Nvidia’s Tegra K1 is the unsung hero of CES 2014 – opinion

Tuesday, 7 January 2014 08:32 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Nvidia’s Tegra K1 is one of the most interesting developments of CES 2014, Brenna argues – yes, even for you, Mr “mobile games are the cancer of the games industry.”

CES 2014 hasn’t officially started yet; it kicks off on Tuesday, when the US gets around to that at least half a day after the rest of the world. As with many major expos, all the big players get their major press events out of the way early, and today we saw companies like Intel, Samsung, Valve and Sony take the stage – the last two scheduling their events simultaneously, to the vein-popping rage of editors everywhere.

But the action actually began yesterday, with Nvidia’s Sunday presentation, which served as a nice, weighty introduction to a show that often caters to the more casual technology fan. If you tuned into the livestream you’ll notice it was quite a geeky affair; unlike Intel, Samsung, Sony and their ilk, Nvidia didn’t bother with all that pop music, rain drop animation, “here’s how tech is all about lifestyle where lifestyle means off the rack designer fashion and lots of sepia selfies” guff.

Instead, Nvidia spoke directly to the core. The company’s messages were on point and very much in character; bigger, better processors and graphics cards and the evolution of the very interesting G-Synch tech, and more support for GameStream, the key but potentially future selling point of the Shield tablet. Nvidia is all business in its unwavering ambition to remain one of the three top providers of PC gaming hardware and technology, with none of that console tech business to distract it over the coming generation.

Unreal Engine 4 demo on Nvidia’s Tegra K1.

One of the key advances for gamers, though, has gone largely uncelebrated: the announcement of the Tegra K1. For unknown reasons I’m generously going to assume aren’t related to adjustment disorders, “core gamers” as represented by vocal commenters are markedly resistant to mobile tech advances. And that’s a shame, because mobile is important to gaming – and not just to the casual kiddies you imagine are spending all their money on new hairstyles in Zynga’s latest (or whatever).

Whenever I have this argument, somebody always points out that they can’t play Halo on their smartphone, and that many games attempting to emulate the console experience are clunky and unpleasant to play. Fairly successful efforts like the RAGE tablet game, gorgeous but inevitably shallow titles like Infinity Blade, and even more-ish, bite-sized strategy titles like Game Dev Story aren’t enough to save mobile gaming’s reputation.

Mobile games might have their charms, it seems, but they don’t stand alongside console offerings. “It’s all Angry Birds and Snake, innit?” is the consensus – alright for a laugh or when you’re stuck in a queue, but not real gaming. Not proper gaming. And therefore we as real, proper core gamers don’t pay any attention to it. It is worth paying attention to. (I’m not just talking about the money, either. After all, we don’t have any clear idea just how many mobile developers are making good money, although the eagerness of former social bubble beneficiaries to get on board is pretty telling).

According to Nvidia’s CEO, who admittedly has a bit of a bias, the new Tegra chip is as powerful as a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360′s core. Think about that for a second. That could potentially mean a smartphone or tablet capable of running games as good as those on what we’re still calling current gen systems. The Vita, Sony’s dedicated handheld and the most powerful portable console yet produced, can’t do that. Your next Galaxy or Xperia might. Mobile technology advances are accelerating, and we’re rapidly approaching a technological event horizon where what you carry in your back pocket is so close to what you have in your home that the jumps between your phone, your tablet, your dedicated gaming laptop and your über-rig is barely noticeable.

I want to believe

The Tegra K1 has 192 “fully programmable, massively parallel cores.”

It can run Unreal Engine 4, which is so new no games have been released using the tech yet.

Epic’s Tim Sweeney has said he didn’t expect mobile power at this level for at least three more years.

Intel promoted its announcement of the new chip by making a massive crop “circle.”

Yeah but – the controls, amirite? Touch screen gaming is still in its infancy, and although it makes for accessibility – something the industry desperately needs to embrace if it wants to keep minting it in coming hardware generations – it’s hard to implement and only works well for simple interfaces. But that’s why we’re suddenly seeing so many mobile controller add-ons, a spate of which have popped up in the last twelve months; a kind of interim solution until touch, motion, voice or some other kind of control system removes the need for a bristling array of granny-scaring face and shoulder buttons, and the impenetrable entry barrier of dual analog stick controls.

There is a possible future where mobile gaming is as comfortable, engrossing and spectacular as the console and mid-range PC experience. It’s a future Nvidia is aggressively chasing, and it’s a future we should embrace as gamers, because it’s good for us. When companies like Nvidia invest in mobile technology, they’re investing in the fact that nearly every adult consumer in the first world carries a smartphone. How many potential gamers are out there? How many more dollars to be spent on games which get the axe from executives because the markets not large enough to support diversification?

The Tegra K1 isn’t going to replace your console or your PC, but it is likely to be the heart of your next mobile, and its descendants – the chips and technological developments it influences – may well power the portable holodeck you carry around in 2063. That’s why Nvidia’s CES 2014 presentation is worth watching, and why it’s worth keeping your eye on mobile tech.

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