Nvidia is in the process of acquiring ARM, which made us think of the time when the company, which is best known for its GPUs, was actually a major player in the smartphone market. Here are Tegra chipsets’ greatest hits.
Two of the first Tegra-powered phones were the Microsoft Kin One and Two, which we’ve covered in a previous Flashback. Unfortunately, that chipset proved quite under-powered for the kind of UI that Microsoft wanted to run. But that was an early single-core chip.
The Motorola Atrix came out around the same time and also used this chipset. Paired with 1GB of RAM, Moto thought it was fast enough to deliver a desktop experience and released a “lapdock” (laptop dock). This could run the real Firefox, not the Android version. The Atrix is a memorable device, but smartphones never killed PCs and laptops as some thought they would.
The Asus Transformer TF101 tablet was a different take on the same idea – the keyboard dock turned it into a mini 10.1″ laptop, years before iPad Pros started doing the same. The Transformer Prime TF201 upgraded to the Tegra 3, which featured a quad core CPU. If you’re curious about the transforming phones, check out the Asus PadFone Flashback article.
After the first dual core phone, Nvidia is responsible for the first quad-core phone too – the HTC One X. It beat the LG Optimus 4X to market by a month, both powered by the Tegra 3. The chipset once again tried to climb to the top of the charts and was indeed quite fast in multi-threaded tasks, but Qualcomm’s dual-core Snapdragons edged it out in single-threaded performance.
While Samsung was already using its own Exynos chips, it resorted to Nvidia’s Tegra chips for a few models. The Samsung Galaxy R, for example, and AT&T’s i927 Captivate Glide. More often than not, however, Samsung used Tegras in tablets.
As did many other manufacturers. Remember the Nexus 7, Google’s first tablet? Yep, there was a Tegra 3 brain inside. Even the premium Pixel C slate used a Tegra, though the much more powerful X1 chip.
Microsoft released a Tegra 3-powered Surface tablet back when it was trying to make Windows RT a thing (that was a Windows 8-based OS for 32-bit ARM processors). There was also the Surface 2 with Tegra 4, but RT never took off. Windows 10 is now perfectly happy to run on ARM, though few devices make use of that.
Sony has some memorable examples of a Tegra devices too, like the Sony Tablet P – a dual screen clamshell device that is the grand-daddy of the Microsoft Surface Duo.
Nvidia released a few tablets of its own (based on Tegra K1). There was even a weird Shield device that looked like a game controller with a flip up screen.
However, the best-known – and certainly best-selling – Tegra tablet today is the Nintendo Switch. Yes, the portable game console is powered by the Tegra X1 seen in some Android tablets.
Nvidia has its own custom ARM cores used in some of its products. Those tend to be too powerful for smartphone use, however, instead they (and other Nvidia IP) are focused on machine learning applications (e.g. computer vision for self driving cars).
But now ARM is bringing in a variety of core designs, ranging from very low power to desktop class. And it will be interesting what will happen to the Mali GPUs – Nvidia obviously has its own designs, but will it let other companies license them? If Nvidia tries to bring Tegra chipsets back to the smartphone world, it may run into legal trouble, so we’ll see how this develops.
For now we just wanted to say “thank you” to the Tegra chips for all the wonderful and kooky devices they’ve powered over the years.