When I wrote my first article on Intel's Atom architecture I called it The Journey Begins. I did so because while Atom has made a nice home in netbooks over the years, it was Intel's smartphone aspirations that would make or break the product. And the version of Atom that was suitable for smartphone use was two years away.

Time sure does fly. Today Intel is finally unveiling its first Atom processors for smartphones and tablets. Welcome to Moorestown.

Craig & Paul’s Excellent Adventure

Six years ago Intel’s management canned a project called Tejas. It was destined to be another multi-GHz screamer, but concerns over power consumption kept it from coming to fruition. Intel instead focused on its new Core architecture that eventually led to the CPUs we know and love today (Nehalem, Lynnfield, Arrandale, Gulftown, etc...).

When a project gets cancelled, it wreaks havoc on the design team. They live and breathe that architecture for years of their lives. To not see it through to fruition is depressing. But Intel’s teams are usually resilient, as is evidenced by another team that worked on a canceled T-project.

The Tejas team in, er, Texas was quickly tasked with coming up with the exact opposite of the chip they had just worked on: an extremely low power core for use in some sort of a mobile device (it actually started as a low power core as a part of a many core x86 CPU, but the many core project got moved elsewhere before the end of 2004). A small group of engineers were first asked to find out whether or not Intel could reuse any existing architectures in the design of this ultra low power mobile CPU. The answer quickly came back as a no and work began on what was known as the Bonnell core.

No one knew what the Bonnell core would be used in, just that it was going to be portable. Remember this was 2004 and back then the smartphone revolution was far from taking over. Intel’s management felt that people were either going to carry around some sort of mobile internet device or an evolution of the smartphone. Given the somewhat conflicting design goals of those two devices, the design team in Austin had to focus on only one for the first implementation of the Bonnell core.

In 2005, Intel directed the team to go after mobile internet devices first. The smartphone version would follow. Many would argue that it was the wrong choice, after all, when was the last time you bought a MID? Hindsight is 20/20 and back then the future wasn’t so clear. Not to mention that shooting for a mobile extension of the PC was a far safer bet for a PC microprocessor company than going after the smartphone space. Add in the fact that Intel already had a smartphone application processor division (XScale) at the time and going the MID route made a lot of sense.

The team had to make an ultra low power chip for use in handheld PCs by 2008. The power target? Roughly 0.5W.

Climbing Bonnell

An existing design wouldn’t suffice, so the Austin team lead by Belli Kuttanna (former Sun and Motorola chip designer) started with the most basic of architectures: a single-issue, in-order core. The team iterated from there, increasing performance and power consumption until their internal targets were met.

In order architectures, as you may remember, have to execute instructions in the order they’re decoded. This works fine for low latency math operations but instructions that need data from memory will stall the pipeline and severely reduce performance. It’s like not being able to drive around a stopped car. Out of order architectures let you schedule around memory dependent operations so you can mask some of the latency to memory and generally improve performance. Despite what order you execute instructions, they all must complete in the program’s intended order. Dealing with this complexity costs additional die area and power. It’s worth it in the long run as we’ve seen. All Intel CPUs since the Pentium Pro have been wide (3 - 4 issue), out of order cores, but they also have had much higher power budgets.

As I mentioned in my original Atom article in 2008 Intel was committed to using in order cores for this family for the next 5 years. It’s safe to assume that at some point, when transistor geometries get small enough, we’ll see Intel revisit this fundamental architectural decision. In fact, ARM has already gone out of order with its Cortex A9 CPU.

The Bonnell design was the first to implement Intel’s 2 for 1 rule. Any feature included in the core had to increase performance by 2% for every 1% increase in power consumption. That design philosophy has since been embraced by the entire company. Nehalem was the first to implement the 2 for 1 rule on the desktop.

What emerged was a dual issue, in-order architecture. The first of its kind from Intel since the original Pentium microprocessor. Intel has learned a great deal since 1993, so reinventing the Pentium came with some obvious enhancements.

The easiest was SMT, or as most know it: Hyper Threading. Five years ago we were still arguing about the merits of single vs. dual core processors, today virtually all workloads are at least somewhat multithreaded. SMT vastly improves efficiency if you have multithreaded code, so Hyper Threading was a definite shoe in.

Other enhancements include Safe Instruction Recognition (SIR) and macro-op execution. SIR allows conditional out of order execution depending if the right group of instructions appear. Macro-op execution, on the other hand, fuses x86 instructions that perform related ops (e.g. load-op-store, load-op-execute) so they go down the pipeline together rather than independently. This increases the effective width of the machine and improves performance (as well as power efficiency).

