTE’s direction – especially here in North America. To truly reach parity with Qualcomm, though, Nvidia needs to start printing Icera modems and Tegra processors on the same wafers. We’ll have to wait until next year before we see start seeing products using its first integrated chips.

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