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Zune HD packs a big processing punch

Microsoft's Zune HD will use one of the most powerful chips to go into a portable media player yet.

Updated at 12:45 a.m. PDT

Microsoft's Zune HD will use one of the most powerful chips to go into a portable media player yet: Nvidia's multicore Tegra processor.

Nvidia's Tegra chip integrates multiple processor cores
Nvidia's Tegra chip integrates multiple processor cores Nvidia

Tegra packs two processor cores based on intellectual property from U.K.-based chip designer ARM. One is the main processor--based on the ARM11 core--which runs the operating system. Tegra's defining feature, however, is an additional Nvidia GeForce graphics chip.

"Nvidia brings powerful graphics to the portable media player. This is a unique capability," said Jeff Orr, senior analyst for mobile content at ABI Research.

In total, Tegra integrates eight independent processors, according to Michael Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia's mobile business unit. "We accelerate Flash, we have HD video, we do acceleration of rendering of Web pages on the GPU," Rayfield said Wednesday in a conference call, referring to the graphics processing unit. "The Zune HD will be an amazing showcase of what Tegra is capable of doing."

Its processing prowess notwithstanding, Tegra's design flies in the face of the hot, heat-sink-clad Nvidia graphics processors that power the fastest gaming rigs today. Tegra uses less than 0.5 watts of power, an attribute the chip inherits from its power-stingy ARM parentage. This trickle of power consumption is a tiny fraction of Nvidia's bread-and-butter desktop GeForce processors that are often rated well over 100 watts.

The Zune HD comes with a 3.3-inch, 16:9 OLED (480x272 resolution) screen. And also includes an HD (high-definition) Radio, HD (720p) video out, Wi-Fi, a Web browser (with tap-to-zoom technology), built-in accelerometer, and touchscreen QWERTY keyboard.

Audio codec technology has been developed by PortalPlayer, which Nvidia acquired in 2006.

Zune HD will also include a full-screen Internet browser optimized for multitouch functionality.

CNET Reviews applauded the Zune HD:. "This thing was worth the wait, folks...The Zune finally has the power to make good on the promise of delivering one of the richest music experiences on a portable device."

The Zune HD is the first of many Tegra-based devices to come. "There's about 50 devices in design right now with Tegra," Rayfield said. They range from media players to smartphones to smartbooks to Web pads. Smartphones based on the Tegra are due toward the end of the year.

"The next generation should be better. Current Tegra chips use the ARM11MP processor, next gen will use the faster Cortex-A9. Other IP in the chip is Nvidia's," said Tom R. Halfhill a senior analyst for Microprocessor Report.