The Atom CPU


5 Aug 2011
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The world is poised for a boom in cheap, portable computers. They might not be for everyone, but they will change the way you think about and use mobile and desktop devices in the coming years.

Intel CEO Paul Ottelini has called it “The most important processor innovation in the last 40 years”. Compared to the processors we’re used to seeing, the Intel Atom has low power consumption and radically low cost. It follows a completely new approach, offering impressive features such as a power requirement of only 0.65 to 2.4 watts—less than a tenth of today’s most common mobile processors which typically use up to 35 watts.
The Atom is basically nothing but slimmer, more power efficient and cheaper Pentium M (the basis of today’s Core series CPUs). It produces so little waste heat that it can go without a cooling fan. If it is used together with the equally new System Controller Hub chipset (SCH), the equipment can be called “Centrino Atom”. The SCH supports two PCI ExpressSlots (x1), eight USB2.0 ports, DDR2 RAM at 400/533 MHz, and an IDE port as well as a 3D engine from PowerVR much like the one already available in the iPhone.

Inside the Atom

The Atom processor is different from the regular CPUs we’re used to mainly because it can process commands only one after another, i.e. “In Order”. It therefore cannot cope with very demanding tasks, and unsurprisingly, in spite of running at 1.6 GHz, the N270 model performs at par with an 800 MHz mobile CPU of today. All other modern CPUs are faster per Megahertz because they can process their commands “Out of Order”, if this helps run them faster. What does work in favor of the Atom is that this approach can save power in an unprecedented way. With maximum 2.5 Watt thermal envelope, the N270 helps devices achieve longer running times than even ultra-low voltage Celerons (31 Watt) which are the standard for today’s ultraportables.
Intel has matched the N270 with the extremely outdated but cheap i945 chipset. This chipset has one of the weakest graphics subsystems possible, but this too helps in saving power. It can support DDR2 RAM, solid-state disks (SSDs) and a 7–10-inch TFT display.

MIDs will be the smallest web browsing interface

The Z Series Atom CPUs are aimed at MIDs (“Mobile Internet Devices”), which are devices that might look like format with diagonal display size of about 6 inches. This will not only enable browsing, but you can also listen to MP3s, watch videos, make phone calls, navigate or play. But it might take some time, before this “pocket internet for everyone” arrives. Even though the prices of these devices should be low because of the cheap Atom processors, MIDs’ screens are thought to still be too small for comfortable internet browsing, at least at a level that would compare with desktop PCs or laptops. Above all, Windows Vista is too overloaded for pocket devices.

So Microsoft will have to offer a custom OS for such devices, somewhat more powerful than Windows Mobile, but not as resource-heavy as Vista. An unnamed source at Intel even once remarked that “the first real MID which actually makes reasonable Internet browsing possible is the iPhone”. However, there are some promising Linux user interfaces. Atom processors will probably only help handheld devices take off in the second generation. For 2009/2010, Intel has a new, smaller and even more power-saving Atom platform under development, codenamed “Moorestown”. This will combine the CPU with the chipset and a wireless communications module on a circuit board, making it highly suitable for smartphones and MIDs. Intel Vice President Anand Chandrasekher even announced “Moorestown” with the famous quote from Apple chief Steve Jobs: “One more thing…”. The first atom-powered mobile phone could easily become an iPhone killer.

Nettops & Netbooks will proliferate

A new wave of supercheap computers is already arriving. The N-series Atom processors will grab all the attention in this space. They require a little more power (4 to 8 Watts) compared to the Z Series Atoms. They will still be cheap—and can be mounted on Mini-ITX format motherboards which use the older Intel i945 or SiS chipsets. This makes them ideal for super-cheap PCs or notebooks—a market segment that the Asus Eee PC entered (and some might say created) with great success.

Intel also offers the an Atom processor called simply “230”, running at 1.6 GHz for desktop PCs. The Atom 230 can function in 4-Watt thermal envelope and can run on a mini motherboard along with an Intel 945 or SiS chipset. A tiny desktop PC like the Asus Eee Box or Mac mini would be called a “Nettop” or “ULPC” (ultra low-cost PC)

Intel has named these budget devices “Nettops” and “Netbooks”, for low-cost PCs and portables respectively, in order to distinguish them from regular Windows Vista PCs. Now, in addition to Asus, at least a dozen manufacturers have announced, demonstrated or already launched their low-cost, low-powered netbook designs. However, these devices will be more successful in developing countries—those who can afford standard computers will be much happier with the greater power.

Full-sized notebooks and PCs might get dirt cheap

Starting late this year, Atom CPUs might displace even Celerons in ultra-low cost but full-sized laptops. These might be available for around Rs 12-13,000. Thus, the Atom promises to become a great success, particularly in developing countries such as India and China where PC penetration is abysmal and Internet access remains out of the reach of the masses. A nice, light, Atom-driven notebook with no cooling fans and a small amount of fixed storage space could really take markets by storm.

What about the competition?

Via Technologies has introduced a cheap CPU called Nano for the same segment. AMD is now expected to unveil its plans for low-power, low-cost CPUs in November this year. It would make sense for Intel to respond with a dual core Atom, which we might see quite soon. The demand for Netbooks and the enthusiasm surrounding them has been so high that Intel has already admitted that supply is not meeting demand—and most of the Atom Netbook designs we’ve seen haven’t even hit the market yet.

Source: Chip magazine.
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