With every millimeter of space crucial and every amp of power vital for smartphone and tablet makers, Nvidia, Qualcomm and others are upping the stakes with the use of software-defined radio (SDR) to reduce the amount of silicon.  Nvidia is first out the door with the Tegra 4i

Shrinking IT Softly

Hardware radios are a headache for all smartphone makers, they often need to be different for various regions, causing production line complications, they take up space and are not easy to upgrade. Software-defined radio, in short, allows code to control the smart antennas in a phone, code which can be rewritten and updated as users move between regions and as technology improves. 

Which is why most of the major suppliers of radios for smartphones have been working on SDR to address those issues, and help in the always-on battle to reduce costs, product size and power usage. Nvidia is first out the traps with Tegra 4i that supports LTE and the various HSPA versions used by the likes of AT&T and T-Mobile.


Tegra vs. SnapDragon vs. Intel

Formerly known as Project Grey, Nvidia's solution delivers an ARM-core based Tegra 4 chip featuring the R4 Cortex-A9 CPU, plus a fifth battery saver core. It packs in a version of the Nvidia i500 LTE modem optimized for a highly power efficient, compact, high-performance component. This puts it on slightly ahead of Qualcomm's own integrated chips, but probably not for long. 

No partners who will using the processor are mentioned, but Nvidia has the new Phoenix reference design ready to go and will be showing its wares at Mobile World Congress later this month. The 4i chip does have fewer GPU cores than the full Tegra 4 chip, but for superphone-class devices, the SDR part is an option on the "Wayne" chip shown above. 

Qualcomm purchased SDR specialist Sandbridge back in 2010, but has yet to filter SDR into the Snapdragon range. With Nvidia stealing a brief advance, it could win more orders, but the likes of Intel aren't far behind with an SDR prototype available for testing plus a hunger to take more mobile device wins. That should all make for a highly competitive 2013 for these and the other mobile chip players.