Nvidia unveils first integrated Tegra/LTE processor, the 4i

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Nvidia announced its first chipset integrating LTE modem technology and its Tegra application processor into a single piece of silicon, its first major attempt to catch up to the likes of Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) in terms of providing integrated chips for smartphones.

Nvidia said the processor, called the Tegra 4i, sports 60 custom Nvidia GPU cores, a quad-core CPU based on ARM Holdings R4 Cortex-A9 CPU, a fifth battery saver core, enhanced computational photography capabilities and a version of the Nvidia i500 LTE modem optimized for integration. The company expects to have the new Tegra 4i chip in commercial smartphones toward the end of 2013. Nvidia also claims that the Tegra 4i is about half the size of its nearest competitor, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, which Qualcomm has said should be available in commercial devices by mid-year 2013.

Last week Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said the chipset maker is bullish on tablets but will not make a larger dent in the smartphone market until it integrates its Tegra application processor line with LTE modems. Nvidia acquired cellular modem maker Icera in 2011 and has been working since then to integrate LTE into its application processors.

"This is an area that we will likely need to have an LTE modem in order to be successful and that's the reason why we work so hard to accelerate our LTE modem to market," Huang said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the company's fourth-quarter earnings conference call. "We're working around the clock and this is--with an LTE modem, the Tegra processor and our software capability, we will be able to address a much larger phone opportunity going forward. And so we'll have some phone success this year, but we're not expecting to have a whole lot of phone design wins until we engage the market with LTE."

In addition to announcing the Tegra 4i, Nvidia also unveiled its reference smartphone platform code-named "Phoenix" for the processor to demonstrate its capabilities. Nvidia said Phoenix is a blueprint that handset makers can reference in designing and building future Tegra 4i smartphones to help get them to market quicker.

One interesting aspect of the Tegra 4i is that is uses software-defined radio technology from Icera, allowing the chip to switch seamlessly between LTE and 3G radio frequencies and be configured for new frequencies even after customers buy a devices with a 4i chip in it. "Everyone has always felt an SDR would be the holy grail," Phil Carmack, the senior vice president in charge of Nvidia's mobile business unit, told the Wall Street Journal. "They want to be as adaptable as possible."

''NVIDIA's Tegra 4i appears to outperform the leading integrated LTE chip significantly, and also benefits from an integrated 'soft-modem' that can be re-programmed over-the-air to support new frequencies and air interfaces--something other modem vendors can only dream of," Strategy Analytics analyst Stuart Robinson said in a statement.

Despite the addition of SDR, Nvidia has a long way to go to catch up in the cellular baseband market. According to Strategy Analytics' latest report on the market, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Intel, Broadcom and ST-Ericsson grabbed the top five spots in the market in terms of revenue share, in that order. The research firm said Qualcomm led the cellular baseband market with 52 percent revenue share in 2012, followed by MediaTek with 12.5 percent and Intel with 12.3 percent.

For more:
- see this Nvidia release
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this AnandTech article
- see this CNET article
- see this Strategy Analytics release

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