Centrino Atom Explained with Pictures and OEMs

silverthorne-photoshopped.jpgBy now you’re probably sick of trying to figure out what all these processor code names mean. Silverthorne? Is that for me? Menlow? What’s that? Hey, we hear you, and we’re here to help. At the Intel Developers Conference today, Intel announced five new Atom chips, previously code-named Silverthorne, and we’ll help you understand what they mean and how they affect you. We interviewed Pankaj Kedia, the director of global ecosystem programs for Intel’s ultra mobility group, to get the inside scoop on today’s announcements, and an explanation of the Atom and Atom Centrino platform. When we’re done, hopefully you’ll have a good grasp on the smallest processor to ever leave Intel’s manufacturing lines. The History Four years ago Intel began working on a platform called Silverthorne, the code name for the Atom processor. It began with the goal of creating a low-cost and low-watt processor. A low-wattage processor would provide longer battery life to computers that are smaller than most of today’s laptops—for the UMPC market that took off this year with introductions like the Asus Eee PC and the Everex CloudBook—and even smaller consumer electronics in the mobile Internet device (MID) market. Today’s Centrino platform, designed for laptops, was optimized to run on a 20-watt power envelope. Penryn rocks out at more than 35 watts. The Atom architecture was optimized to utilize a 0.65–2.4 watt envelope. In fact, Intel claims it’s the fastest in the 3-watt range. The chip itself, which measures in at just 0.98 square inches (0.51 x 0.55 x 0.06 inches), is so small that you can fit 2,500 of them on a 12-inch wafer. Did we run away from you for a second? Let’s back up. lenovo.JPGWhat’s an MID? To help make the MID future possible, Intel came up with a road map of platforms. First it announced McCaslin in the first half of 2007. It was a CPU and chipset targeted at ultra-low-voltage notebooks like the HTC Shift, which uses the Intel A110 processor, better known as the Intel Stealy. Next, Intel designed and planned Menlow—today’s announcement—a low-power CPU and chipset package for mobile Internet devices. Finally, Intel will tackle smart phones with Moorestown in order to create what it calls “premium smart phones.” Moorestown will launch in the 2009/2010 platform and will use a system on a chip (SoC) technology. As noted earlier, an MID is a mobile Internet device. “The MID concept is simple,” Kedia explains, “Last year 125 million people bought a mobile device, a media player, a navigation device, a portable DVD player, PDA, or smart phone, but the one thing missing is the Internet. None of these devices have the full-blown Internet. The premise of mobile Internet devices is to target the entertainment segment, the navigation segment, the productivity segment, and the communications segment for mobile devices where the Internet comes first.” Imagine having a mobile broadband solution like WiMAX in your camera, totally eliminating the need for microSD Cards because every picture is already uploaded to a destination of your choosing. Back up, bucko. Can you explain the code names? Glad you asked. Silverthorne and Diamondville were the previous code names for two Atom chips. Silverthorne was Atom designed specifically for use in MIDs. Diamondville was specifically designed for net-tops and netbooks, which we’ll explain in a minute. Menlow was the code name for the Atom Centrino platform which uses the Silverthorne chip. lg.JPGBoth Atom and Centrino Atom have their own requirements, and the systems that will use these chips are a bit different. Atom will be used in what Intel calls the aforementioned net-tops and netbooks, products in the $250–$300 area that resemble today’s UMPCs and thin-client desktop solutions. Anything tagged “Atom” requires only the Silverthorne CPU itself. Centrino Atom, the Menlow platform, is meant for products that will fit in your pocket. “Centrino Atom is defined as these 5 things,” Kedia explained, “the Silverthorne processor, the Poulsbo chip (we’ll explain in a minute), wireless functionality (cellular data, Wi-Fi WiMAX, etc.), and battery controls all in a small form factor.” Intel currently has 25+ designs for products that use Centrino Atom, and about 80 percent of them are embracing 3G or WiMAX technology. “If there are 25 designs, you’ll see 25 