The Atom-ic Intel

edge chip

For system builders, Atom will provide opportunities to supply certain vertical markets with small form factors, Intel's global channel chief Steve Dallman said at the Intel Solutions Summit in Las Vegas in early April.

"There's a blurring between what used to be embedded and what used to be PC. Some of our solution provider partners are already building systems in what used to be thought of as an embedded market," Dallman said.

"Vets, attorneys' offices, doctors' offices--in many cases, they would much rather have a 4- or 8-watt processor sitting there. You take a small form factor Atom kind of CPU and you can do a ton of things."

Intel's Atom, announced last month, comprises the processors code-named Silverthorne and Diamondville and represents Intel's biggest push yet in the familiar mobile Internet device (MID) and ultramobile personal computer (UMPC) space. Atom also marks the beginning of the hype for two new cheap, Internet-centric categories Intel hopes capture the imagination: the "netbook" and the "nettop."

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Intel's rivals in the ultra low-voltage space include Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc., Cambridge, U.K.-based ARM Limited and Taipei-based VIA Technologies Inc. The chip giant claims that Atom will garner 4.1x to 6.5x gains over TI's OMAP2420, ARM11@400MHz, which means it will take the lead on Web page render performance. Competition also could heat up in the MID-UMPC arena, where VIA has won high-profile partnerships with OEMs like OQO Inc., San Francisco, and Nvidia Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., which has built its barebones APX 2500 ultra-low power applications processing platform around the ARM11 MPCore.

Besides the five new Atom processors, Intel also has introduced a single chip with integrated graphics named the Intel System Controller Hub, or SCH (previously called Poulsbo).

As with the Atom, the SCH has an architecture that was developed from the ground up. Designers said that attention was first focused on power reduction over performance, then performance was added back in. It is currently designed to use parallel ATA since that is what most 1.8-inch drives still use, but Intel said it will switch to serial ATA when the market moves in that direction.

The graphics and video subsystem boasts a fully programmable pixel shader core and a separate dedicated video decode engine. With hardware accelerated, full HD decode, it supports 720p/1080i at 30 frames per second. In addition, DX9L and OpenGL support enable a new class of applications for mobile devices, including select PC games.

When the SCH is implemented together with an Atom processor into a battery-powered, wireless, pocket-size device, the entire package will be branded Centrino Atom (also known as Menlow).

With the Centrino Atom, Intel is aiming to enable and support pocketable devices with uncompromised Internet compatibility. Its goal is to bring realtime (always connected) Internet to portable navigation units and video players, Internet tablets and handheld games.

Although not a specific target for this generation of the chips, Intel expects some spillover into the vertical market of specific handheld productivity too.

The next generation of the MID platform is code-named Moorestown and is expected in 2009. Moorestown will be the first System on a Chip (SoC) for MIDs, and will include a North Hub with CPU, graphics, memory and video decode/encode, as well as a South Hub with different IOs. Planned to consume at least 10 times less idle power than first-generation Menlow, Moorestown also will anticipate Intel's first entry into smartphones.

The chip giant believes that netbooks, in particular, will have a huge impact on both mature and developing markets, Intel spokesman Bill Calder said, adding that system builder and reseller channels should benefit.

The recent success of the AsusTek Computer Inc. Eee PC has possibly accelerated the ramp of ultra low-voltage processors and platforms like Intel's Atom category of products, Mercury Research Inc. analyst Dean McCarron said.

"There clearly is a market in developed countries for what Intel's calling the netbook. The Eee PC did so well in the fourth quarter. It shows that there's a very present market for these devices," McCarron said.

"You have a wide number of education venues that use PCs in teaching and this is another PC to be sold into this environment, and, of course, that means by the channel in many circumstances."

Next: Small Wonder Small Wonder

The Intel Corp. Atom processor is the chip maker's smallest processor (<25 mm2 die size)--built with the world's smallest transistors (47 million of them). With models ranging from 800MHz to 1.86GHz, an average power range of 160 to 220 milliwatts, an idle power range of 80 to 100 milliwatts and TDP power from .65 to 2.4 watts, Intel claims it's the world's fastest chip under 3 watts.

The Atom has full Core 2 Duo ISA compatibility and targets low power while maximizing performance-per-watt efficiency. The design allows operation at the lowest voltage levels permitted by the technology.

Using sleep transistors to minimize power consumption, the Atom has Drowsy and Ultra-Drowsy modes in L2, and Intel's C6 Deep Power Down architecture, which they say is 1.6 percent the power of full on.

Next: VAR Take: Joe Toste VAR Take: Joe Toste

Even as Intel is predicting explosive growth in the market for ultra low-voltage platforms like Atom in the coming years, Joe Toste of Intel OEM partner Equus Computer Systems Inc. wonders if all of this is really going to translate into a bonanza of opportunities for the channel. At the very least, he said, the path to a profitable netbook or nettop business was unknown.

Toste, VP of marketing at the Minneapolis-based system builder, isn't so sure that no-frills devices built on such platforms meet the computing demands of U.S. business and public sector users served by the channel, at least not in volume. He cites Intel's Classmate, one of the chip maker's earliest netbook-type systems. Intel originally targeted its Classmate notebooks for schools in developing nations but recently announced they would be available for resale in North America as well.

"We're selling more to secondary schools and colleges. Those guys aren't going to take a toy like that," Toste said of the Classmate, adding that the device could be attractive as an introductory computer at the elementary school level, but it wasn't clear if much of the channel had a door into that sub-vertical.

"I just don't think the Classmate, as it's currently built, has a play in the U.S. market," Toste offered. "I could be wrong."