Intel fires up new Atom processors

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Intel fires up new Atom processors

TG Daily In-Depth – Intel officially launched its new Atom processor, previously code-named Silverthorne (for Mobile Internet Devices) and Diamondville (for Netbooks and Nettops), which carries the hopes of the company to ignite a big growth phase – one that exceeds the most important blockbuster in the company’s history: The 486 processor. Read the announcement as well as technical details, performance
estimates and the reasons why Atom may succeed (or fail) in detail here on TG Daily.

 

Baby Centrino is born: Having unveiled the brand some time ago, the company has announced the new CPU at its Spring IDF, which opened earlier today in Shanghai, China. This first series is based on the low-power “Silverthorne” variant targeting Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs). Intel is offering five different versions of the chip, ranging from 800 MHz to a 1.86 GHz clock speed, power consumption between 0.6 watts and 2.4 watts, FSB400 to FSB533, multithreading support and prices that range from $45 to $160 (including the “Poulsbo” chipset, which is now officially called “System Controller Hub” or short “SCH”).

In a nutshell, Intel says that the Atom CPU will deliver “the best Internet experience in your pocket”. That claim is partially based on the firm’s target market of portable communication devices with a 5” screen that cover navigation features, Internet connectivity, video playback and handheld gaming. Intel says that Silverthorne will be leading this segment in performance and is x86 compatible. In fact, supported instructions as well as certain technical features are identical with the mobile version of the mobile Core 2 Duo processor with Merom core.

Between 25 and 30 different MIDs have been or will be announced during IDF, according to Intel. 10 of those devices will make their way to the U.S. in the second half of this year. One of them will integrate WiMax capability (since this article was written before the actual announcement, we will have to wait to write about that device until it is announced).    

Before we focus on the technical highlights of Atom, let’s take a brief look where the processor actually comes from.

Atom, who are you?

The UMPC disaster (Intel actually disagrees that the UMPC platform was a failure, since vendors such as Samsung were able to ship more than 100,000 of them) could be considered one of the apparent reasons why Intel is coming out with this new MID platform, which, if you look at it carefully, really is what the UMPC or Origami (as Microsoft called it) was promised to be. A handheld pocket computer you would carry with you anywhere you go. UMPCs are currently powered by the firm’s A100/A110 processors (Stealey core), which is a re-animinated Pentium M processor with 90 nm Dothan core.

Comparisons with the A100/A110 have been made already, and while they are interesting, these two chips are not related to each other. In fact, if there is any relationship, it goes back to the Timna processor (which was developed in the late 1990s as a Celeron successor). Intel representatives told us that some ideas for Silverthorne have been taken from Timna, but the company declined to provide details which ones they may have been and stressed that carried over “ideas” are insignificant. The most accurate description of the origin of Atom may actually be that it is a chip that has been designed from scratch. Intel engineers told us that it was easier for them to design the CPU from the ground up to achieve the 2 watt power goal than using components and building blocks from existing architectures.

In the end, Atom’s beginning was a design that was stripped of everything but minimal features that provided instruction set compatibility, Intel said. Rather than adjusting or fine-tuning existing products, Intel explained that it created Atom feature by feature with the main goal being to eliminate power hungry circuits. In today’s world, you really don’t get closer to a barebones design than that.

Technical highlights: Specifications and hardware features

We were lucky enough to get a technical overview of the Silverthorne some time before today’s launch and I have to admit that the processor sports an impressive design. The size and features of the Atom processor makes it the most impressive CPU design we have seen so far.

Atom is manufactured in a 45 nm production process. Intel squeezed 47,212,207 transistors into a 25 mm2 die (the package measures 13 mm x 14 mm x 1.6 mm). To visualize the size of each transistor, you would have to imagine each of those devices being 44 times smaller than average bacteria. 28% of the transistors represent the core of the processor, while the L2 cache (part of the “Uncore”) accounts for 22%. The remaining portions of the Uncore are distributed as follows: 9% for BIU, 35% for IO FSB and 6% for PCL and Fuse.

Read on the next page: Specifications and key hardware features, power consumption

 

Specifications: Up to 1.86 GHz

Intel will offer two different versions of Atom. We still have to wait for the dual-core and 64-bit capable Diamondville, the (32-bit) Silverthorne was rolled out today in five versions:

– Atom Z500, 800 MHz clock speed, 512 KB L2 cache, FSB400, 0.65 watt TDP
– Atom Z510, 1.1 GHz, 512 KB, FSB400, 2 watt
– Atom Z520, 1.33 GHz, 512 KB, FSB533, Hyperthreading, 2 watt
– Atom Z530, 1.60 GHz, 512 KB, FSB533, Hyperthreading, 2 watt
– Atom Z540, 1.86 GHz, 512 KB, FSB533, Hyperthreading, 2.4 watt

Since these processors are compatible with the Core 2 Duo (Merom), these CPUs have a very similar general feature set, which includes support for VT (virtualization), execute disable bit, SSE3 and SSSE3 instructions.