different kinds of products for each design, and each will look and feel different, have different apps, have different UIs,” an enthusiastic Kedia told us, mentioning that the first will hit market in the May/June timeframe. Poulsbo (System Controller Hub) Explained Intel began its development on Poulsbo, a necessary component in the Centrino Atom platform, in 2005. “Poulsbo controls the rest of the system,” Kedia noted, “it has a new name, the Intel System Controller Hub. It supports specific power-management techniques we’ve implemented in the processor.” The chip itself helps provide 3D graphics with DirectX 9 and OpenGL support and also provides support for 720p and 1080i HD video using “hardware accelerated video decoding.” With all that power, it’s possible to output media from these MIDs to HDTVs. Poulsbo is the first one-chip solution that includes both the North bridge (memory) and South bridge (in/out devices) controllers on one die. The processor SKUs announced today are Centrino Atom platforms. SKUs Announced The processors announced today are the Z500 (800 MHz) , Z510 (1.1 GHz) , Z520 (1.33 GHz), Z530 (1.6 GHz), and Z540 (1.86 GHz). At a max load, the Z500 consumes just 0.65 W while the high-end Z540 eats just 2.4 W. Each average 160mw^2 and 220mW^2 over time, and at idle, just 80 mW and 100 mW respectively. “The low average power drives battery life,” Kedia notes, “the processor goes into idle mode between keystrokes to save power, that’s why the average power is so low. Not only can a MID sit in idle power when you’re not using it, but when you’re not using the keys, it saves overall average power.” Pricing, which includes both the Silverthorne CPU and System Controller Hub, is as follows (per 1000 units): Z500, $45; Z510, $45; Z520, $65; Z530, $95; Z540, $160. Each has 512K of L2 cache and a 7.8 mm x 3.1 mm die. aigo.JPG The Manufacturers Announced: Intel Favors Linux, launches Moblin Linux community project While Intel informed us that it is working with Microsoft for XP and Vista support, Kedia explained that Linux is favored. “You’ll see many designs in the next week and later in the year. We think the best MIDs will be based on Linux because Linux has a smaller footprint (on the hard drive). Linux is more responsive in these handheld devices and is more customizable. People don’t necessarily want the same look and feel across devices; they want a personal UI. All things being equal, Linux has a lower price point and requires less memory (when compared with Vista and XP),” he said. “To make it easier for the customer, we’re working with the open-source community under the project name Moblin. We took the best features of Linux, like the power management and small footprint, then created a version of Linux for mobile Internet devices and handhelds specifically, called Moblin.” Intel also said it had been working closely with Skype and other companies to provide the latest software in devices at launch. Now for the big news. Intel informed us that we’ll see MIDs this week from Aigo, ASUS (Windows based), BenQ, Clarion, Fujitsu, Gigabyte, Hanbit, KJS, Lenovo, LG-E (Windows based), NEC, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sophia Systems, Tabletkoisk, Toshiba (Windows based), USI, WiBrain, and Yuk Yung. Out of the 25+ designs, Kedia expects 6 to 10 to make their way to the United States but added that it’s a worldwide effort. In order of images appearing in this post, we’ve posted mobile Internet device concepts from Aibo, Lenovo, and LG based on Intel’s Centrino Atom processing-technology platform. Intel is also working with a host of service providers that were not named during the writing of this article. However, Intel claims there will be at least one or two of these service providers in every geographic location. Partners for software include MySpace, MobiTV, Skype, AOL, Adobe, and more. Adobe Air will launch on Centrino Atom this week. Exhale There you have it—today’s Intel Centrino Atom platform and Atom explained. We’re excited to follow these new devices as they’re announced and released on store shelves in the coming years. Stay tuned as they begin to flow into our labs; a new generation of mobile products is on the horizon. We’ll also keep you updated on the Via Isaiah platform, which will compete with Atom, as more information becomes available.

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