Nvidia unveils Tegra K1 graphics chip

Kicking off CES festivities in Las Vegas on Sunday, the company announces the next generation of its mobile chip.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Watch this: See the Nvidia K1 in action at CES 2014

Nvidia hopes its chips are so advanced you'll think extraterrestrial life was behind them.

The company on Sunday unveiled the latest in its line of "impossibly advanced" mobile chips, the 192-core Tegra K1.

Earlier in the day, the chipmaker confirmed that it was behind a rather elaborate publicity stunt: a crop circle that appeared late in 2013 in a field in Chualar, Calif., about 2 hours south of the San Francisco Bay Area. The image represented one of the company's mobile chips and contained the numbers 1, 9, and 2 in braille, a reference to the number of cores in the newly announced chip.

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced the 192-core Tegra K1 on Sunday night. James Martin/CNET

"It's almost inappropriate to call it Tegra 5, because it's simply not linear," CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "It's the most successful architecture we've created."

The Tegra K1 incorporates Nvidia's Kepler GPU, which currently dominates the discrete graphics market. Huang said the new chip brings mobile computing to the same level of desktop computing. The chip will eventually come in two versions -- a 32-bit version and a 64-bit version that will come with the company's dual-core Denver, the CPU Nvidia has been talking about for several years.

Huang also announced that Epic Games will bring its next engine, the Unreal Engine 4, to the Tegra K1. During the presentation, the company showed off some of what the chip can do, demoing photo-realistic scenes from a living room to a rendering of a human face.

As the market for personal computers continues to shrink, Nvidia has been making bigger bets on mobile chips in an attempt to makes its business less dependent on PCs. But the shift to mobile has been difficult for the bulk of companies that found their bearings on the desktop, and Nvidia is no exception.

The company's chips power the Microsoft Surface and Google Nexus 7 tablets, but Nvidia has had more trouble finding a presence in smartphones. The Tegra 5 will be an important product for the chipmaker. Because of a lagging release schedule, the last version of the chip -- the Tegra 4 unveiled at last year's CES conference -- missed many design cycles and failed to gain traction with smartphone makers.

Last March, Huang boasted at the company's GPU Technology developers conference that the strength of the chips in Nvidia's Tegra line would increase 100-fold by the line's fifth year. The next iteration of the chip, likely to be announced next year and code-named Parker, would presumably be the manifestation of Huang's claim.

A chart detailing Tegra's projected chip strength from Nvidia's GPU conference last march. Screenshot Shara Tibken/CNET
During the presentation, the company further discussed its future in gaming, calling its GeForce brand the core of its gaming strategy. Huang said it is now possible with GeForce to capture a user's game and share directly to the gamer video service Twitch without hurting his or her frame rate. He also mentions that about 40 million people a month watch games on Twitch.

Huang also talked about G-Sync, a display technology that helps reduce the lag while playing a game. This is crucial to competitive gaming because success during gameplay -- or even a tournament -- is many times contingent upon how many clicks a player can make per minute. To be more competitive, players sometimes turn off V-Sync, which compromises visual quality. G-Sync, Nvidia says, allows for quick syncing without the degradation of graphics.

Further trying to diversify its business, the company has also pressed further into gaming and in-car technologies. The company has already formed partnerships with automobile companies such as BMW, Tesla, and Audi.

On Sunday, Huang also touched on the company's strategies in those areas as well. He introduced the Tegra K1 VCM (vehicle computing module), which brings the supercomputing chip into cars. The technology will do things like help to improve advanced driver assistance with pedestrian detection and blind-spot monitoring, which, Huang boasts, will lead to semi-autonomous driving. He also mentioned what he called "Project Mercury," a new technology that helps industrial designers to build a digital dashboard.

Nvidia's Project Mercury
Nvidia talks about Project Mercury. James Martin/CNET

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang at a press conference at CES 2014. James Martin/CNET