Features: 1.2 GHz at 43 degrees

The core of Silverthorne is built around a 16-stage processor pipeline, including three instruction phase stages – three for instruction decode, two for instruction dispatch and three for data cache access. Fetch and decode are supported by a 32 KB instruction cache with pre-decode extension, a 128-entry branch trace buffer as well as return stack buffers (2-deep for fetch and 8-deep for decode). The pipeline can schedule 16 entries per thread; two operations can be picked up from either thread per clock. 

 

On the performance side, macro-op support in Silverthorne/Diamondville is one key component that is responsible for the acceleration of the instruction processing. Moving towards a coarse-grained processing method and combining micro-ops into macro-ops, the company said it achieves what a higher decoding and scheduling efficiency. 96% of all instructions are micro-ops and the effective macro-op load-to-use latency is “zero clocks”, Intel told us. A longer branch-miss prediction is the downside of using macro-ops, which however, was apparently acceptable in exchange for the performance gain.

A rather surprising feature is the support of Hyperthreading (HT) or “Simultaneous Multithreading (SMT)”, which is the new official name for this technology. The three higher-end SKUs of Silverthorne integrate SMT (1.33 GHz, 1.6 GHz, 1.86 GHz) and represent one physical and one additional virtual core. A future dual-core Diamondville processor will be able to handle four threads simultaneously.

While you may wonder why dual-thread support made its way into a processor that isn’t supposed to run Photoshop and video editing software, Intel said that in consideration of its available power budget, SMT was a cheap and very efficient method to increase the CPU’s performance-per-watt rating. SMT also helps to scale the processor to higher performance ratings down the road.

We were not able to get more details how far Silverthorne will scale in the end. Intel said that the CPU is expected to stay with us for at least five to six years, supported by several fine-tunings over time. When asked directly what clock speed the processor will actually be able to handle, we were simply told that the “silicon is capable of high frequencies.”

We leave it up to overclockers to determine what this exactly means, but there appears to be lots of headroom for Silverthorne. We saw a non-cooled CPU running in Intel’s labs at 1.2 GHz with a 100% application load, showing a temperature of 43 degrees Celsius. Admitted, this was a test environment without cases and the chip will certainly run hotter inside a MID enclosure. But we also saw the 1.2 GHz chip running without trouble at (an artificially increased) temperature of 90 degrees Celsius – which indicates that overclockers will have a lot of fun with this CPU (which, by the way, looks like a great processor for small form factor systems as well).

Power consumption as low as 80 milliwatts

Silverthorne is not a chip that aims to set new performance records, but rather to provide good-enough performance in MIDs. The focus of the development was a power-efficient design.

Aside from the plain specs, Intel loaded the processor with power reduction technologies, which ultimately achieved the 2 watt-goal (we discuss the 2.4 watt version in the software technology section below). Atom comes with dynamic L2 cache sizing, power-efficient specialized execution units and the same fine-grained power management that is used in the Core 2 Duo. There are five different power states, ranging from a reduction of the core voltage to shutting down the core clock as well PLL, L1 and L2 caches.

In idle power (C6 power state), Intel claims that the Z500 will consume just 80 milliwatts (all other versions: 100 milliwatts). Since these communication devices will remain in idle state most of the time in typical use patterns, Intel estimates that the average power consumption of these processors will end up at 160 milliwatts (Z500) or 220 milliwatts (all other models).   

How much these chips will actually consume and how long your MID battery life will be, depends on how you use such a device, of course. What Intel has achieved with Menlow is impressive on the one side, but there will be many people who will argue that it has not been enough.

In a lab environment, we saw Silverthorne running the Windows Pinball game in idle (C6) mode – which means that playing this simple game will still yield low power consumption. But we are certain that battery time will be one of the major roadblocks for MIDs. If you think about the fact that first-generation MIDs will come with a battery capacity similar to that of the iPhone, but a 5” screen and more powerful hardware, it is only logical to conclude that the battery time of these devices will be less impressive. Officially, we were told that these MIDs will not be able to achieve the battery time of an iPhone: If you can empty an iPhone in three hours under heavy use, you may be able to do the same with an MID in two.

Intel promises that the battery time will improve in product generations, which includes the second-gen platform “Moorestown” which, by the way, will also target smartphones. 
 

