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nVidia Tegra-based Zune HD nears release

First device running low-power mobile chip

After close to a year of talk and demonstrations, nVidia's low-power Tegra chips will soon appear in mobile devices, a company official said today.

Microsoft's Zune HD portable multimedia device, due for launch soon, will be the first device consumer device to carry the Tegra chip, said Michael Rayfield, general manager of the mobile business unit at nVidia. The chips were first announced around the middle of last year.

Tegra-based devices will combine advanced graphics, better battery life and always-on internet access, Rayfield said.

The Zune HD will be powered by the Tegra APX 2600 chip, which has an ARM11-based processor core, a GeForce graphics core and other components. The chip also has specialised cores to encode and decode high-definition video, which will enable the Zune HD to play 720p HD video, Rayfield said.

Other Tegra-based devices, including smartphones, mobile internet devices and smartbooks, netbooks based on ARM chip designs, will start coming out later this year, Rayfield said, adding that smartbooks will be primarily offered through carriers.

nVidia has around 50 Tegra design wins, Rayfield said. nVidia has already demonstrated several such devices, including a mobile internet device priced at $99. Samsung, meanwhile has said it plans to use Tegra in a future netbook. The chips used in these devices could include the Tegra 600 running at 700MHz, Tegra 650 running at 800MHz, or the Tegra APX 2500. The company plans incremental advances for the chip every year, with new Tegra chips planned for next year that provide quadruple the performance of chips in the existing lineup, Rayfield said.

nVidia expects Tegra to be a major revenue generator in the future, Jen-Hsun Huang, Nvidia's CEO, said during an earnings conference call last week. Most of Nvidia's revenue comes from graphics cards, but the company wants to tap into the burgeoning mobile market through Tegra and other mobile chips.

The first measure of Tegra's success will be the Zune HD, which is designed to provide a better multimedia experience than Apple's iPod Touch, Rayfield said.

The Zune HD will be able play 720p high-definition video, which the iPod Touch cannot play. Whether that's enough to unseat Apple from its dominant position in the media player market remains to be seen - some observers say multimedia improvements offered by the Zune HD may not be enough to dent Touch sales.

Besides 720p playback, the Zune HD will include a 3.3in OLED touch-screen with 480x272-pixel resolution. Another video feature will be the HD video-out port, and Tegra can process 720p video for display on external high-definition screens. Microsoft will include a number of entertainment options with the Zune HD, including instant access to films and TV shows in the Xbox Live Video Marketplace.

Beyond multimedia, Microsoft is marketing Zune HD as a mobile internet device with wireless networking and a web browser. Tegra enhances the Web experience with support for Adobe's Flash, which allows Zune HD to load normal web pages with HD video, Rayfield said.

The release date for the Zune HD hasn't been announced, though it is already available for preorder on sites including Amazon.com and Best Buy.

The nVidia chip may do a better job on multimedia than the iPod Touch, but Zune HD won't be an immediate iPod Touch and iPhone killer, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.

"The thing that Apple has going for them - there is so much software development around their devices," Olds said. The winner will be the device with a better user interface and software choices, Olds said.

Apple has a significant lead with an ecosystem that includes the wildly successful App Store.

Microsoft has a lot of catching up to do to compete with the iPod Touch. "Zune is an uphill struggle all the way," Olds said.

Gadgets are continuously demanding more graphics performance, but content outweighs technology advances in low-power devices, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. Apple has a strong iPod and iTunes content infrastructure that nVidia has to contend with.


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