Nvidia Tegra 3: what you need to know

Tegra 3
Tegra 3 is one of the first quad-core ARM chips to launch

Nvidia has lifted the lid on its new quad-core processor for tablets and smartphones – Tegra 3.

"Our next-generation Tegra processor is widely known as the world's first quad-core mobile chip," said Nvidia's senior product manager Matt Wuebbling.

Nvidia is launching the chip at the same time as Asus is announcing the Tegra 3-toting Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime, but it's by no means alone in the quad-core stakes.

We've known that quad-core ARM-based processors have been on the horizon for some time and we'll hear a lot more about them from other ARM partners such as Qualcomm, with its Snapdragon S4.

But wait, aren't there five cores in the picture below? Yes. But you'll have to read on to find out more about that.

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Tegra 3 specs

Tegra 3 is based on the ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore microarchitecture and the four cores can run at speeds up to 1.3GHz.

The chip is manufacturerd by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) using a 40nm process.

The new chip improves over Tegra 2 in all areas with improved processing, graphics, memory bandwidth, video and audio support.

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Tegra 3 performance

Tegra 3 has five times the raw performance of Tegra 2, a remarkable improvement that's set to carry on through the different generations of Tegra – check out Nvidia's roadmap below.

That means there's some serious performance to come from Tegra over the next few years.

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Tegra 3 has a "stealth" fifth core

Yep, you heard us right. Tegra 3's little-known fifth core was first detailed in September. The core has what Nvidia calls a Variable SMP architecture – the SMP stands for Symmetrical Multiprocessing. You were wondering, weren't you.

Nvidia tegra 3

This "companion core" runs at a lower frequency and operates at low power.

Nvidia says the Variable SMP architecture is completely OS transparent, which means that operating systems and applications don't need to be redesigned to take advantage of the fifth core.

So whether the chip is powering Android 4.0 or Windows 8, each OS will not need any code written into it.

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Tegra 3 cores power down

"During less power-hungry tasks like web reading, music playback and video playback, Kal-El completely powers down its four performance-tuned cores and instead uses its fifth companion core," explained Wuebbling in a September blog post.

"For higher performance tasks, Kal-El disables its companion core and turns on its four performance cores, one at a time, as the work load increases."

It's worth noting that the chip won't use five cores at once; it can only use either the four main cores or the single vSMP core.

Nnvdia says quad-core Tegra 3 uses less power than dual-core processors "across all performance points".

Tegra 3 tablets and phones

We were surprised that the recent Motorola Xoom 2 plumped for a dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP processor, but we're not having to wait too long for a Tegra 3 quad-core tablet - the much rumoured Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime has been officially announced this morning.

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Tegra 3 graphics power

Tegra 3 includes a brand-new 12-core GPU that delivers up to three times the graphics performance of Tegra 2 and supports up to a 2,560 × 1,600 resolution. There's also support for 3D stereo.

Compared to Tegra 3, there's a lot more scope for realistic effects in games giving a more PC-like gaming experience.

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Tegra 3 gaming

Nvidia says there are over 15 Tegra 3 capable games in development, while there will be over 40 games available on Android via the Tegra Zone app at the end of 2011.

Here are some demo grabs that Nvidia used to show the graphical capabilities of Tegra 3.

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Nvidia tegra 3

Nvidia tegra 3

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Tegra 3 web and apps

Tegra 3 offers significant improvements in Javascript and Flash performance over Tegra 2 and many of the other chips on the market, but beware - these stats aren't really comparable as the other chips are all dual-core.

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Likewise these app benchmarks are also against dual-core processors.

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Tegra 3 controller support and mirroring

You can connect many types of controller to your tablet and you can hook it up to your 1080p HD TV for a mirrored display. You can even navigate through Android menus with the controller.

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Tegra 3 3D

Providing you have a 3D TV compatible with HDMI 1.4 or above you can watch and play in 3D using Nvidia's 3D Vision tech.

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Dan (Twitter, Google+) is TechRadar's Former Deputy Editor and is now in charge at our sister site T3.com. Covering all things computing, internet and mobile he's a seasoned regular at major tech shows such as CES, IFA and Mobile World Congress. Dan has also been a tech expert for many outlets including BBC Radio 4, 5Live and the World Service, The Sun and ITV News.