What You Need To Know About Tegra 3 [MakeUseOf Explains]

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If you’ve considered an Android tablet recently, there’s a good chance that it was powered by a Tegra 2 processor. Most of the tablets on the market using (relatively) stock versions of Honeycomb are powered by it, with only some of the smaller tablets, like the Kindle Fire, going elsewhere.

Nvidia is not content to sit on its hands with Tegra, however. They’ve now developed a new system-on-a-chip (SoC), called Tegra 3, which will debut in Android tablets this holiday season. It will most likely become the dominant Android tablet processor – so what’s new?

Going Quad…ish

Mobile SoC processors seem to be following the path laid out by their more powerful x86 brethren in the last decade. Instead of trying to aim for higher and higher clock speeds, parallelization – running multiple software threads simultaneously on multiple processors cores – is the name of the game.

As such, Nvidia designed Tegra 3 from the ground up as a quad-core architecture, but even this is not the full story, because there are actually five functional cores available in Tegra 3.

Four of the cores are identical, but the fifth – which Nvidia is calling the companion core – is different. This is a single core that is limited to 500 MHz and built using low-power transistors. The idea behind the companion core is that, when a Tegra 3 powered device is doing something that is not demanding (say, playing a podcast), all four of the standard cores can go completely offline. However, the companion core can’t operate along with the standard cores, so this remains a quad-core processor.

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All The Numbers Go Up

Besides an increase in the number of cores (Tegra 2 was dual-core), there’s also an increase in the maximum clock speed and the number of graphics cores.

The maximum clock speed is now 1.4 GHz for a single core, or 1.3 GHz for all cores. But don’t assume that this means any Tegra 3 device you buy will function that way. Tegra 2 has a maximum of 1.2 GHz, but the majority of devices using it ship at 1 GHz.

SoC designs are about more than just CPU performance, however. They also include the graphics component, and here more improvements have been made. While the previous version offered 8 graphics cores, the new version offers 12. Nvidia also claims to have smoothed execution of code, creating higher per-clock performance for these cores.

As a result, Tegra 3 offers about twice the graphics performance of its predecessor. Nvidia is going so far as to call it a “true mobile console” that can be hooked up to a HDTV via HDMI and provide graphics on par with the current generation of console hardware.

Devices Incoming

Tablets are the primary target of Tegra 3, and devices with them will be hitting store shelves over the holidays. So far ASUS and Lenovo have confirmed they are finalizing their new tablets with plans to launch in late November or early December, and Acer appears to have one in the works, as well.

CES 2012, which occurs in January of next year, will no doubt be when the main thrust of new tablet announcements occurs. It’s a good bet that anyone currently producing an Android tablet with Tegra 2 will also end up making a tablet with Tegra 3.

Don’t think that Tegra 2 is just going to disappear overnight, however. Early indications are that the first new products using Tegra 3 will be priced at a premium (about $600) and that Tegra 2 tablets will, for a time, be sold at a lower price point.

Conclusion

Nvidia’s latest mobile architecture will be a great leap forward in performance, so if you’re currently in the market for a tablet, you may want to wait until these products becomes available – if for no other reason than to read the reviews, and make sure you aren’t missing out.

If you have any question about the architecture, or want to share any rumors you’ve heard about upcoming tablets, please post in the comments.

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