Summary:

Despite being late to the market, Nvidia is showing it can keep up with the latest technological advances in LTE technology. But like it’s exaggeration-prone competitors, Nvidia is falsely labeling its chip “LTE-Advanced.”

Nvidia Tegra 4i phone
photo: Nvidia

Nvidia’s first integrated smartphone chip won’t just have the latest and greatest Tegra processor; it will support some impressive LTE connection speeds as well. Nvidia has upgraded the radio of its forthcoming Tegra 4i to support download speeds of 150 Mbps, capabilities it began demoing at CTIA Wireless in Las Vegas this week.

Nvidia is showing that even though it’s new to the radio silicon market, it’s keeping up with the technical prowess of the competition. The 150 Mbps benchmark is the most cutting edge LTE device currently available (in industry parlance it’s know as category 4 LTE), meaning the Tegra 4i can go head-to-head to with the superchips designed by Qualcomm, Broadcom and Altair Semiconductor.

Nvidia CTIA Tegra 4i demo

Nvidia’s 150 Mbps demo at CTIA Wireless

But also like its competitors, Nvidia is been playing fast and loose with its marketing. It’s calling its modem “LTE-Advanced,” a benchmark no chipmaker in the industry is even close to matching. These chips are still 150 Mbps shy of meeting even the most minimal definition of LTE-Advanced. Nvidia and its peers are clearly abusing the term.

Nvidia has long made powerful applications and graphics processors for smartphones and tablets, but its momentum in the market has always been hampered by its lack of an integrated processor-modem. Integrated chips take up less space, draw less power and are generally cheaper, making it difficult for Nvidia to compete against mobile silicon giant Qualcomm in everything but the highest tier of the smartphone market.

Nvidia rectified the situation in 2011 by purchasing software defined wireless radio maker Icera. It gained an impressive modem to match its impressive multimedia processor, but it still needed to spend two years integrating the two into a single tight package. The Tegra 4i was the result.

When Nvidia first announced the chip back in February, however, it appeared that Nvidia was still having trouble keeping up with the competition. It’s processor was cutting edge, but the LTE modem was still an iteration behind – using category 3 LTE — making it a third slower than the other chips then hitting the market. Nvidia said it was able to rectify that quickly by utilizing Icera’s software defined radio architecture: it upgraded to category 4 with a simple firmware update.

Networks that support category 4 speeds don’t yet exist, though we could start seeing in them appear in the next year or two. That timing, though, works out well since Nvidia and other silicon vendors won’t have their superchips ready for commercial devices until late 2013 or early 2014. In the meantime, Nvidia is demoing Tegra 4i’s 150 Mbps throughput at CTIA over a simulated network, not a real one.

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