Nvidia’s Biggest, Best Chance in Mobiles Is Now

tegra2

After trying get its chips in mobile devices for more than two years, Nvidia appears to be on the verge of success in both the hot smartphone and tablet markets. Leaked photos of a high-end handset from LG and rumors of an Nvidia-powered tablet from Motorola indicate the ARM-based Tegra 2 chip from Nvidia is finally finding its way into consumer products.

Engadget has exclusive pictures of the LG Star and reports it won’t have the hobbled performance of LG’s $30 Optimus line; instead, the dual-core Tegra 2 will shoot the Star to the high-end with the capability to record 1080p high-definition video. Also expected to use a Tegra 2, according to industry sources I’ve spoken with, is Motorola’s Motopad, a Google Android tablet likely to make an appearance at the next Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this coming January. Taiwan-based blog DigiTimes reiterates what I’ve heard, saying today that “Motorola is expected to take the initiative to launch Tegra 2 and Android (Honeycomb) tablet PCs in February-March 2011.”

Up to now, Microsoft was Nvidia’s biggest win in the mobile space: Microsoft’s  Zune HD music player debuted in September 2009 with an Nvidia Tegra APX 2600 chip powering the portable device. Nvidia then debuted it’s next-generation Tegra 2 chip, which impressed me at CES this year with its amazing graphics capabilities. But of the dozens of demonstration devices running on a Tegra 2 shown at that time, few actually appeared for sale in 2010.

Although not mobile, the Boxee Box (see our video first-look here), a small device that pairs a television set with a wide array of web-based media, was originally slated to use Nvidia’s Tegra 2. After a product delay in June, the Boxee Box switched to an Intel Atom processor in lieu of Nvidia’s chip because the Tegra 2 didn’t support all of the codecs Boxee wanted for its device at that time. What looked like the first big Tegra 2 win quickly eroded into a “thanks, but no thanks” loss. The situation reminded me of the old Charlie Brown cartoons where Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, but she then pulls it at the last second.

It’s clear to me that just like Charlie Brown, Nvidia won’t give up trying to get its chip in top-tier products, and for good reason. The number of mobile devices running on ARM-based chipsets such as the Tegra 2, Qualcomm Snapdragon, Texas Instruments OMAP, Apple A4, and Samsung Hummingbird is quickly growing; research firm In-Stat recently estimated that mobile processor sales will top 4 billion chips by 2014.

Rather than cede the market to the current incumbents, Nvidia hopes to convince device manufacturers that its chip is as good, if not better, than what competitors offer. From the demonstrations I’ve seen, I’d say Nvidia is right: it can compete in the mobile market if only someone would give it a chance. It looks like Motorola and LG are about to do just that, so we’ll soon know if Nvidia’s Tegra 2 gets a chance to kick the ball or if it ends up flat on its back.

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