Earlier in the year, Nvidia introduced the Tegra X1 processor as a follow up to the Nvidia Tegra K1. The K1 was available in two flavors, the 32-bit K1-32 as used in the NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet and the Google Tango Tablet, and the K1-64, which as the name might suggest is a 64-bit processor and this found a home in the HTC-designed Google Nexus 9. Both processors feature NVIDIA’s powerful, 192-core, high performance specialist graphics processor unit. The Tegra X1 is an octa-core design based around ARM Cortex reference cores and containing an even more advanced, high performance GPU with 256 cores. The Tegra X1 has already shown the world high benchmark scores but so far has not been met with so much commercial success. However, a couple of small but potentially significant changes from Google could be about to change this.
The first change that we’ve seen is Google’s software engineers adding support for the Tegra X1 to Coreboot, the open source BIOS alternative used by all Chromebooks. Google uses the Coreboot alternative because it’s lightweight, high performance and free (as in freedom) software because it reduces the chance for it to be backdoored. The changes to Corebook were annotated with “Tegra T210,” which is NVIDIA’s alias for the X1. Following this change, we also saw support added to Chromium OS for the Tegra X1-based board, “Smaug.” This very much increases the likelihood that the Smaug board will be part of the first 64-bit ARM-based Chromebook to be launched.
Writing of ARM-based Chromebooks, despite the hardware agnostic approach of Chrome OS (the operating system is designed to run web-based applications and a small number of lightweight local applications, it cannot and isn’t designed to run legacy applications written for a specific platform). The main reason for this appears to be down to performance: ARM chips aren’t considered powerful enough for low end notebooks and when used in Chromebooks, are less responsive than the Intel-powered equivalents. However, ARM processors are getting more and more powerful and efficient and Intel appear to be planning to badge engineer their Intel Atom line of processors into Celeron and Pentium spaces. We may well be seeing Chromebooks in 2016 powered by more ARM and Intel Atom (if renamed) processors.