Intel's Ultra-Portable Atom: Unveiled

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Atom at Launch
Five SKUs from which to Choose

The first round of Atom processors will launch at clock frequencies between 800 MHz and 1.86 GHz. All models include 512KB of L2 cache on the same sub-25 square millimeter die. But the two entry-level offerings will run on a 400 MHz front side bus, while the three higher-end versions employ a 533 MHz FSB. Those same three models also feature Hyper-Threading.

As you’d expect, power consumption rises as you ascend the family’s hierarchy, so OEMs will have to continue weighing the thermal performance of these solutions against the size of their devices. Even at 2W, Atom is still too hot for super-slim phones. As much as we would have liked to hear of an iPhone product with this technology, that’ll have to wait at least another year or two when Intel launches its next-generation platform.


 
The list of launch SKUs consists of five modes ranging from 800 MHz to 1.86 GHz. Three of the chips sport 533 MHz FSBs and Hyper-Threading support.



That platform, currently known as Moorestown, will be a System on Chip design and Intel’s first foray into the smart phone arena. There aren’t any really solid details on the hardware available yet, aside from an acknowledgement that Intel will use 45nm manufacturing and still reduce idle power by up to 10 times. However, Intel’s Anand Chandrasekher stood on stage at the fall IDF in San Francisco with an example of the type of device Moorestown will power and the potential appears to be stunning. For now, we’ll have to be contented with the precursors to those pocket-sized do-it-all products.

While the hardware Intel is introducing takes front and center, the company is also talking about its immediate plans to support Centrino Atom with a software infrastructure. Linux naturally lends itself to the ultra-portable market because of its cost, footprint, and lower system requirements. The problem with it, according to Pankaj Kedia, is that it’s fragmented. Intel’s solution is to unify the software under its Moblin open source project. Not only does Moblin address the low-cost, light weight operating system for Intel’s MIDs, but it also serves as an umbrella for the optimized applications developed to run on Centrino Atom.


 
Intel expects to see these 10 products, plus more, once Centrino Atom platforms start shipping in the June time frame.



Intel says it’s already talking to about 25 vendors who have the hardware, have the software, and are planning products. In the June timeframe, at least 10 of those should be ready or very close to it. Among the list of OEM partners, Intel showed us Lenovo’s entertainment device, a Toshiba handheld running Vista, an LG model also running Vista with a slide-out keyboard, Gigabyte’s offering, a touch-screen system from ASUS, Clarion’s mobile navigation system, and a BenQ handheld.

 

Life Beyond Atom
We Can't Wait to See

The MID market has been on Intel’s radar since 2005, when it set the ball in motion for today’s introduction. The company’s first step into the handheld Internet space was a bit timid with McCaslin. The Menlow/Centrino Atom is significantly more deliberate. But will the technically proficient start packing portable video players and Internet-enabled tablets in addition to their keyboard-equipped phones?

That’s going to be a hard sell, especially since there are a growing number of mobile convergence devices that offer video playback, voice communications, and Internet access in one place. More probable is Intel’s success with Centrino Atom in specialized markets. For instance, car audio manufacturer Clarion introduced its internally-named MiND Internet-enabled navigation device at this year’s CES. Currently slated for availability this year, the MiND will have an 800x480 touch screen display, a Centrino Atom platform 256MB of memory, 4GB of solid state storage, WiFi, Bluetooth 2.0, and a GPS receiver. In the future, Clarion plans to add a 3G data module and WiMAX support to round out broadband Internet connectivity.


 
Check out Moblin.org for more information on Intel's standardized Linux environment for MIDs. Expect to see a number of MIDs running Vista as well.



That last point is particularly interesting. Recall that in order to qualify for Centrino branding, a notebook must include Intel’s processor, chipset, and wireless networking module, be that the PRO/Wireless 3945ABG card or the WiFI Link 4965AGN adapter. With Centrino Atom, mobile devices will feature a combination of WiFi, 3G, and WiMAX sourced through Intel or a third party. Hopefully that means more innovation from OEMs building sexy new handhelds.
 

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