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

Tuesday, 7th 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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7 Comments

  1. Christopher Jack

    Nvidia have been making the same bold claims since the Tegra 2. Tossing around misleading benchmarks, claiming that it’s the best there is, blah, blah, blah.

    The issue with mobile gaming at the moment has very little to do with processor power, sure it helps to have console looking games on a 5″ screen but that’s only going to sway a handful of enthusiasts, the real issues are fragmentation, lack of standards such as controllers & frankly, a total lack of direction.

    I have a Sony Xperia SP which is about as powerful the Nexus 4 yet is not compatible with GTA San Andreas despite Rockstar support listing otherwise http://support.rockstargames.com/hc/en-us/articles/201349383-San-Andreas-List-of-Supported-Android-Kindle-Devices-Controllers
    my guess is that it’s not a true blue Xperia SP but something fundamentally identical but slightly altered by Vodafone(got it on a plan). Point is carriers have way too much influence on devices, this becomes glaringly obvious when it comes time to update. “No you can’t enjoy the benefits of the latest update until we spend months or maybe a year or so testing it’s compatibility with our bloatware” if I had the money outright I would have certainly ditched the carrier & gotten something along the lines of the Nexus 5.

    Back to my point, mobile processors are now multiple times stronger than the Vita & probably dozens of times stronger than the PSP & 3DS but so far that means nothing when the quality just isn’t there.

    #1 12 months ago
  2. FeaturePreacher

    Why not see this for what it actually is? It’s just another cudgel for nVidia to use to convince PC gamers to get their video cards. If they were really trying to create a new form of portable gaming for the hardcore audience, they would do more than just stick their latest arm soc in a device and try to piggy back off the games from Google play. They would invest the millions of dollars needed to create their own ecosystem geared towards hardcore gamers. I don’t get this constant obsession reporters have with not understanding the limitations of a buttonless device.

    #2 12 months ago
  3. Dragon

    Thing is, this is nothing special. Qualcomms offering of this year will probably exceed Nvidias offering, and Qualcomm is the favoured by most over Nvidias offering.

    And as one said, Nvidia offer a lot of blah blah. Them matching 8 year old last gen console is no big deal, its just a natural progression.

    #3 12 months ago
  4. Cobra951

    “. . . 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.”

    That’s the *entire* problem. It’s not the portability. It’s not the size. It’s not the rendering technology. It’s the lack of *necessary* dedicated control hardware. Only portable devices which feature good control hardware are fit for good action gaming. Smudging your display with fingerprints will never do.

    And voice control? In a device I take out in public? Seriously?

    #4 12 months ago
  5. TheWulf

    As someone who regularly plays games on his tablet, I couldn’t agree more, Brenna. The lovely thing about this, too? The platform that seems to be leading the hardware curve is an open one, which pleases me no end.

    The only thing that’s ever worried me about the mobile scene is Apple superiority. No one in their right mind wants that — a walled garden which is almost tantamount to thought police. Did you know that iOS 7 no longer even asks you if you want to update the OS? It just automatically updates now without asking you, and you actually have to jailbreak the phone to stop it from doing that.

    There’s this morbid, even terrifying Big Brother streak that Apple seems to have.

    On the other hand? Android has been the bastion of small development and indies. You can sell through Google’s own store, Amazon’s store, or you’re even able to sell the apk file direct from your own site. This is why there have been Android Humble Bundles but not Apple ones.

    I see the Android platform as just an extension of the PC, just in a different shape and size. With Intel working on that true dual boot system, now, and AMD having their own take on Android in Windows? That’s just the start of the cross-compatibility. As I’ve said before, if Google, nVidia, and Steam become the best of friends then that means good things for all of us.

    Gabe Newell cemented his position for me when he chose to go with a slightly modified Linux flavour for SteamOS, rather than creating a new, proprietary, closed model that no one would be able to tamper with or mod. I’m actually proud of him for that.

    It’s a great state of affairs.

    Like I’ve said so many times before — my vision for the future is that teh game itself is data recognised by a myriad of platforms. So you have your game, and you can install it on a Linux desktop computer or laptop, a tablet computer, or a console PC. You can then go on to mod it, too, to your heart’s content. Development occurs on the desktop/laptop PC, and then spreads out from there to all other devices.

    So I could throw together a game with a compilation of mods, copy the folder over to my tablet, and then I’m good to go for playing that game on the move.

    It’s just a mutation of understanding.

    Data should be platform agnostic.

    When data becomes platform agnostic, we all win. The developers and the consumers. The only people that lose are the overly greedy corporate entities who put shareholder dosh above all else. Thankfully, not all companies do that, and not all companies are publically owned.

    This is why I have so much faith in Gabe Newell. He’s the head of a privately owned company, one that has a ridiculous amount of reach. He’s in a position to drive the future forward.

    Google’s in a good position to bring the right sorts of changes to the mobile scene.

    Honestly, I’m very happy about the way things are.

    So I agree with you completely, Brenna. We’re already seeing that the mobile can be a good gaming device, and we’re seeing great games showing up for it (almost all indie, too).

    The way it’s going in that regard is really interesting, as a lot of indie devs who’ve been creating for the PC are now cross-compiling to mobile devices as well. See, I could see something like The Novelist working really well on an Android tablet, and I’m hoping that that’s something they’ll consider for the future.

    Furthermore, I don’t think the clunky controls are going to be an issue for long, either. There are new startups who’re dedicated to creating game controllers that you can clip to your phone or use with your tablet, and those are garnering indie support all of the time.

    I think the mobile future is fairly bright, and I’m glad of it. I just hope it’s a Google future, and not an Apple one. The future needs to be open.

    #5 12 months ago
  6. TheWulf

    @3

    I’d never even heard of Qualcomm before you, and every time I see it mentioned, it seems to be you doing the mentioning.

    That’s… interesting to me. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing at all, as smaller companies do need more exposure. I’m just wondering why you have such a passionate stake in them. What are their ideologies and plans for the future? What makes you click with them so much?

    And I really hope it’s not just you being a brand zombie, because I’m so sick of seeing warring tribes of brand zombies. I’m actually curious, and I want to hear something beyond marketing talk about how superior their hardware is.

    #6 12 months ago
  7. Christopher Jack

    @TheWulf, Qualcomm are by far the largest ARM manufacturer. You may have heard of Snapdragon & Adreno, they’re Qualcomm’s respected CPU & GPU lines. Featured in every single HTC smartphone, 2012′s flagship One X being the exception. Also featured in most Sony, LG, Motorola & Nokia phones. Even many Samsung phones use Qualcomm chips, not all their flagship Galaxy S & Notes use Samsung’s own Exynos.

    #7 12 months ago

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