NVIDIA has officially launched Tegra K1 (thought to be Tegra 5 previously), which is the first Tegra chip to feature an architecture that is identical to its PC counterpart. For NVIDIA, and for the mobile industry, this is a historic day which marks the first time PC, console and mobile graphics, at least as far as NVIDIA is concerned. The architecture in question is code-named Kepler and it is well known on PC for having increased NVIDIA’s compute power density drastically. Although the mobile version has less graphics compute units to accommodate size and power requirements, it still has every feature that the GeForce Titan has. Because of that, while other mobile graphics vendors are proud of their “Open GL ES 3.0” compatibility, NVIDIA can run the “full” Open GL 4.4 API that drives PCs today. In the PC world, ES 3.0 is still pre-DX10, while GL 4.4 is DX11.
Tegra K1 Stands Alone In OpenGL 4.4/DX11 World
Back in the summer, I had already published some information about this chip (then code-named “Logan”) with an overview of the Kepler graphics architecture, the same one used in graphics cards like the GeForce GTX 680. I recommend reading it if you want to know more about Kepler. There is also quite a bit of information coming from NVIDIA itself and some white papers (PDF) are available for the geekiest among you.
The take away is that Tegra K1 uses a graphics architecture that was designed and created for both PC and mobiles. It leapfrogs what Android or iOS support today in terms of graphics application programming interface (API).
After seeing some early coverage, I fear that the 192 cores marketing blitz will confuse the heck out of people. Keep in mind that these are “GPU cores” and that they have nothing to do with “CPU cores”, which are typically referred to when you see “quad-core” or “octo-core”. Also, keep in mind that each GPU vendor has its own definition of what a GPU core is, so while the 192 number is very interesting – what’s really important is how much faster it is when compared to its competitors.
According to NVIDIA, Tegra K1 is nearly 3X faster than today’s competitors when it comes to “last-gen” benchmarks. For “next-gen” content, nothing else runs that kind of graphics on mobile, so in practice, there is no competition for K1 as of today.
What if PC games were ported to Android?
Tegra K1’s full potential can only be tapped into by using the Open GL 4.4 API, which is more or less equivalent to DirectX 11. It is just about certain that NVIDIA will add OpenGL 4.4 support in their own devices (SHIELD 2, Tegra Note Next…) and they will likely help their OEM partners to do the same.
The primary benefit of using GL 4.4 and providing DX11-level support is that PC games can be easily ported to Android. Modern PC games rely on many functions and algorithms that can’t be easily back-ported to GL ES 3. Tegra K1 will spare developers from this, and I bet that most if them didn’t see this coming. In fact, Tim Sweeney (the man who leads Unreal Engine) said that he was stunned by K1’s performance. At the NVIDIA CES event, Unreal Engine 4 running on Tegra K1 was demonstrated, and it is impressive to see PC-level graphics running on mobile hardware.
What about GL ES 4.0?
One of the reasons why mobile platforms are using OpenGL ES and not the regular Open GL is because “ES” is more optimized for power consumption. At some point, OpenGL ES will support all these features, but I’m not really an optimist as for “when”. OpenGL in general has seen an accelerated release cycle in the past few years, but it remains an open platform which is led by committee, and nothing really happens unless every member agrees.
I’m not completely sure what the politics are today, but given that NVIDIA is currently the only company to support Open GL 4.4 on mobile, I doubt that other members of the committee will be in a hurry until they are ready themselves. Now the question is: if the full OpenGL 4.4 runs without any major issues, do we really need GL ES 4.0?
More Powerful than PS3 and XBOX, Says NVIDIA
NVIDIA argues that its Tegra K1 chip is more powerful than PS3 or Xbox I terms of CPU or GPU. I don’t have enough data to verify if this is actually true or not, but I can say that the demos show that it is close enough. If anything, this would be pretty important if developers decided to port games from PS3/Xbox to Android because of K1. Unfortunately, this would require quite a bit of work since console developers use code that relies on a specific hardware. K1 may be powerful enough to run those games, but at the moment, I consider the comparison to be symbolic.
Conclusion: impressive graphics capabilities for gaming and more
NVIDIA’s K1 chip is just as powerful as NVIDIA pitched many years ago, when it unveiled its roadmap to us. It is remarkable in a couple of ways: first, it is an inflexion point at which mobile, consoles and PCs basically run on the same kind of architecture. The feature set is similar, and algorithms can be run in a similar fashion on all those systems.
Secondly this is the first time that NVIDIA uses the full might of its graphics R&D in the mobile space. Before K1, Tegra GPUs did not leverage all the advances made by the GeForce team. Going forward, there is now a single force behind all NVIDIA GPUs. I’m very curious to see how the competition will react. In the mobile space, no-one has as much experience with OpenGL 4.4 and DirectX 11.
Now more than ever, Gaming is going to be a central element of NVIDIA’s mobile strategy. This is where NVIDIA can create a true stronghold… before eventually expanding further.