How tech bloggers got it wrong about Tegra 4

It is an unfortunate truth that many people writing on consumer technology do not really know jack-shit about the hardware that powers them. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. But when it comes to the core hardware like graphics chip or processors or RAM etc, these folks find themselves in uncharted territory.

Result: They tend to just repeat what technical marketing guys at various companies tell them.

The classic case of this PR-speak-finding-its-way-to-news is Tegra processor, a chip made by Nvidia.

There is a perception (wrong) that bigger is better as far as specifications are concerned. And people particularly love more cores in their chips. So when Nvidia launched Tegra 3, it announced that the chip has 12 cores. It was wrong because Nvidia was terming ALUs as cores. The company has not done that in the computer space where it sells graphics cards with more than 1500 ALUs. But it knows that because mainstream tech journos are mostly ignorant about core technologies, it can get away with it.

The company is again at it with Tegra 4. There is a leaked powerpoint slide doing rounds on the web in which Nvidia says the new chip has 72 cores. And most tech bloggers are again treating it as a gospel of truth. It sounds good in the headline too. New Nvidia chip has 72 cores! Yes, that’s a good headline. No wonder sites, including Engadget and The Verge, like it, even if it is not entirely correct.

Tegra 4 probably has just 72 ALUs. This is also the reason why Nvidia is claiming up to six times better theoretical performance with Tegra 4 compared to Tegra 3. Simple math. 12 X 6 = 72

ALUs (arithmetic logic unit) are one of the basic components in a logic chip like microprocessor. Several ALUs and few other elements make up a unit inside a graphics card that can be considered a sort of engine for the chip. In a chip, there can be several of these engines. Traditionally, on the GPU side there has never been a focus on cores. That is a CPU-related area where the whole of the logic chip (but without uncore area like L3 cache) is considered as one core.

But in the mobile industry things are different. There is no standardization, neither in how the things are represented and communicated nor in the way they function. So, everybody is playing fast and loose with definitions.

For end users it is very confusing and ideally tech journos and bloggers should ask the questions that can help mitigate the issue. But for different reasons, including the fact that few people writing about personal technology understand it, talk about it.

The best way to look at the issue is this: Imagination’s PowerVR 543MP3 chip has 3 cores. Yet, it trounces Tegra 3, which has 12 cores. It is pretty obvious to ask why. But no one does that.

Image credit: Junesy

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