IDF: Intel's atomic era
Intel CEO Paul Otellini considers the new Atom processor line Intel's most significant new product in years. Early details were released under the codename Silverthorne, its marketing name, Atom, was announced at CeBIT and now the official presentation of the ultra mobile processor is on the programme at the IDF in Shanghai. Many details were known already. Some, such as clock speeds and thermal design power, are being clarified by Intel, whilst others, such as details of the Poulsbo chipset, are new. Five versions of the Atom processor will be released and will be labelled Z500 to Z540. Including the chipset they will cost from $45 to $160 in 1000 unit quantities. Intel has also undertaken to be able to supply an embedded version for the next seven years.
The Atom Z500 runs at 800MHz and has a TDP of just 0.65 watts. The three mid-range models get by on two watts. The top of the range Z540 achieves 1.86GHz at a TDP of 2.4 Watts - still substantially less than the current record holder, the Core 2 Solo, which runs at a top speed of 1.33GHz with a TDP of 5.5 Watts. When idling (C6 power state), Atom throttles the power consumption back to 0.1 watts, whilst 0.22 watts suffices for normal applications. From the Z520 up, the Atom supports hyper-threading for better utilisation of the functional units, which ratchets up the TDP by 0.2 Watts. All versions have 512kB L2 cache and are fully x86 compatible. They are also au fait with VT (virtualisation), execute disable and SSE3 instruction set extensions.
TDP without / with HT
0.65W / –
2W / –
2W / 2.2W
2W / 2.2W
2.4W / 2.64W
Price in US dollars including chipset for OEM customers in 1000 unit quantities
The die, with 47 million transistors, is 24.2mm² in size. The entire processor measures just 182mm² and is soldered to the board. There are no plans for a socket version. By comparison, the die for the current Core 2 Penryn is 107mm² in size, but does consist of two cores with a total of 410 million transistors. However, Silverthorne is not intended to compete with the Penryn, especially as, designed for a low power consumption, it runs slower than the Penryn at the same clock speed. At best it is likely to achieve the level of the Bania in the first Pentium M.
Instead, Intel is targeting two other huge areas for deployment - mobile internet devices (MID) and cheap PCs and notebooks - dubbed 'net-tops' and 'netbooks'. The Centrino label will be used to differentiate these two market segments. The 'Centrino Atom' label will only be carried by MIDs which, in addition to Silverthorne, also use the one-chip Poulsbo chipset, a wireless module and conform to specific case dimensions. By contrast, devices marked 'Atom' do not need to be wireless, can use other chipsets – such as versions of the Mobile 965, which are cheaper than the Poulsbo, but require more space and power – and may, in place of Silverthorne, use the cheaper Diamondville, details of which Intel has yet to divulge. This may be an Atom Celeron with a smaller L2 cache or higher TDP.
Intel has had plenty to say about the Poulsbo MID chipset, which is officially known as the System Controller Hub (SCH). It combines a north bridge with integrated graphics with a south bridge in a single chip and has dimensions of just 22mm x 22mm. It is manufactured using a less modern production process, as is standard for chipsets. This affects power consumption adversely. At 0.6 to 0.8 Watts, the mean power consumption is many times that of the processor.
The graphics core supports DirectX 9 and can apparently decode HD videos in 1080i and 720p formats. It can only control 'medium' resolution external displays (1366 × 768, 1280 × 1024, 1080i, 720p), but does so digitally. The memory interface is single channel, addressing a maximum of 1GB DDR2 RAM. There is no SATA adaptor. Storage devices can be connected by PATA (Intel presented a suitable in-house SSD at CES) or USB (for which Intel also has an SSD). Of the eight USB 2.0 ports, one is configurable as a client. There are also two PCIe x1 interfaces, three SDIO ports and one HAD connector.
Intel presented many MIDs with the Centrino Atom label at CeBIT and many were already familiar. Intel also presented a number of 'netbooks' and 'net-tops' at IDF. One of the first Diamondville devices is likely to be the netbook from MSI, but Asus will also release an Eee PC powered by Atom, maybe even the Eee PC 900. The advantages of the new platform are found mainly in the detail - it will, for example, be cheaper to build cooling systems for Atom processors.
Compared to the previous UMPC platform with Core 2 processor, Atom offers MIDs a big gain in space and efficiency, but can only be used for devices in pocket book or chunky PDA type formats. Intel has already announced the next size reduction, in the form of Moorestown, in which the graphics core will migrate to the processor and a wireless module with software defined radio (SDR) will be able to connect using WiFi, WiMax, Bluetooth and HSDPA. Only then will the Atom be suitable for the kind of smartphone you won't mind carrying around all the time.
By then, operating systems are also likely to have undergone some transformation. Intel is touting the full x86 compatibility of Atom as a major advantage, but this can only be utilised under Windows. Many Atom devices are too feeble for this, on top of which Microsoft is making no visible effort to produce a Windows version adapted to the needs of small computers, and Windows has particular difficulty dealing with small displays. Therefore Linux is used on many Atom devices, which eats up part of the compatibility advantage - there are no plugins, ActiveX controls or codecs and web pages are designed for Microsoft Explorer.
Intel employs many programmers who are making good these omissions and are aiming to provide MIDs with nice interfaces, but the competition is not resting on its laurels, and has another year to beef up their devices, most of which run on ARM processors, with better software or a few hundred megahertz of chip speed enhancements. Microsoft is equipping Windows CE with a PDF reader and a Flash player. Efforts to bring Flash to the iPhone have so far come to nothing, but Apple has recognised the need to upgrade a number of technologies. Symbian is integrating a more compatible browser, a database, Silverlight and even an interface for location-based services. An improved VPN client has also been released. Nokias N810 packs plenty of features out of the box and should soon be able to use PalmOS applications. And finally, there is the question of whether the limited features offered by the mobile internet might not already be adequate for many users. Even with better mobile browsers, many complex web sites may still offer little benefit due to the tiny display size and the user unfriendly keypads.
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