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Tegra 3: The Quad-Core SoC That Goes To Five

Asus Transformer Prime TF201: A Tablet With A Higher Calling

Apple's new iPad is turning heads, but it's not the only compelling choice. Four months after its introduction, Asus' Transformer Prime TF201 shows us that tablets aren't exclusively content consumption devices. Some make it easier to get work done!

Apple A5XTegra 3
Fab Node
45 nm40 nm
1 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 (dual-core)1.4 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 (quad-core)
PowerVR SGX543MP4 (quad-core)ULP GeForce
L1 Cache
32 KB / 32 KB32 KB / 32 KB
L2 Cache1 MB1 MB

Tegra 3 (code name: Kal-El) isn’t particularly new to us. We've already run demos on devices and discussed this architecture prior to today's review. However, the iPad 3's introduction as a rival sparks renewed interest in how Nvidia’s architecture compares to Apple’s A5X.

GeekBench v2.2.7 Results
iPad 2
iPad 3
Dell Mini 1012
LePan II
Transformer Prime
Apple A5
Apple A5X
Atom N450
Tegra 3
Dual-core A9
Dual-core A9
Single-Core Atom
Dual-core ScorpionQuad-core A9
1 GHz1 GHz1.66 GHz1.2 GHz1.4 GHz
Floating Point

In terms of raw processing potential, Tegra 3 leads the pack by a large margin. Software optimizations and clock rates aside, increased parallelization allows Nvidia's SoC to work on more data concurrently. Similar to the desktop space, adding cores doesn't turn out to have a multiplicative effect on most real-world applications. But an enhanced ability to multitask is nice, especially as resource-hungry background tasks pile up.

Of course, bolstering performance often incurs higher power consumption at the same time. Nvidia, anticipating this, addressed power from a creative angle.

Companion CPU Core
Main CPU Cores (Symmetric Processing)
# of Cores
Power-Optimized (Standby)
Cortex A9
Cortex A9
Process Technology
Low Power (LP)
Operating Frequency
0 MHz to 500 MHz
0 MHz to Max Frequency

Kal-El sports a fifth "companion" CPU core that operates at lower frequencies and handles background tasks like syncing email, playing ringtones, and keeping applications alive while the device is in standby mode. It's hard to quantify the exact benefit of Nvidia's implementation since there aren't any Tegra 3s that lack the fifth core. However, the company's engineers clearly felt strong enough about its effect (particularly coupled with low-power silicon) that they were willing to dedicate precious die space to what was considered a power-optimized design.

Borrowing a page from Qualcomm's book, Nvidia employs an asymmetrical clock scheme that's similar to Turbo Boost, except that it allows each core to operate at a different frequency. It also incorporates Advanced SIMD (called NEON), which lets the CPU perform certain tasks (like playing MP3 audio) at extremely low CPU speeds, generally between 10-20 MHz. Qualcomm made a name for itself using a similar design, and the result is a processor with very low power consumption that can deliver performance when it's needed. Read Third-Generation Snapdragon: The Dual-Core Scorpion for more information on Qualcomm's solution.

There’s every reason to believe that this hybrid approach should work well. However, realizing gains with this approach depends on Nvidia to work within the constraints of operating system design. Purposely, Tegra 3 doesn't expose the fifth CPU core to the OS. Rather, it operates in the background without any management from the operating system. That means “low-overhead tasks” have to be identified by the hardware and handled by its companion core.

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  • 0 Hide
    plastichairball , 19 April 2012 16:35
    When I got my first Transformer Prime I was initially disappointed with the constant rebooting issues the upgrade to ICS brought. However, ASUS was surprisingly quick in releasing a fix for it, and since then it has been an absolutely fantastic device. The second one I purchased is sitting next to me, issue free and ready to be deployed to its new owner. It bridges the gap between work and play so effectively and has such a small footprint that we are rolling them out to all our travelling employees. Great, great device!
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 19 April 2012 16:45
    Not sure what to make of this. Sure the keyboard is handy but you could very easily get a wireless mac keyboard to go with an iPad and that will probably work out cheaper, along with all the other advantages the iPad carries.
  • 0 Hide
    dilip jha , 20 April 2012 11:29
    my english language very bad i know pc assamble and problem found