Nvidia's mobile chip fortunes could rebound with new LTE smartphones

Phones from LG and Wiko Mobile use the company's new Tegra 4i

Nvidia's struggling Tegra chip business could get a jolt from new smartphones using its latest chip, the Tegra 4i, which signals the chip maker's entry into a new market of processors with integrated LTE radios.

LG's G2 Mini and Wiko Mobile's Wiko Wax are the first mobile phones built with the Tegra 4i, the company's first processor with an integrated LTE modem. The quad-core chip is based on software-defined modem technology that Nvidia got with its acquisition of Icera in 2011.

The smartphones are being shown at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona.

The Wiko Wax smartphone has a 4.7-inch screen, an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 720p display resolution. Its maker, France's Wiko Mobile, is targeting the handset at consumers in Europe who want to buy unlocked handsets.

The LG G2 Mini, which is bound for the Latin American market, has similar specifications, including a 4.7-inch screen and an 8-megapixel camera.

Prices for the smartphones were not immediately available. When Nvidia announced the chip about a year ago, it said the 4i was intended for smartphones starting at under US$300. But the company has since changed its stance, saying it wants to target high-end smartphones with its chips.

Nvidia's Tegra sales have been falling due to poor response to the Tegra 4 processor, which is in just a few tablets, such as Microsoft's Surface 2 and Hewlett-Packard's SlateBook X2. The company reported this month that Tegra revenue in the most recent fiscal quarter was down 37 percent year over year.

With the Tegra 4i, Nvidia hopes to recoup some of the lost revenue. The company earlier this year announced the 64-bit Tegra K1 chip, which has 192 graphics cores and will start appearing in mobile devices during the second half of this year. Nvidia hopes the new chips will boost Tegra sales, but the company faces a challenge with more mobile device makers adopting Qualcomm's Snapdragon and low-cost chips from companies such as Mediatek.

Nvidia was successful with Tegra 3, with the chip going into numerous tablets and smartphones. But the number of design wins slipped with Tegra 4, and there were no home-run products that could help the chip stand out, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research.

Nvidia is also a novice in the market for chipsets with integrated radios, a situation that has advantages and disadvantages for competing against Qualcomm, which has offered integrated LTE modems in its Snapdragon chipsets for years. Until now, Nvidia's Tegra chips were combined with separate LTE modems in devices, but the Tegra 4i could provide an alternative to Qualcomm's products.

"There's a big payoff when you get the home-run-type design win," McCarron said. "Having one right design win ... is equal to 30 of the others."

Nvidia's software-defined radio approach differs from the largely hardware-based approach adopted by Qualcomm. Each approach has it advantages in performance and flexibility, but Qualcomm has an edge with its long experience in building radios and baseband processors, McCarron said.

The 4i chip has 60 graphics cores, and with the LTE modem, it can "bring up to [two times] higher performance than competing phone chips," Nvidia spokesman Ken Brown said in an email. The chip will be able to render 1080p high-definition video.

The Tegra 4i is an architectural improvement over the Tegra 3 and is based on a smaller, more power-efficient and faster version of the Cortex-A9 processor core. The Tegra 4 is faster than the 4i and has more graphics cores, but it is twice as large.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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