Integrated Graphics Chipset: A big System Controller Hub

Combined with the Poulsbo chipset, Atom represents the “Menlow” platform, which succeeds the “McCaslin” UMPC platform that was based on the A100/A110 processors.

Poulsbo has received the strange name of “SCH” and has its origins in the 915 (including the ICH M7 southbridge) chipset. This chipset was has been heavily discussed in the Windows Vista Capable Class action lawsuit, as it is considered the reason why Microsoft released “Ready” and “Capable” versions of the Windows Vista operating system. It was not an especially powerful technology at the time and certainly underpowered to run all features of Windows Vista.

 

The specs of SCH include a maximum display resolution of 1366×768 (LVDS), hardware accelerated video output (standard definition video output of 1280×1024 and high definition video output of 720p, 1080i), eight USB 2.0 ports, support for up to 2 GB DDR2-533 memory, SD IO v1.1 (for SD memory card support), two PCIe X1 ports, as well as an IDE ATA-100 (PATA) connector.

It is a very traditional chipset design overall, but Poulsbo has a big focus on power consumption as well and some unique features in this respect: There is a newly designed FSB-to-memory bridge, which reduces the write traffic to DRAMs in order to keep DRAMs in self-refresh mode as long as possible. Intel’s engineers were able to re-use about half of the ICH 7 M southbridge fabric (to provide BIOS consistency). In this version, it runs at only 33 MHz, while the regular ICH 7 M is clocked at 125 MHz. In case you are wondering, the ICH southbridge is maxed out at a front side bus speed of 533 MHz.

There are a few other interesting facts about this chipset.

First, we were surprised to hear that it is actually manufactured in a 130 nm production process, which is three generations behind the 45 nm process used for Atom. Intel said that it is actually cheaper for the company to manufacture it in 130 nm than in any other process that was available, but the downside is that the chipset is large in size (22 mm x 22 mm package). While the Atom processor is about the size of a penny, the SCH is larger than a quarter. The SCH’s substantial size is one of the main reasons why Atom isn’t targeting smartphones at this time – it is simply too large for an iPhone-like device.

Also, mass storage is supported only through a PATA interface. This decision was made as Intel did not know whether SATA or CE-ATA would prevail in this class of devices at the time this chipset was developed. So don’t expect SATA SSDs in MIDs – which may actually not be a bad thing, as PATA SSDs are not only cheaper, but also consume less power than versions that connect through SATA.    

Read on the next page: Atom Software: Betting on Linux and dumping Windows, Performance estimates

Technical highlights – Software: Betting on Linux

Atom runs an x86 software stack that is compatible with Intel’s current mobile processors. As a result, you will be able to run any software on the MID that also runs on a Core 2 Duo notebook. This is actually significant, if you think about the fact that there is a changed software stack for every new ARM processor, which is Atom’s main rival. There are virtually hundreds of different versions of popular software such as Adobe’s Flash for different versions of cellphones, smartphones and PDAs. This is not just a pain in the you know what for developers but it limits the choice of applications for users of these devices as well.

 

Standardizing this platform on x86 opens the complete world of x86 applications to Atom MIDs. As long as you can live with the smaller display, you can install anything from Firefox, Skype (Intel says there will be a special version of Skype for MIDs), Google Earth, office applications and well, if you really want to, games and Photoshop.

Leaving Windows behind

The fact that Atom’s software stack is compatible with Merom also means that you can install any x86 operating system. Intel heavily pitches two Linux products for MIDs: Both were optimized through Moblin.org and represent an Ubuntu variant on the one side and Asianux (which includes Red Flag Linux, Miracle Linux and HannSoft) on the other. According to Intel, Moblin.org Linux versions are based on Linux-based software stack (Kernel, middleware layer, API layer) using open source (Kernel, media framework) and closed source (codecs, DRM) components. Whenever Intel has shown an MID at an event in the past two years, it typically had Ubuntu installed on it and it appears that this will be the software that Intel prefers on these shores.

But what about Microsoft and Windows? Yes, you can run Windows on an MID and there will be MID versions that come with Windows Vista. But a Windows Vista MID will require the expensive high-end version of Atom. While a Linux MID can run on a $45 Atom+SCH system, the same Atom platform for Windows will cost $160. And not only is it more expensive, it also has a 20% higher TDP (2.4 watts instead of 2 watts) than the “Linux” Atoms.

The only Windows SKU (1.86 GHz) is priced at a 68% premium over the most expensive Linux SKU (1.6 GHz, $95), which means that Windows MIDs will be substantially more expensive than Linux versions. Intel told us that Linux MIDs will debut at a $499 (and higher) price point, while Windows versions will start at $599. A downside of these Windows MIDs is also the fact that Vista will need a lot more storage space than Linux, so count on purchasing a larger SSD or a hard drive version of an MID, if you are interested in such a device.