Features like hardware prefetchers are present in Bonnell but absent from the original Pentium. And the caches are highly power optimized.

Bonnell refers to the core itself, but when paired with an L2 cache and FSB interface it became Silverthorne - the CPU in the original Atom. For more detail on the Atom architecture be sure to look at my original article.

The World Changes, MIDs Ahead of Their Time
POST A COMMENT

67 Comments

View All Comments

  • Suhail_kapoor - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Anand, Intel said 3 out of 5, you said one magic device, I think they have one sorted out ... NOKIA is a company needing revolution and this partnership is Nokia's hope for smart phone market.

    Also outside US and to some extent Europe Nokia has a very strong foot hold, combined with essentially free software such as MeeGo the road looks good, only IF and a big if, they can deliver on software front.
    Reply
  • WaltFrench - Sunday, May 09, 2010 - link

    “…NOKIA is a company needing revolution and this partnership is Nokia's hope for smart phone market.”

    Only problem: Nokia needs a polished solution fast—its average sales price is imploding and the shareholders are restless. A solution that would require them to throw away all the development work to date would be suicidal.

    If it takes 12-24 months to implement a totally new architecture, with new software (seems a bit optimistic), only a smartphone maker whose roadmap is in great shape today can afford to make the switch; that'd be Apple. But they have just bulked up with PA Semi and Intrinsity; it'd be hard to imagine much Intel Inside.

    Not to mention that Intel's i-series CPUs seem to have been designed to derail Apple's plans of running with a graphics-centric, well-supported CPU. The extra silicon & design time seems to have kept the i3 out of Apple's 13" notebook, while the 15" and 17" have just-a-bit-rocky auto-switch technology to fire up the NVidia GPUs. It doesn't seem that Intel has exactly been courting Apple's product intentions of late.
    Reply
  • Lord Banshee - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Intel First SoC based on Atom is not Moorestown, but CE4100(codename Sodaville) is: http://download.intel.com/design/celect/prodbrf/32...

    http://intelconsumerelectronics.com/

    Where is the love for Intel's CE product. Anand you should look into reviewing some products based off these products too.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Sure, is there a shipping product based on the CE3xxxx or CE4xxxx series?

    I remember there seemed to be something like the Yuixxx from Conceptronix or some similarly named Dutch company.. Did they ever ship?
    Reply
  • Lord Banshee - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    I am not sure what products have CE products in it... CE devices typically don't advertise this kind of info.

    Lots of rumors when searching for ce4100 on engadget

    http://www.engadget.com/search/?q=ce4100&invoc...
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Most of those CE4100 results are Intel announcements announcing platform updates or availabilities.

    The TiVo Premier result, I am not sure why it is even there.... TiVo Premier teardown revealed it is fully Boradcom based, IIRC.

    I am very interested to know whether there are any CE4100 products out in the hands of the customers right now... Any Intel employees / PR guys care to offer this information?
    Reply
  • zdzichu - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Seeing that GPU part is descendant of Paulsbo... I foresee similar fiasco with opensource drivers as with GMA500. Too bad, it really damages Intel reputation. Reply
  • beginner99 - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    funny gma 600. Even if intel like improves gm drivers 100x fold, they will still suck...So you can pretty much say it depends on that.

    And there go my dreams for useful drivers for my menlow device...it's a PITA. slowing hardware by deliberatley? making horrible drivers.
    Reply
  • JumpingJack - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Intel's graphics performance as they begin integrating into the CPU improved significantly, to the point of competitive. http://www.anandtech.com/show/2952/2

    Your view point is strictly from a desktop running pixels number as high as 1900x1200 (too much for even the best IGP from nVidia or ATi/AMD), on a smartpone the graphic intensity is not nearly enough... it does not need to win on the highest FPS, it just needs to get 30 FPS or better for a fluid experience.

    The graphics component should be fine, no real reason to suspect otherwise.
    Reply
  • rahvin - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Given the abysmal Linux support of the GMA500 I foresee a complete piece of crap again that will result in this being used in NO android phones. For me Android is the future of the cellphone and frankly what happened with Paulsbro foreshadows the complete crap that this platform will be on Android and other Linux based platforms (like WebOS). The concerns of the OP are completely justified and I had exactly the same reaction when I read the GPU is based on PowerVR like the piece of crap GMA500.

    Intel cannot succeed in the Phone space if Linux is treated with the same disdain they presented with GMA500.
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now