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The graphics chip that roared
Published on: 2010-12-03
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Jen-Hsun Huang has always said his graphics chips were good for more than rendering explosions of zombie maniacs in videogames. In October the Nvidia ( NVDA - news - people ) chief executive got his proof when scientists at China's National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin unveiled the Tianhe-1A, the fastest computer on earth. The beast sucks up 4 megawatts of power to forecast weather and survey mines at a speed of 2.5 quadrillion calculations per second. In it are 7,200 Nvidia graphics processors.

Now Huang wants (and needs) to put some of that power in your pocket. Nvidia still leads the market for high-end graphics processors in desktop computers, but Huang needs to tap the fast-growth markets for smartphones and tablets before things worsen. Intel ( INTC - news - people ) and AMD are muscling it aside with all-in-one products that combine graphics with their microprocessors. Intel has already pushed Nvidia out of the business of supplying computer chipsets, the digital nervous system that all processors plug into to power PCs and laptops. Nvidia is suing Intel for the right to build chipsets that work with Intel's latest processors.

"They're getting squeezed in the middle," says analyst Jon Peddie of Nvidia. "So they're moving up and moving down."

Huang says his specialized chips will deliver enough extra graphics power to compete with these all-in-one offerings. He also counters that in a mobile world the aging x86 processor technology Intel and AMD have been riding for decades isn't as important as the stripped-down, power-efficient designs from the likes of Qualcomm ( QCOM - news - people ), Apple ( AAPL - news - people ), Samsung and Texas Instruments ( TXN - news - people ). They all license their architecture from British firm ARM, which Nvidia cut a deal with in 2005 for its Tegra mobile processors. Each comes with a brawny graphics engine that efficiently races through many tasks at once. The Nvidia supercomputer, for example, uses one-third the power of a comparable machine powered solely by x86 CPUs.

So far the Tegra chip has few customers. Microsoft ( MSFT - news - people ) uses it in its Zune digital media player. Seen one lately? Tegra generated less than $52 million in sales in the most recent quarter, or 6% of Nvidia's total. Huang is promising a spate of new products next year tied to Google ( GOOG - news - people )'s newest version of Android smartphone software. South Korea's LG has said it's readying a phone using a Tegra processor. Motorola ( MOT - news - people ) is reportedly doing the same.

Huang sees a day when mobiles with graphics cores will be able to identify objects through a camera, much like Tony Stark's visor did in Iron Man 2. "To make that happen you need a supercomputer with all kinds of parallel-processing capability and a mobile device with parallel-processing capabilities. By connecting them you have a supercomputer in your hand," Huang says.






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