Intel's Ultra-Portable Atom: Unveiled


Do you remember the original Pentium 4? It launched at 1.5 GHz and gave us our first bittersweet taste of the NetBurst microarchitecture, which Intel would use to replace the P6 design.

When the Pentium 4 began its life, Intel manufactured the chips on a 180 nm node. The 42 million transistors that went into those first Pentium 4s - internally referred to as Willamettes - occupied a die no less than 217 square millimeters. Keep those figures in mind throughout our overview of Intel’s newest mobile processor and platform. And don’t feel too old; eight years seems like a lifetime, when you’re talking tech.

Mobility, Redefined
Smaller than a Laptop

Intel is formally announcing a brand new processor today that it hopes will drive the next generation of mobile Internet devices.  Perhaps you’re already familiar with the MID concept. Last year, Intel took the wraps off of its McCaslin platform, a seldom-discussed proof-of-concept that never really took off. Nor was it meant to. McCaslin employed Intel’s A100/A110 processor built on 90nm process technology. Those CPUs were derived from Intel’s Pentium M efforts. And while they enabled respectable compute muscle at 3W, imagine running Windows Vista on an 800 MHz desktop. Or don’t. It’s a painful thought. Nevertheless, the A100 and A110 are x86 Intel chips that go into real products, like Samsung’s Q1.

Menlow takes Intel's MID concept from ultra-portable notebooks to pocket-sized devices falling into four different sub-categories.

The MID market is now being broken up into several different categories, including portable navigation, Internet tablets, video players, and handheld gaming. Note the absence of voice communications. Intel has its eye on smartphones, but the current hardware foundation isn’t there yet. We’ll have to wait until 2009/2010 to see what the Apples and Googles of the world do with Intel’s hardware vision. For now, it’s all about adding Internet connectivity to the digital devices you might already tote around with you.

“Big deal,” you say. “The Q1 you just mentioned has Wi-Fi access and works with Samsung’s HSPDA modem. My PSP does Wi-Fi. And I don’t mind loading my Archos video player up with hours of content before I hit the road.” All true. However, you’re still faced with several obstacles. The 800 MHz A110 in that Q1 isn’t very beefy. Although it centers on Intel’s mobile technology, a reported three hours of battery life isn’t exactly stunning. And between all three of the examples posited, you have the issue of compatibility to address.

The Menlow platform, now known as Centrino Atom, represents Intel's first ground-up low-power CPU/chipset combination, setting the stage for Moorestown in 2009.

Here’s where Intel’s story gets a bit more compelling. You probably didn’t know this, but Adobe has 160 versions of Flash 7.2 it uses to support the many combinations of mobile devices with different ARM processors and versions of the software stack. The company has to keep creating new versions at the cost of both time and money. Of course, Adobe charges its customers for the development efforts. For Intel’s MIDs, however, Adobe can port its software one time and any derivative hardware platform will use the code. The same goes for audio and video codecs, which can already be a pain when dealing with today’s fragmented portable entertainment device business.

The idea here, according to Pankaj Kedia, director of Intel’s global ecosystem programs, is to make the Internet available wherever you are, rather than have you going to it. Put it in the context of cell phones. Instead of being tied to land lines, cell phones provide the freedom of voice communications wherever you happen to be. Intel’s Kedia sees the same thing happening with the Internet. Rather than searching for somewhere to hook up, MIDs will put the Internet in your pocket with all of the compatibility and performance of a PC. It’s a noble vision for sure, and we haven’t yet heard how all of these devices will achieve ubiquitous connectivity. However, one thing is for sure: the hardware is here and it makes the old McCaslin platform look like child’s play.

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