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Nvidia dialing into mobile phones

The company plans to launch its first major applications processor for smartphones this week at Mobile World Congress 2008.

Nvidia wants a piece of the exploding smartphone market, with its first major applications processor scheduled to arrive in phones next year.

The graphics chip company is showing off the fruits of its $357 million PortalPlayer acquisition with the APX 2500, its first attempt at building a true computing processor for mobile phones, said Mike Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia's mobile business unit. The APX 2500 is designed as a standalone application processor for multimedia phones where talking takes a back seat to watching videos and browsing the Web.

Nvidia's APX 2500 chip, it's first major applications processor for smart phones. Nvidia

The applications processor in a mobile phone is akin to the Intel or Advanced Micro Devices CPU in a PC. Once a fairly basic part, these chips are getting more and more complex as mobile phones evolve from simple call-and-text devices to small handheld computers.

Right now, the market is dominated by companies like Texas Instruments, Samsung, Freescale Semiconductor, and Marvell, which will make it hard for Nvidia to break into this area. Unlike a PC, most people have no idea what kind of chip is in their mobile phone, so any brand recognition Nvidia might have with consumers really doesn't matter when it comes to making a decision about a phone.

But the company thinks it has two major selling points to push before handset makers and carriers: it knows how to make chips that process video and graphics, and it is throwing its hat in with Microsoft's Windows Mobile development path, Rayfield said.

The 300 or so engineers that came to Nvidia from PortalPlayer had developed a chip that could power music players like SanDisk's Sansa View, but that wasn't really suitable for mobile phones and navigation devices. Nvidia added another 300 engineers of its own to the project after the acquisition closed, and came up with the APX 2500.

The chip is based on the ARM11 core, and can run at up to 750MHz. It can encode and decode 720p high-definition video, meaning you could use a phone based on the APX 2500 as both a high-definition player and camcorder. Nvidia also added some of its GeForce graphics technology that was designed for low-power devices, which allows 3D user interfaces to run on the chip, Rayfield said.

Nvidia is pushing the APX 2500 as the fastest way for handset makers to build a smartphone based on Windows Mobile. Right now, Windows Mobile appeals more to corporate smartphone users, but according to Rayfield, Microsoft is planning to make the next version of the operating system much more consumer-friendly. Nvidia designed its chip in collaboration with Microsoft, and the next version of the operating system will be able to exploit technology within Nvidia's chip, he said.

Still, this approach limits Nvidia's early prospects, as it blocks out both Symbian, the dominant smartphone operating system, and Linux, perhaps the most promising future operating system. Nvidia is a member of Google's Open Handset Alliance, but it's taking a "wait-and-see" attitude toward Android, Rayfield said.

Nvidia has some customers lined up for the APX 2500, but it's not saying who's on board. The company is playing up the mobile phone prospects for the chip, being that it's the week of MWC, but it will also try to sell the chip to companies that make portable navigation systems and personal media players.

Rayfield and his team have their work cut out for them, trying to crack a market like this where they have little to no experience. It's still early days in the smartphone market, but it does seem like there is room for a host of players right now, unlike the PC market's early consolidation around Intel and grudging acceptance of AMD as a second source.