Nvidia Races Past Intel (Yes, Intel!) With Quad-Core Chip

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Nvidia is currently demonstrating a quad-core mobile device chip at the Mobile World Congress (MWC), and by one benchmarking standard, the new chip is faster than an Intel 2-GHz Core2Duo computer processor. Currently dubbed Kal-El, the chip will likely be known as the Tegra 3 processor when it begins shipping to device manufacturers in August of this year, which is ahead of competing chips from Qualcomm and others. Regardless of which mobile chip designer wins the race to offer a mobile chip with four application processors, this news is another blow to Intel, which just lost a fair amount of software support from Nokia’s decision to partner with Microsoft.

While such a benchmark test is only one artificial indicator of chip performance — device speed is also influenced by memory, operating system and other factors — this news from Nvidia has to rile Intel. The company sold off its Xscale mobile chip division just prior to the smartphone revolution, which is now looking like a strategic mis-step. And in fairness to Intel, the new Nvidia chip is being compared to an Intel processor that launched in 2006; Intel has made positive strides to optimize its silicon for mobile devices since then but is still shut out of the mobile handset space. Even when you remove company names from the scenario, the benchmark test illustrates just how powerful mobile processors are becoming when they can offer performance similar to that of a laptop from just a handful of years ago.

Indeed, that theme sets the stage for mobile devices with even greater capabilities than what’s being shown at the current MWC event. Earlier this week, my colleague Stacey noted what advances we can expect from multi-core processors in mobiles: greater processing prowess for apps, yes, but also support for more cameras, both high-definition and 3-D, and improved gesture interfaces. More cores also helps speed up browsing, as Nvidia demonstrates in this video by enabling all four cores in Kal-El on an Android reference device:

Even as the current Tegra 2 impresses and is powering numerous new smartphones and tablets, Nvidia is packing their next new chip with 12 graphics cores. The company’s roadmap suggests new chips annually, with up to a 75x boost in performance over the current Tegra 2 by 2014. Indeed, the new Kal-El chip demonstrated 1440p video playback on a 2560×1600 resolution display, continuing my thought that mobile devices will slowly become the home set-top box for video entertainment and possibly even for gaming.

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