Phil Carmack, SVP of NVIDIA’s Mobile Business Unit, holding a (real) KAL-EL chip

[MWC] If you thought that Tegra 2 was fast, think again. We’ve got a bit more details about NVIDIA’s Project KAL-EL, also referred to as Tegra 3 before. Just to avoid confusion: KAL-EL is the internal codename for the next Tegra product, while “Tegra 3” might (or might not) be the commercial name of the product (btw, KAL-EL is given name of Superman on Krypton). A little bit of info has been disclosed before today: KAL-EL/Tegra 3 is a quad-core chip, with a GPU that is 3X faster than Tegra 2. The overall performance is estimated to be in the 5X range by NVIDIA.

What’s new?

First of all, NVIDIA has had working silicon for the past 12 days, and it is sampling* now – just when competitors have announced that they will be sampling either in the summer (FreeScale), or late this year (Qualcomm). That’s a huge lead if you take into account that NVIDIA is on a 12-month chip cycle. Secondly, we have seen the chip in action, and that’s when things did get truly interesting.

(*sampling means producing chips in very limited quantities to satisfy the demand from internal developers, and partners – engineering evaluation and validation is still going on  at that point)


Ready for Extreme HD

Extreme HD means 2560×1600 pixels. That’s the type of resolution that can be found on 30″ computer monitors. NVIDIA believes that sooner or later, devices like tablets will use such a resolution, simply because that’s what your eyes can perceive (btw, the iPad 2 might have such a display). We have seen KAL-EL run an Extreme HD video with a bitrate of about 50Mbps without any hiccups. That’s very impressive in a time where many chipmakers boast about being able to decode 1080p streams at 5 or 6Mbps.

Massive GPU Performance Increase

Bottom: Tegra 2, Top: KAL-EL – guess which one is *much* faster… (and yes, the Tegra 2 dev machine display has a funky viewing angle)

NVIDIA has shown us two games. Unfortunately, the developer of the first asked us to not mention any information or images, except for the performance increase: about 2X (the game looked really good). The second game, Great Battles Medieval, features a battlefield with 650 characters, all using skeletal animation and skinning (they also wore different outfits etc… making it difficult to optimize the rendering). It was running about 2.5X faster and showed that the next Tegra can handle very complex scenes that challenge today’s fastest mobile graphics… Tegra 2. The performance increase is real – and it should get better as the software teams work on the drivers. NVIDIA still has a lot of time before the public actually gets KAL-EL based products.

Lower Power Consumption

From our review of the LG Optimus 2X, we noticed that Tegra is competitive, although not “out of this world” in terms of power savings. With such an increase in processing power, the natural reaction is to wonder if KAL-EL will consume much more power. It does not. NVIDIA knows that power efficiency is a critical component of success, so Phil Carmack (the leader of NVIDIA’s mobile efforts) was very clear when he said: “KAL-EL will be more power efficient than Tegra 2 at any given task”. It’s clear that power efficiency is something that is high on the key performance indicators list for every NVIDIA mobile project.

CPU Processing Speed

NVIDIA has demonstrated CoreMark, a CPU performance benchmark (for many platforms) in which KAL-EL is faster than a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo. It’s very impressive because most people don’t associate that level of CPU performance with a mobile product. Also, there are quite a lot of Core 2 Duo computers in circulation, starting with my Macbook Air. You can now run the benchmark and know if KAL-EL is faster than your PC ;) – image courtesy of NVIDIA

The most obvious impact of this level of performance for mobile devices is that Web Browsing, Javascript and Flash should (finally) reach a level that feels closer or equal to classic computers. If things continue like this, we might stop hearing about a “full web experience”, and actually experience it on tablets and phones. Games are also another obvious target for immediate usage of this computing power, but just like it was the case on computers, many (if not all) types of apps will benefit from a speed increase.


This demo of an actual chip is very interesting because we can get a good feel for what’s coming in 2011, and we can see that NVIDIA was serious when it said that “Tegra 3” (the KAL-EL architecture) would be about 5X faster than Tegra 2. It also shows how fast NVIDIA can design new chips that bring a significant (huge?) performance improvements. Finally, the binary backwards compatibility with Tegra 2 allows NVIDIA, developers and partners to quickly ramp up the software effort – this is yet another critical step in getting products to market faster.

In one word: impressive.

PS: Availability: August for Tablets, end of 2011 for phones.
PS: NVIDIA will demonstrate it again tomorrow at its MWC booth.

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