Review Index:

CES 2011: NVIDIA Tegra 2 Phone and Project Denver Announced

Author: Josh Walrath
Manufacturer: NVIDIA

Console Quality and High-Perf ARM Processing

Console Quality Gaming

NVIDIA is in the console world, courtesy of Sony's failure to
predict how 3D graphics have evolved combined with the limitations of
the Cell processor and archticture.  NVIDIA was able to slip in with a
console optimized GeForce 7900 GPU, and the PS3 was given the ability to
compete with Microsoft and the XBox 360.  Here we are six years later
and NVIDIA is approaching the overall performance and capabilities of
that console GPU in a mobile, low power form.

While Tegra 2 will not have the raw horsepower to overcome the
Reality Synthesizer graphics chip on the PS3, it can at least run a lot
of the same code (albeit slower in the milliwatt range that Tegra 2 runs
in).  We were shown several current and upcoming gaming products that
run faster and better on the Tegra 2 than most current phones.

Angry birds was very fluid to watch, and it proved no problem to the
next generation hardware in the Optimus 2X.  Flash games also ran
without a problem, even PC based flash games which are available on the
internet.  It was a smooth and seamless experience, and I am not just
talking about gaming.  In all applications that NVIDIA showed off, the
phone was crisp and responsive.

3D gaming is still a new world for handheld gaming.  Though the PSP
and DS products from Sony and Nintendo have paved the way, we are now
looking at a widespread adoption which will overshadow anything that has
come before.  We have seen our first couple of handheld phone based 3D
games using both the id Rage Engine as well as the Epic Unreal 3
Engine.  With the Tegra 2 graphics, we should see a good increase in
performance and capabilities in the application of these engines to next
generation content.

Some of the 10 apps which were running on the phone at the same time.

Two examples we saw were again very impressive.  Trendy
Entertainment showed off their upcoming title "Dungeon Defender", which
is a multi-platform game focused on cooperative gameplay.  It was shown
off playing on the PC, the PS3, and the Optimus 2X.  Not only was the
game playing on all three platforms, but all three players were actually
playing together.  It was a bit of a trip to see a nicely rendered game
being played on all three platforms, and all of them working seamlessly
together to provide a good gaming experience to all three.  
Trying to finish one more round with your friends online in a game? 
Fire up the phone, get on the bus, go to work, and don't miss a beat
while smashing the competition.

Three platforms, one multi-player game.  A glimpse of the future?

The other impressive title was from Chillings (distributor of Angry
Birds).  "Soulcraft" is based on the Unreal 3 engine, and the amount of
shader and lighting effects which could be successfully run on a mobile
part was again pretty impressive.  This game is still looking early in
the development phase, but the engine demo was neat to watch.  While
certainly not matching what can be done on a modern desktop GPU, it is a
huge step in the direction of immersive handheld gaming.

NVIDIA and the Future of Processing

For ages there has been speculation that NVIDIA was going to enter
the x86 market.  Of course, the issues facing the company wanting to
compete against both Intel and AMD, all without a x86 license, are
nearly insurmountable.  Now we have finally gotten a peek at the truth
behind NVIDIA hiring as many processor designers as they have over the
past several years.

NVIDIA is now represented in nearly every level of the computing
market.  From hand held units, to laptops, to desktops, and now to the
high performance server (via Tesla), NVIDIA is well represented.  Now
that representation is going to change dramatically.

NVIDIA is developing a brand new Arm based processing core, in
conjunction with Arm Holdings.  This will not be a product developed by
Arm, and available to everyone else under license.  This core should be
unique to NVIDIA, and it could be a game changer.

Some months ago I had speculated that Arm is going to find their way
into newer, high performance markets.  Mainly I was consdering that Arm
is a logical choice for next generation consoles.  Consider the code
base that most developers are working in, with Arm being the predominant
computing platform for mobile applications.  Now scale the performance
(and power consumption) of an Arm product, in a quad core package, and
suddenly we have what is looking like a great console based CPU.  Still
lower power than comparable Power and x86 products, but able to perform
in the latest games.  Now scale that idea up to where we see a much
larger thermal envelope for a console chip, and that appears to be (at
least in the beginning) to what NVIDIA is attempting to do.

NVIDIA has a potential marketplace that could easily overshadow the actual shipments of giants such as Intel

The development costs of programming for multiple computing
environments is expensive.  Developing for x86, PowerPC, and separate
handheld chips leads to many problems.  That means longer design cycles
due to troubleshooting issues on the separate, distinct platforms. 
Consolidating development for at least consoles and handhelds into one
programming model should save most companies some money and manhours.

NVIDIA does not seem to be stopping there.  The aim is to create
processors which will not only run in consoles and handhelds, but also
higher performing tablets, notebooks, desktops and servers.  Microsoft
will soon announce that Windows will now be developed to run on Arm
processors.  This opens up a huge world of software and support, and
opens the way for another major processor developer to compete with
Intel and AMD in the desktop market and above.

Project Denver is the codename of this project, and it has been
underway for some years now.  There was obviously a lot of forethought
going on at NVIDIA, and to set this development into action was a major
seachange for NVIDIA.  We now see why NVIDIA has moved away from
chipsets, and has reassigned those people to SOC development in the
Tegra division.

NVIDIA is far from being toast.  While
many predicted that the company would eventually sell itself and its
portfolio to Intel, it now appears that NVIDIA is going to do fine for
itself.  It has seemingly succesfully transitioned from a graphics
company to a fully featured semiconductor developer addressing multiple
markets with distinct products.

With partners like the gaming companies,
Skype, Verizon, LG and others, NVIDIA is posed for a bit of a resurgence
from its nightmare that was most of 2009 through 2010.  Fermi delays
behind, and a seeming limitless market opening up for it on the mobile
side, 2011 could be the year NVIDIA makes a huge stride forward.