The Tegra line has always seemed like a second-thought product for NVIDIA due to lack of the innovation we've come to expect from NVIDIA. Well, this may be because they were busy working on something extraordinary, and it's finally here. NVIDIA's latest addition to the Tegra line, the Tegra K1, was announced today at its CES 2014 event, and it's pretty impressive. Tegra K1 brings NVIDIA's custom CPU core named Denver as well as a GPU built on the Kepler architecture, which according to NVIDIA can even outperform the Xbox 360 and the PS3 and DX11 compatibility, all the while keeping a 5W TDP. The PowerVR GPUs Apple always uses in its SoCs were always the pinnacle of mobile GPU performance, but if NVIDIA's performance claims about Tegra K1 pan out, Apple's GPUs will be utterly blown out of the water.
Tegra K1 is, just like the Tegra 4, built on a 28nm process, which is pretty much the standard for modern SoCs, save for Intel's latest Atoms, which have already moved to 22nm. Hopefully the efficient 28nm process will keep the TDP at 5W or below, despite that beefy Kepler GPU.
NVIDIA's latest SoC will actually come out in two variants. One will have a Quad-core Cortex-A15 CPU with a 2.3GHz clock speed and the other, which will only be available later this year, will feature a dual-core configuration of NVIDIA's own Denver CPU core. 2.3GHz is actually the highest clock speed we've ever seen a Cortex-A15 run on, so performance should be superb. The dual-core Denver-toting variant has an unknown clock speed, but what's really important is that Denver is a) NVIDIA's first custom ARM CPU and b) one of the first CPUs that use the ARMv8 architecture and therefore support 64-bit processing. I'm very excited to see how Denver performs when it comes out, and the Quad-core Cortex-A15 @ 2.3GHz will be very impressive too. Also, NVIDIA says Tegra K1 will, like its predecessors, use the 4-PLUS-1 architecture, so there's going to be a single "shadow" CPU core for handling light tasks while using very little power. Whether it's going to be used with both the Quad-core A15s and the Dual-core Denvers, I don't know, but I suspect the dual-core Denver won't need the extra shadow core.
Perhaps the most interesting GPU we've ever seen on mobile is the Tegra K1's GPU. Considering how every previous Tegra GPU was based on a very old architecture and seldom topped benchmark charts, a jump to Kepler in one generation is quite satisfying. NVIDIA's Kepler GPU architecture was introduced last year and brought high performance and much better power efficiency to notebook and desktop GPUs, and even supercomputers, but NVIDIA has now achieved the impressive feat of bringing this architecture to the ultra-mobile space. The Tegra K1's GPU uses one full Kepler SMX, which is 192 unified shader units (or as NVIDIA calls it, cores). That's much more shading units that any mobile GPU has ever packed (for instance, Apple's A7's GPU had 128 shader units). NVIDIA claims that this GPU can even outperform both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. According to our calculations, it can, at 950MHz at least. At this clock speed, this GPU would have 365 GFLOPS of power, which is much more than the Xbox 360's 240 GFLOPS GPU and the PS3's 230 GFLOPS. I don't know whether NVIDIA's 5W TDP claim account for the GPU at 950MHz, but if it does (and it might, given how power efficient Kepler is), I pity NVIDIA's SoC competitors. For the record, to match the Xbox 360's performance, the Tegra K1's GPU would have to be clocked at 625MHz, which is actually lower than the Tegra 4's GPU clock. At the rather standard GPU clock speed for many mobile GPUs, 500MHz, the Tegra K1 can achieve 192 GFLOPS of peak theoretical performance, which is more than all of its competitors have reached. Of course, there are theoretical calculations, and we'll have to wait for a device running the Tegra K1 to be released to test whether its performance (vs its power consumption) is as good as it sounds.
The Tegra K1 GPU also touts DirectX 11 compatibility, and will probably also support OpenGL ES 3.0. NVIDIA showed us a demo of a Tegra K1 running a game simulation with the DX11-based Unreal Engine 4, and it just looked fantastic. Far ahead of anything we've ever seen on a mobile device. This is probably the first time when a mobile GPU's capability can really be called console-quality (almost every mobile GPU vendor makes that claim every year). While the GPUs on Tegras 2, 3 and 4 were a bit disappointing, Tegra K1 is exactly the innovation I was always expecting from NVIDIA in the ultra-mobile space.
NVIDIA has, for the first time, come up with a mobile SoC that really pushes the boundaries of mobile processing. Its Denver cores will probably rival, if not outperform, the Apple A7's performance, and its 192-core Kepler GPU is downright amazing. Wrap that up with a 5W TDP, and you have just about the most impressive SoC to date. Now all NVIDIA has to do is ensure it can get OEMs to release devices using the Tegra K1, and before the competition catches up. Tegra 4's time-to-market wasn't bad, but the adoption of its last SoC wasn't very widespread, and Qualcomm's SoCs simply trumped the Tegra 4 in terms of OEM adoption. Hopefully NVIDIA will try to change that with the Tegra K1, maybe by releasing a Tegra K1 with an integrated Icera modem to attempt to find its way into LTE-enabled smartphones. For the first time NVIDIA has industry leading performance (previously Qualcomm held that title), so now it only needs to attract OEMs to use this fine silicon on their devices.