We asked Intel why this 1.86 GHz SKU is so expensive, given the fact that the effective production cost should not be substantially more than any other Silverthorne chip (yields are rumored to be very high). The answer of the firm’s director of global ecosystem programs for MIDs, Pankaj Kedia, was, well, diplomatic: “Production cost does not determine the price.” In other words, Intel is charging what it can get for these processors, but especially $160 still seems a bit high to us, given the fact, that you can buy 45 nm Wolfdale CPUs for the same money.

The premium is high enough, in our opinion, to make this a very unattractive SKU for the MID market and reserve this particular product for the low-volume UMPC market. Remember that this SKU is the only version that will be able to run Windows Vista, which could mean that this move effectively shuts out Microsoft from the MID market – a market that Intel expects to be about 50x the size of the UMPC market within a few years. Obviously, Intel did not care much about Windows during our conversation and said that Windows is pricey and people really don’t care about the OS that is running on a device such as an MID.

Kedia said that Intel is “working with Microsoft”, but he has no idea what Microsoft’s strategy for MIDs is. “It will be interesting to see which way they will go. But right now, we really don’t know.”     

This story certainly sounds different than what we heard at the UMPC launch. Back then, Microsoft’s Origami marketing campaign virtually screwed Intel and device manufacturers when it promised a product that had nothing to do with the products that were coming to market. Today, it looks like Intel has decided to do what it thinks is the best software approach for MIDs this time, regardless of what is available from Microsoft.

Think about it: If MIDs will be as successful as Intel hopes they will be, Microsoft would have no way to get its current generation operating system onto a significant number of these devices. It could be the very first time that Linux will beat Microsoft on a mass-market consumer computing platform.            

Time will tell whether it was a good idea for Intel to leave Microsoft behind and bet everything on Linux.

Performance estimates: Almost a Pentium M at a fraction of the power

Despite the fact that Atom is a “good enough” processor in terms of performance and there is a clear focus on low power consumption, there’s still the performance question: How fast is it?

Intel was very careful providing any exact data comparing the processor with other Intel CPUs or competing processors. We have seen some Intel slides with performance estimates and were able to take a few quick notes. Lucky us: Intel declined to provide the more interesting slides on an official basis and that is why you won’t see many performance slides in this article.

So, we do have a few numbers, but remember to take these numbers with a grain of salt: Until there are official numbers from independent tests, these benchmark numbers are just indications how Silverthorne will perform.

In Intel’s internal tests, Silverthorne’s Spec_int2000 (an integer test benchmark) scores came in at 319, 439 and 653 points for models with clock speeds of 800 MHz, 1.2 GHz and 1.6 GHz (note that the 1.2 GHz is not a SKU that will be available for purchase). In comparison, a 1.86 GHz Core 2 Duo E6300 processor scores about 1900 points in this test. Intel said that Silverthorne’s performance in this specific benchmark can increase by about 50%, if Hyperthreading is enabled. You can see an overview of Spec_int2000 test results here.

The floating point-focused Spec_FP2000 scores were 294, 402 and 582 points for these processors, which compare to about 1800 points that has been achieved by a (single core) 3.0 GHz Pentium 4 630 processor.  You can see an overview of Spec_fp2000 test results here.
  
Intel estimates that Silverthorne processors without Hyperthreading will post about 126-130 points in the EEMBC v1.1 benchmark of the Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium, while the hyperthreaded versions will reach up to 172 points. It is difficult to compare the Silverthorne performance to other processors in this benchmark as there aren’t many results for common processors available. The organization, however, lists AMD’s 6 watt 1 GHz Geode processor with a score of 30.2 as well as Transmeta’s discontinued 1 GHz Efficeon CPU with a score of 137. 

Silverthorne will not be able to match the performance of the A110 CPU with the 90 nm Dothan core. Depending on their clock speed, the 800 MHz Atom CPU will be able to hit about 90% of the 3DMark2005 performance, about 70% of the Office performance and about 98% of the gaming performance. While this may sound disappointing for a new processor that is compared to a design that was introduced about five years ago, keep in mind that Silverthorne provides this performance at a power consumption that does not exceed 0.65 watts – while the 800 MHz A110 is currently rated at 5 watts.

In this perspective, the performance numbers are quite impressive. 

Read on the next page: Market opportunity, Intel’s challenges and conclusion

Opportunity: 100 million chips in three years?

