Getting your hands on PC technology from Nvidia is almost impossible these days (thanks to the global chip shortage in 2021), but did you know that it was possible to buy an Nvidia phone not so long ago? In fact, a number of smartphones and other small devices once ran on low-power Nvidia chipsets.
We are of course talking about Nvidia’s Tegra processors, which at the time competed against systems on a chip (SoCs) from Qualcomm, Samsung and others. That’s right, the range of chipsets that now power the Nintendo Switch game console and Nvidia Shield media player can trace their ancestors back to early smartphones.
Microsoft’s Zune HD was the first device to use Nvidia’s Tegra.
In fact, back in 2009, Microsoft Zune HD was the very first product to use an Nvidia Tegra chipset. Microsoft’s Kin was the first mobile phone to operate with this series of chips. They weren’t exactly the most popular products in their day, but the company saw a little more success in the years that followed.
Android, powered by Nvidia
Nvidia’s next-generation Tegra 2 chipset had a much more powerful dual-core Arm Cortex A9 CPU and a GeForce GPU with extremely low power consumption. The Tegra 2 held the Android performance crown for a few months, especially against the common single-core processors on the market. That lead was short-lived, however, when the dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 hit the market later in the year, followed by Samsung’s Exynos 4 Dual.
Still, the chipset was successful in the Android-powered Motorola Droid X2 and LG Optimus 2X handsets from 2010, although neither of them sold like hot rolls. The Tegra 2 also powered a decent selection of other smartphones, tablets and even one or the other notebook from different brands.
Nvidia Tegra cellphones include the Motorola Droid X2, LG Optimus 2X, Samsung Galaxy R, HTC One X, and Xiaomi Mi 3.
Perhaps the most memorable Tegra 2 release was the 2011 Samsung Galaxy R. The Galaxy R was a bit of a Galaxy S2 spin-off with a “Tegra Zone” application that allowed customers to optimize it specifically for the device Downloading games – an idea that lasted about as long as you’d expect. In addition, as of 2011, the chip was significantly more medium-sized and not as powerful as the flagship Galaxy S2.
Nvidia followed in 2011 with the Tegra 3. This next-generation chipset had a quad-core Cortex-A9 CPU setup with NEON expansions and a fifth ultra-low-power companion core, a more powerful Nvidia GeForce GPU and a number of video decoder technologies that make it a much more powerful multimedia device than its predecessor.
See also: AMD vs. Nvidia – Which is the Best Add-in GPU for You?
The Tegra 3 powered a small number of unforgettable Android smartphones. The list includes the HTC One X, HTC One X +, and LG Optimus 4X. The One X and X + received particularly high ratings and played a key role in HTC’s rise to one of the big players in the smartphone game before falling out of favor in an equally spectacular way.
Nvidia’s Tegra 3 also offers the option for significantly higher clock rates, which makes it suitable for both tablets and phones. The Tegra 3 operated the Nexus 7 (2012) model, the Asus Transformer Pad, the Sony Xperia Tablet S and the original Microsoft Surface. It was also the force behind the unfortunate Ouya Android game console.
Although Nvidia’s Tegra powered a small selection of Android smartphones in the early 2010s, it didn’t last. Smartphone chipsets became increasingly complex, with the CPU and GPU playing a lesser role in comparison to advanced networking and co-processor capabilities in the years that followed. Instead, Nvidia shifted its chipset ambitions to the tablet, multimedia and ultimately handheld game console market.
The 2013 Tegra 4 began this transition with a power-hungry 72-core GPU configuration that made it 7 times more powerful than the Tegra 3. In combination with four 1.9 GHz Cortex-A15 CPU cores , a low-power companion core, LPDDR3 memory and a host of video hardware decoding blocks, the Tegra 4 continued to be successful in Android tablets. It also powered the gaming-centric Nvidia Shield Portable and the unreleased Mad Catz Mojo, as well as the Xiaomi Mi 3 smartphone.
A slimmed-down Tegra 4i version with a Quad-Cortex-A9 CPU and a 60-core GPU powers the LG G2 Mini, the privacy-oriented Silent Circle Blackphone and a couple of Tegra 4 smartphones from Wiko. But this chip marked the end of Nvidia’s smartphone ambitions.
In 2014, Nvidia announced the Tegra K1, which is equipped with powerful 192-core Kepler graphics and the option of either a quad-core Cortex-A15 or a fascinating dual-core internal Denver CPU setup. The latter model powered the fan-favorite HTC Nexus 9 tablet, but the traditional arm-core model was more popular. This version ended up in a small selection of tablets and even a few Chromebooks from Acer and HP.
Tegra’s breakthrough success didn’t come until 2017 with the Nintendo Switch.
Though Tegra has appeared in many Nvidia phones and other devices for the past decade, Tegra’s groundbreaking commercial success didn’t hit until 2017 and the introduction of the Nintendo Switch. The handheld console was equipped with the Tegra X1 from 2015 and later with the 16 nm X1 + revision. It was the most powerful Tegra chipset to date, with a 256-core Maxwell GPU, an octa-core Cortex A57 and A53 CPU, and a host of the latest H265 and VP9 hardware blocks for video coding and decoding. The Tegra X1 also supports the hugely popular Nvidia Shield Android TV devices, which set the standard for the modern smart TV experience.
See also: The best Android TV boxes you can get right now
Subsequent launches of the Tegra X2, Xavier and Orin SoCs mostly ended up in development boards and automotive systems. It’s not clear if Nvidia is even focusing on consumer products for these chips as the focus shifts to machine learning and AI markets.
Nvidia remains interested in the cell phone
From music players to smartphones and game consoles, Nvidia has powered a range of popular portable products over the past decade. While the company is still best known for its high-performance PC graphics cards, mobile remains firmly in its sights.
Next: What Nvidia Buying Arm Means for Your Next Smartphone
Nvidia is currently seeking regulatory approval to purchase Arm for $ 40 billion. Keep in mind that Arm licenses its CPU architecture and cores found in Tegra, Snapdragon, Exynos, Apple, and pretty much every other mobile processor on the market today and for the past decade.
We can’t say whether we’ll ever see another smartphone with Nvidia’s in-house technology. But when the arm deal hits, Nvidia will have one of the most important technologies in every Android and Apple smartphone.
This is the fifteenth entry in our Did You Know series, where we dive into the history books of Android and consumer technology to uncover important and interesting facts or events that have been forgotten over time. What would you like us to cover next? Let us know in the comments.