Kepler to go: Nvidia's desktop graphics technology is coming to tablets and smartphones

Traditional PCs are still miles ahead of phones and tablets in terms of graphics performance, but Nvidia is hoping to narrow the gap with a mobile version of its Kepler GPU architecture.

Kepler debuted over a year ago for desktops and laptops. Now, Nvidia says mobile devices will be able to enjoy some of the same capabilities, such as DirectX 11, OpenGL 4.4, tessellation and CUDA 5.0. In other words, Tegra-powered tablets of the future will be able to offe morer advanced lighting, realistic physics, and more efficient effects such as motion blur and depth of field. Nvidia says it's a milestone on par with the launch of its first GPU, the GeForce 256, 14 years ago.

Even better, mobile Kepler promises potent power efficiency as well. According to Nvidia, its GPU can perform the same rendering as an iPad 4 while using less than one third of the power. That gives Nvidia plenty of room to scale graphics performance up without turning tablets into battery hogs.

Nvidia is showing off mobile Kepler's capabilities in a couple of demos.

In one, a digital model named “Ira” makes a variety of facial expressions. Nvidia had showed a similar demo earlier this year with a much more powerful GeForce GTX Titan graphics card, and while there does seem to be a difference in quality, the mobile demo still looks impressive.

Another demo, called “Island,” uses tessellation to produce more detailed bumps and ridges in the ground, and uses effects like reflection to make the surrounding water seem more realistic. Earlier this year, Nvidia also showed Battlefield 3, a modern PC game from Electronic Arts, running on mobile Kepler.

Read more about mobile Kepler's technical details, including an interview with Nvidia senior vice president Daniel Vivoli.

Good for gamers, but desperately needed by Nvidia

Most interesting for gamers, perhaps, is the idea that mobile Kepler will enable more cross-platform gaming. In a blog post, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said the company's Unreal Engine 4 will run on Nvidia's next-generation graphics processor. Sweeney said he sees a chance for developers to “create high-end games and ship them across multiple platforms on a wide variety of devices, including tablet, smartphone, Windows, Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.”

Nvidia needs to make a big splash to re-establish itself in mobile. The company just lost two major customers in Asus and Google, who've reportedly switched from Tegra to Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor for the upcoming Nexus 7 tablet. Most of the major high-end smartphones are either using in-house chips (as with Apple's iPhone and some versions of Samsung's Galaxy S4) or are also turning to Qualcomm (as with the HTC One and other versions of the Galaxy S4).

Tegra is featured in Microsoft's Surface RT, but that product has flopped, and Microsoft is reportedly looking into Qualcomm due to its integrated LTE support.

Although Nvidia didn't formally announce any actual products—its next-generation mobile processor is codenamed “Project Logan” for now—mobile Kepler will likely turn up in the company's Tegra 5 system on a chip. Nvidia says to expect Kepler-powered mobile devices to arrive in the first half of 2014.

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