So, why is Silverthorne a big deal for Intel? If you look at the processor from the traditional view, it is nothing special. No new record levels of clock speeds, no multi-core and it doesn’t hit a mass market – yet. But: Silverthorne expands Intel’s x86 processor portfolio on the very low end to a product offering that now reaches from handhelds to supercomputers – or, as Intel likes to call it, from “Milliwatts to Petaflops”. Yes, it is exaggerated, but you get the point. 

Broken down to its very basics, the business model of a semiconductor company is to sell chips, lots of chips and more of them every year. It’s no secret that the desktop CPU market is declining and the notebook CPU segment is the growth area right now. But growth in this segment doesn’t blow off your socks in terms of unit numbers. Server CPUs is also a business that does not provide room for substantially higher CPU shipments every quarter. If Intel is looking for new growth areas, which ones are there? 

Intel believes that it will be the handheld segment that will open the door to a whole new market, which has the potential to grow to a demand of dozens and even hundreds of millions of processors within a few years. Atom isn’t ready to play in the smartphone market yet (which has an annual market volume of about 150 million processors by itself), but Intel wants the platform to capture market share in a segment that offers portable navigation, video and gaming. Unit sales of portable navigation devices (PNDs) were about 16 million in 2007, according to Intel; portable video players reached 10 million units and portable game consoles about 20 million. Obviously, there is a big market, which Intel thinks will expands to about 100 million units over the next two to three years.

Menlow isn’t the platform that will see shipments of dozens of millions of units. The form factor and battery time of these 5” devices is in our opinion not convincing enough to attract every mom and dad to buy such a $500+ device for themselves and their children, who, according to Intel, are skyping, texting and facebooking all the time. But it is easy to see that Menlow will spark a device generation that will easily outgrow the installed base of UMPCs, which we heard stands at about 2 million worldwide.    

In a way, Menlow could be powering the early-adopter version of a portable computing and communication platform the UMPC was promised to be. We have seen one promising MID, but there is no doubt that this generation will mainly bring OQO-sized devices that are too large and heavy to fit in your shirt pocket and, sorry Intel, seem to be designed for early adopters and not the mainstream consumer. That mainstream platform could be Moorestown, Menlow’s successor. Moorestown is scheduled for a 2009/2010 launch and will be a SoC (that integrates the chipset) and Intel first try to become a serious player in the smartphone market.

Perhaps we are wrong and consumers will buy MIDs right away. But, on second thought, we are fairly sure that this scenario would require Apple to help design and market MID. Maybe someone should call Steve Jobs? 

Conclusion: A great chip and a market strategy that raises questions

We have seen Silverthorne so far on paper, talked with the engineers behind the product and saw it running in a lab environment. There is a big vision behind this chip, one that could reach far beyond the MID and enable a new generation of notebooks and even desktop computers that will be capable of running all the basic tasks in a much more power efficient manner than what we have today. In fact, I can’t wait to get one of these systems into my hands.

There are a few drawbacks of this first-generation design, mainly the huge SCH and the power consumption of these devices, which may limit the usability of this product category initially. If you are interested in buying on these MIDs, we suggest that you don’t buy them over the Internet, but actually go into a store and play with them so you get a feel how heavy and bulky they are.  

 

The success of Atom is not a given in our opinion – and this is not just because ARM is dominating this segment now (and is unlikely to just watch Intel take away market shares) and the fact that Intel is in this game alone, without the support of another major technology partner such as Microsoft. To us, it looks like the marketing department may be shooting itself in the foot. 

Since the very first time Intel began talking about Silverthorne, the company highlighted the fact that this would be one cheap processor, the cheapest one since the 286. In fact, we checked with our sources again earlier today and we received a confirmation that the production cost is somewhere in the $6 – $8 neighborhood.

The cheap processor claim raised expectations that Intel would roll out a processor that would also be cheap to purchase. But what was announced today is not really cheap. $45 for the entry-level platform is on the high-end of analyst estimates and we have no idea what exactly justifies $160 for the 1.86 GHz version. The same money could buy a 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo E8200 CPU ($163). Either there is a really high demand for Windows Vista MIDs or Intel simply wants to limit Microsoft’s access to this market segment. 

There is no doubt that prices for Silverthorne are artificially high right now. They will have to come quite a bit, if Intel is serious about establishing a new mass market product category.

Buying a first-generation MID means that you will have to pay a premium for the privilege of owning a new communication device. But if you can also accept the low battery life and bulky form factors, you are likely to enjoy your MID.

All other users may want to wait until 2010: Moorestown will bring much smaller MIDs and more capable smartphones for less than $500. In our opinion, this will be the device generation consumers are actually looking forward to.

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