Intel Aims at the Mainstream

We can easily make arguments for faster processors in most desktops and notebooks, but we're on the verge of computing being far more ubiquitous than that. Our desktops and notebooks have gotten so fast that we demand similar functionality and responsiveness from all electronic devices we use on a regular basis. The most frustrating until recently was the smartphone; smartphones have become more complex in the types of tasks we require of them, yet their interfaces have hardly given us the PC-experience we're used to. Apple attempted to change this with the iPhone but there's still much room for improvement. We've seen the same sorts of problems on more conventional consumer electronics. Blu-ray players that cost as much as PCs yet take longer to boot up and are beyond sluggish when interacting with menus. We can run Half Life 2 at 200 fps but we can't make the UI on a TV respond quickly to button presses on a remote control?

The problem is that most of the CE industry is quite commoditized and we're quickly headed for a world where LCDs become cheap enough that it makes sense to have multiple surfaces in a room that can act as displays. There's no room for a powerful CPU that costs hundreds of dollars in TVs, Blu-ray players or even simpler devices like portable GPS units.

The processing power required by the interface on a television, the software stack on a GPS, or even the non-decoding components of a Blu-ray player can easily be handled by even the cheapest desktop processors. The question isn't "can we" make these devices faster, it's what's the bare minimum CPU we need to make them faster.

Such a CPU would have to be low power, low cost but without sacrificing performance.

You could argue that the sorts of applications we're talking about can easily be satisfied by something as slow as a Pentium III, or maybe even the first Pentium M perhaps? And this is where Moore's law comes into play.

A few years ago, the Pentium III, Pentium 4 and Pentium M were all just as expensive to make as today's Core 2 Duo processors. These days their transistor counts pale in comparison to the 400 - 800 million we're talking about on desktop CPUs. Within 2 years we'll be at over 1 billion transistors on a desktop CPU that costs less to manufacture than the original Pentium processor. But if we looked at it from another angle - is it possible to build a microprocessor that offers the performance of the original Pentium M but make it cheap enough to use in commoditized consumer electronics and make it low power enough to be run without a heatsink?

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  • FlakeCannon - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    This was an absolutely fantastic article as far as I'm concerned. One of the best I've read from AnandTech. I'm truly impressed with the amount of effort and dedication that the engineers at Intel put into the Atom. Thought the consumer may not see its importance today the Atom will continue to develop one throughout the next 2 years and show why this is such a huge step in the right direction. I really think that this article outlines very well the architecture involved and where it intends to lead Intel and others in the future.

    I'm always impressed to see Intel take architecture that was revolutionary in its time 15 years ago in the Pentium and Pentium Pro and resurrect it in modern day fashion with help of the Dothan Pentium M architecture and even things borrowed from the miserable Netburst technology that 15 years later I believe will once again create a product revolutionary in nature. I was never able to appreciate it in the days of the Pentium but certainly can now.

    This is one product I think is deserving of being excited about.
    Reply
  • fitten - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    What does an on-die memory controller have to do with ILP? Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    Woops, I've clarified the statement :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • erwos - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    I was thinking that this would be a fantastic platform for making a small, silent HTPC box for doing streaming media, but the lack of 1080p output kills that to a large extent. I know it's not a big priority for the first revision given the UMPC targeting, but I hope the "Atom 2" does try to squeeze that feature in. Reply
  • FITCamaro - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    It could always be paired with a different, more capable graphics core. Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    It;d be very interesting to see how the 1.86GHz Silverthorne stacks up against a 1.8GHz P4 Northwood, a 1.86GHz Dothan, a 1.8GHz Conroe-L based Celeron, and a 1.8GHz Athlon 64.

    I wonder if Apple is going to refresh AppleTV with Silverthorne since it seems ideal with replace the current 1GHz ULV Dothan in there.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    Well at least Intel did not name their Atom CPUs the 'Atom Z80' . . . heh.

    Anyways, this is good for our future, as the mITX, and pITX 'systems' now days are still kind of large-ish, and cost quite a bit of money for what they are. Though, I think that putting a web browser on just any old appliance in the house would be way overkill, and possibly a very serious mistake. A TV with a web browser ? An Oven ? Please . . . this is why we have PCs, and micro mobile devices.

    Recently a friend and myself have been working on an embedded project, and I can see the potential here, but a 'problem' does exist. Some of the things you would want to do with such a processor . . . well lets just say there still would not be enough processing power. That being said, I do not see why these could not help make a TVs/HD-DVD player menu operate faster.


    Reply
  • pugster - Thursday, April 03, 2008 - link

    It certainly sounds nice, but the atom processor cost alot because some of the higher end models cost more than $100 each. I find it surprising that their Polosbo chipset is manufactured at 130mm. It probably came from one of their foundries that was due to upgrade to 32mm sometime next year anyways. They could've earily manufactured at 65mm.

    Somehow I don't see their product as mature and maybe the next gen product they would have a cpu and the north/south bridge in the same die.
    Reply
  • lopri - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    I honestly don't get the excitement. Should I? I mean, I wouldn't feel comfortable with one gigantic company controlling every single electronics in our life. If Intel opens up the X86 and everyone can compete on even end, then maybe. Since that won't happen, the future looks scary enough. Reply
  • clnee55 - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    NO, how can you get excitement. I am already bored with your conspiracy theory. Let's talk about tecnical issue here. Reply

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