Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2471
More Details on the Intel Atom Emergeby Anand Lal Shimpi on March 6, 2008 8:00 PM EST
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In early 2004 Intel assembled a team of engineers to design a core to be used in a many-core CPU. You may remember the following slide from Spring IDF 2005:
By 2015 Intel expects to have CPUs with many smaller IA cores, each with very low power characteristics but with the entire chip being very high performance. Intel commissioned its Austin design team to work on one of the cores for this type of many-core CPU.
Also in 2004, Intel commissioned a smaller group from within this team to look at the feasibility of turning one of these cores into a standalone CPU for use in low power mobile applications.
The team tasked with the pathfinding effort quickly concluded that based on the performance, power and cost requirements, it could not rely on any of Intel’s existing microprocessors to base such a CPU on.
The CPU that resulted from this pathfinding effort was Silverthorne, more recently given the name Atom. And today Intel is releasing some more details on the processor, as well as its first successor due out in 2009/2010.
More Menlow Details
The Austin team’s pathfinding effort resulted in the design of the Bonnell core, named after the tallest mountain in Austin, TX measuring only 750 feet. Given that Bonnell was a very small core, naming it after a very small mountain seemed fitting.
The Bonnell core was just that, a core, at first. Once Intel told its Austin team to begin turning it into a standalone mobile CPU, the team had to design a cache and bus I/O for the chip. The resulting chip was Silverthorne, which is a Bonnell core + L2 cache + Bus I/O.
Silverthorne, which is the ultra mobile version of the Intel Atom CPU, is built on Intel’s 45nm process as we’ve mentioned in our architecture piece.
Menlow is the name of Intel’s MID (Mobile Internet Device) platform, it consists of the Silverthorne (Atom) processor and the Poulsbo chipset.
Poulsbo is an entirely new chipset design, it’s a single chip solution that features integrated GPU and I/O controller - it obviously plays all of the standard chipset roles, just in a single chip. Poulsbo isn’t 45nm but Intel isn’t disclosing its manufacturing process just yet.
The integrated graphics core in Poulsbo is also a new design, but Intel isn’t disclosing too much about it yet. It will support full hardware accelerated HD video decode.
The Menlow platform will officially launch in Q2 of this year with products expected within 6 months of its launch.
The Moorestown Update: Atom in Smartphones
The successor to Menlow is Moorestown. Also built on a 45nm process, Moorestown is a highly integrated version of Menlow composed of the following components:
1) Lincroft System on a Chip (SoC)
2) Langwell South Hub
4) Evans Peak Networking
Moorestown is composed of two chips: a north hub and a south hub. The Lincroft SoC is the north hub and it features a LPIA (Low Power Intel Architecture) CPU core (Silverthorne derivative), on-die graphics and on-die memory controller. Both video encode and decode hardware are also included on-die. This is a big step from Menlow because the GPU is now built on a 45nm process since it’s contained on the CPU die itself. The on-die memory controller should also help performance of the in-order core which is highly dependent on receiving dependent data as quickly as possible.
The Langwell south hub is an extremely focused piece of silicon given how highly integrated the Lincroft north hub/CPU is. Langwell is composed of a system controller, solid state disk controller and I/O blocks for things like USB or audio.
The Power Management IC (PMIC) plays a mystery role at this point. Intel is just revealing that it handles power management for the platform yet not fully detailing its active roles. The PMIC interfaces with the Langwell south hub which is being licensed to 3rd parties to actually make the PMIC.
The final component of Moorestown is the Evans Peak networking hub, which is made up of Intel and non-Intel silicon. Intel will enable Wi-Fi, WiMAX, Bluetooth and GPS while 3rd party vendors can supply chips to enable things like 3G on Moorestown platforms.
As we mentioned before, Moorestown rids the platform of any PCI bus which apparently precludes it from being used with Windows Vista, because of this all Moorestown based MIDs will be running Linux. Linux is a far better fit for something like Menlow or Moorestown simply because the performance levels are too low to be used with a hog like Vista. Vista can work on these platforms, just not with iPhone-smoothness.
Thanks to the integration made possible with Moorestown idle power will be reduced by a factor of 10x over Menlow. With such a low idle power, voice applications now become possible with Moorestown.
Moorestown will allow Intel’s Atom CPU to exist in larger smart phones (4 - 5” size), while its successor in 2010/2011 will use the magic of Intel’s 32nm process to finally get into something iPhone-sized.
In order to appreciate Intel’s Atom you really have to look at its roadmap. It’s much like AMD these days, today’s product may not be very impressive but its roadmap is sound. The first incarnations of Atom and the Menlow platform have failed to impress us at this point, but where they are headed has got us very excited.
In our review of the iPhone we stated the following:
The excitement around the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) died down because no one's hardware/software implementation was really done properly. Well folks, the iPhone is a couple generations away from being a true UMPC, it just needs some faster hardware and more storage space. There's no doubt in my mind that Intel's ultra low power x86 projects are being eyed by Apple for use in future iPhones, it's only a matter of time before we have the power of the first Centrino notebooks in our pockets.
When Apple perfected the smartphone UI it made its performance shortcomings even more obvious. Having a slow CPU in a smartphone isn’t as noticeable if the UI itself isn’t particularly responsive or quick to use, it’s just like being bottlenecked by a slow hard disk - you don’t notice a slow CPU as much in those cases. But when Apple fixed the UI side of things, the slow performance of its ARM CPU became more obvious as you’re able to interact much quicker with your phone.
Intel’s only leg to stand on with Menlow is performance, an area where it does have an advantage over competing ARM processors. However, it can’t yet compete based on power consumption. Through use of Moore’s law allowing for better integration of silicon and smaller, less power hungry transistors, Intel hopes to be at power-parity with ARM (both idle and active) within the next 3 or so years - all while being significantly faster, at least for the next 5.
Intel is effectively promising that in the coming years its Atom processor will enable you to, without sacrificing battery life, have significantly faster mobile devices and phones. We can’t help but be excited about that.