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
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  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    No, I think he is asking for Windows 7, not Windows Phone 7. WHich I can see being useful on a tablet, but not at all on a phone. It would take so much effort to turn the standard version of Windows 7 into something usable on a phone that I would imagine if x86 does take off in smartphones Microsoft would be better off just making a completely new OS that can run windows programs. Reply
  • logdrum - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    There are Moorsetown tablets running Windows 7, As long as the chipset has a PCI bus Windows 7 heck even Windows 2003 server shuld install. The smart phone do not have a PCI bus therefore you cannot install Windows 7 Reply
  • logdrum - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    It is not a limitation of x86. Windows needs a PCI bus to install and run. There is no PCI bus in Intel embedded systems or ARM for that matter. Having said that you can install VMware on the Linux OS and install Windows as a Virtual Machine. Some people even say hacking the firmware of the embedded hardware to fake a PCI bus so Windows would install. It could be done. Take one of those WindRiver classes on fastboot and kboot and maybe you could make it happen. Reply
  • logdrum - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I am talking here purely x86 Windows, the one on desktops and netbooks and even tablets. Tablets have a PCI bus usually. The phone factor of Moorsetown does not have, Reply
  • jaydee - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Dual-boot Windows 7 and Android on a 10" tablet. Please? Reply
  • arnavvdesai - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    I think getting 3 out of 5 will be very hard for Intel, especially Apple because that company has sunk so much of its own money into chip IP. Apple is not content with just getting the best hardware out there in ARM world but wants to actually design the chip around its own OS so I dont see them using the Atom series.
    Intel says Win7CE & Win8CE are both out so that leaves them in a bad place. However, Microsoft is working on a micro OS kernel inside its labs called Menlo( I am not sure about the name) which Intel could try and effectively market to. Basically in Menlo Microsoft is trying to shrink NT to super small size and footrpint.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Intel offered the ability to create custom atom SOC's via TSMC fabs about a year ago. It was withdrawn due to lack of interest; but if apple was interested I'm certain they'd make it available again. Reply
  • aguilpa1 - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    People will forgive lots of things if the thing just looks HOT and works as it should. It has been a long time since I have been wowed by any of the new smartphone devices, including the iphone. It is sleek and well built but a little to chunky and roundish for my taste. However they get the style look down. Reply
  • geniekid - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    Would it be possible to leverage Moorestown in a way that yields 2x the battery life with the same performance as today's top end smartphones? Most 3GS/N1 users today would rather have more battery life than HD playback ability. Unfortunately, as I think about it, I believe that the battery sucking features of the phone are the peripheral devices - wifi/3g radio, camera, display, things which are outside the scope of Moorestown. Reply
  • Mike1111 - Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - link

    If the Z600 only support 1024x600 or higher, how come the Aava reference platform has 800x480?

    And even though I think the performance is very good, Z600 is still too big to compete in the Smartphone market (3-4 chips instead of 1)? I don't see how that could work with something as small as the iPhone 4th-gen's mainboard, which is incredible tiny.

    Also Intel talks about combining Lincroft and Langwell into one chip, but no official word on memory in the same package? Only Anand speculates about it.

    But if they Intel can integrate at least these three chips into one package with Medfield and offer some additional improvements plus @32nm, and have actual Medfield smartphones on the shelves by the holiday season 2011, Intel can finally start to compete in the smartphone market.
    Reply

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