Nvidia reveals Kai cut-price Tegra 3 tablet design

May 24, 2012 // 10:24 a.m.

Tags: #android #arm #companion-core #cortex-a9 #kal-el #kindle-fire #kindle-fire-2 #nvidia #system-on-chip #tablets #tegra #tegra-3 #windows-rt

Nvidia has announced a new reference platform for tablets, codenamed Kai, which it hopes will help increase adoption of its Tegra 3 system-on-chip (SoC) in low-end tablets.

Nvidia's Tegra 3 - codename 'Kal-El' - is a powerful chip, packing four 1.4GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processing cores alongside an ultra-low power (ULP) GeForce graphics engine. Its most stand-out feature, however, is its 'Companion Core,' a low-power 500MHz ARM core designed to keep background tasks ticking over while the more power-hungry main cores shut down and conserve battery life.

It's a design which has plenty of wins in the market: the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime features a Tegra 3 chip in its heart, as do the Acer Iconia Tab A510 and A700 and Toshiba AT270 and AT300 tablets. It's even finding its way into high-end smartphones, with LG choosing the chip for its Optimus 4X HD handset and HTC for the recently-launched One X.

All the aforementioned devices have one thing in common, however: they're expensive. That's good news for the manufacturers, who are making a nice margin on each sale, but less so for Nvidia. Higher selling price means fewer units sold; fewer units sold mean fewer chips sold; fewer chips sold means less cash compared to companies with lower-end parts in their line-up like Samsung, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

To combat this: Kai. The name given to Nvidia's reference tablet design, Kai packs a fully-featured Tegra 3 SoC design into a bill of materials which will see manufacturers able to sell the device for the magic sum of $199.

Unveiled at the company's annual investor meeting last night, Kai will feature the same quad-plus-one-core 'Kal-El' chip design and GeForce graphics engine as its higher-priced equivalents. Unlike devices like the Transformer Prime, however, the screen will be significantly cheaper and other components cut back in order to hit the ultra-low price point.

Precisely how the low price point is achieved, Nvidia isn't saying. 'Kai is our low-cost Tegra 3 reference platform that allows tablet makers to build low-cost, quad-core Android tablets targeted at the $199 price point,' Nvidia's Bruce Chan told Wired following the event. 'It uses power-efficient Tegra 3 technologies to help reduce display power and bring lower cost devices to market.'

Even with such corners being cut, Nvidia's Kai design could be a big winner: Amazon has been selling its Kindle Fire $199 Android tablet by the bucketload, despite lacklustre performance from its cut-price Texas Instruments dual-core processor. A quad-core tablet at the same price point could be a game-changer for the industry.

Nvidia's Kai revelation came with the news that several original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have picked up the design, but the company has yet to name names. The release does coincide with one particular rumour, however: Nvidia is rumoured to be replacing Texas Instruments as the chip supplier for Amazon's Kindle Fire 2, which has already been rumoured to include a quad-core chip of one type or another.

In addition to the Android market, Nvidia has confirmed that it will be producing Tegra 3 reference designs for tablets running Windows RT, the ARM-compatible variant of Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS. Release dates for either product line were not discussed at the event.

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