Bangalore: Nvidia Corp. names its so-called superchips after superheroes, using an oblique naming convention—Kal-El, Wayne, Logan, Stark, to name a few.
These quad-core, mobile systems on a chip will dramatically enhance the gaming and content consumption experience on tablets and smartphones, with their high performance and low battery consumption, according to the company, best known until a few year back for the graphics chips in personal computers.
The Kal-El chip, the first in the series, was demonstrated in February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and is already in mass production.
The first tablets fitted with the chip will be released by the fourth quarter of this year.
As the company gets ready to show off that and other shiny new stuff at the upcoming Computex event in Taipei, Nvidia’s Bangalore design centre, which did system verification work on the Kal-El chip, is preparing for more challenges.
Not only will it contribute to the next generation Wayne, to be out in 2012, the centre will lead the work on Logan, targeted for a 2013 release.
“We will be spearheading it. Up to 80% of the work will be done out of here,” said Sridhar Manthani, senior director, research and development, Nvidia, over the phone from Hong Kong, en route to Taipei.
Nvidia has design centres in Bangalore (400 personnel), Hyderabad (100) and Pune (600). While Bangalore and Hyderabad work on the chips, Pune develops software.
Ganesh Ramamoorthy, research director at research firm Gartner Inc., said he was not surprised by the development.
“In our assessment, in five years’ time, 70% of all chip design in the world will have an India contribution, either from captive design centres or third-party chip design services companies,” he said.
Currently, that contribution is around 35%, Ramamoorthy said. “Both captives and third-party companies have been around for a decade now, and they have graduated to a level where they are quite capable of undertaking even end-to-end chip design.”
Nvidia says its chips are not so much about where they are designed as about what they can do.
“We were the first to demonstrate quad-core in this space,” Manthani said. “We are at least six months ahead of the others.”
Rival Intel Corp. played a role in this, according to Bernhard Gleissner, vice-president of sales, EMEA and India.
“It’s funny how Intel sued us in 2008 on a chipset manufacturing licence issue, and inadvertently manoeuvred us into the mobile chip design space,” he said. Intel still does not have an active play in the space, although its new 3-D transistor technology, to feature on Ivy Bridge processors in 2012, hold much promise.
In 2006, Nvidia bought PortalPlayer, a company with “a lot of knowhow in producing technology for low-power consumption devices,” Gleissner said. “They were talking about milliwatts even then, when our chips were in the 200W range.”
Not that they foresaw the mobile revolution. “We couldn’t, at that time, but we aligned the company in this direction and we created a new metric—performance per watt. We are still fanatic about that.” In the mobile tablet and smartphone market, power hungry chips are taboo.
The acquisition had an India impact—PortalPlayer had about 70 engineers in Hyderabad.
After the tussle with Intel in 2008, Nvidia decided to exit the chipset business, said Gleissner, as the risks were too high.
“And so, we suddenly had 1,500 of our engineers on the parking lot. We said, hey, we have bought PortalPlayer, let us put these guys to design a mobile computing solution. That became Tegra.”
Today, Tegra-2 or T-20 is on some platforms such as the LG Optimus. Kal-El is the next generation chip, designated T-30, and the company says it’s five times faster than Tegra-2.
Nvidia’s Tegra revenue achieved the $100 million mark last quarter. “About 10-12 million units in two quarters,” said Gleissner.
Nvidia is known for its graphics chips or GPUs (graphics processing units). The firm uses off-the-shelf ARM Holdings Plc designs for its graphics and mobile chips.
Earlier this month, it reported revenue of $962 million for the first quarter of fiscal 2012, up 8.5% from the preceding quarter.
Nvidia and its partners launched the market’s first Android phones such as the Motorola Atrix 4G and the LG Optimus 2X.
The Android tablets include the Acer Iconia Tab A500, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, the Dell Streak, the LG Optimus Pad and G-Slate, and the Motorola Xoom.
The partnership between Samsung and Nvidia is seen as a key one in the Android tablet market. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Sony’s S1 and S2 projects will also use the Tegra 2.
As for Kal-El, “it has brought the big guys to our table,” said Gleissner, declining to reveal more. “Wait for Q4.”