Intel's Atom Architecture: The Journey Beginsby Anand Lal Shimpi on April 2, 2008 12:05 AM EST
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The Atom processor's architecture is not about being the fastest, but being good enough for the tasks at hand. A product like ASUS' EeePC would not have existed 5 years ago, the base level of system performance simply wasn't great enough. These days, there's still a need for faster systems but there's also room for systems that aren't pushing the envelope but are fast enough for what they need to do.
The complexity of tasks like composing emails, web browsing and viewing documents is increasing, but not at the rate that CPU performance is. The fact that our hardware is so greatly outpacing the demands of some of our software leaves room for a new class of "good enough" hardware. So far we've seen a few companies, such as ASUS, take advantage of this trend but inevitably Intel would join the race.
One of my favorite movies as a kid was Back to the Future. I loved the first two movies, and naturally as a kid into video games, cars and technology my favorite was the second movie. In Back to the Future II our hero, Marty McFly, journeys to the future to stop his future son from getting thrown in jail and ruining the family. While in the future he foolishly purchases a sports almanac and attempts to take it back in time with him. The idea being that armed with knowledge from the future, he could make better (in this case, more profitable) decisions in the past.
I'll stop the analogy there because it ends up turning out horribly for Marty, but the last sentence sums up Intel's approach with the Atom processor. Imagine if Intel could go back and remake the original Pentium processor, with everything its engineers have learned in the past 15 years and build it on a very small, very cool 45nm manufacturing process. We've spent the past two decades worrying about building the fastest microprocessors, it turns out that now we're able to build some very impressive fast enough microprocessors.
The chart below tells an important story:
|Manufacturing Process||Transistor Count||Die Size|
|Intel Pentium (P5)||0.80µm||3.1M||294 mm^2|
|Intel Pentium Pro (P6)||0.50µm||5.5M*||306 mm^2*|
|Intel Pentium 4||0.18µm||42M||217 mm^2|
|Intel Core 2 Duo||65nm (0.065µm)||291M||143 mm^2|
|Intel Core 2 Duo (Penryn)||45 nm||410M||107 mm^2|
In 1993, it took a great deal of work for Intel to cram 3.1 million transistors onto a near 300 mm^2 die to make the original Pentium processor. These days, Intel manufacturers millions of Core 2 Duo processors each made up of 410 million transistors (over 130 times the transistor count of the original Pentium) in an area around 1/3 the size.
Intel isn't stopping with Core 2, Nehalem will offer even greater performance and push transistor counts even further. By the end of the decade we'll be looking at over a billion transistors in desktop microprocessors. What's interesting however isn't just what Intel can do to push the envelope on the high end, but rather what Intel can now do with simpler designs on the low end.
What's possible today on 45nm...
With a 294 mm^2 die size, Intel could not manufacture the original Pentium for use in low cost devices however, today things are a bit different. Intel doesn't manufacture chips on a gigantic 0.80µm process, we're at the beginnings of a transition to 45nm. If left unchanged, Intel could make the original Pentium on its latest 45nm process with a die size of less than 3 mm^2. Things get even more interesting if you consider that Intel has learned quite a bit in the past 15 years since the debut of the original Pentium. Imagine what it could do with a relatively simple x86 architecture now.
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FlakeCannon - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkThis 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.
fitten - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkWhat does an on-die memory controller have to do with ILP?
Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkWoops, I've clarified the statement :)
erwos - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkI 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.
FITCamaro - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkIt could always be paired with a different, more capable graphics core.
ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkIt;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.
yyrkoon - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkWell 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.
pugster - Thursday, April 3, 2008 - linkIt 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.
lopri - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkI 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.
clnee55 - Wednesday, April 2, 2008 - linkNO, how can you get excitement. I am already bored with your conspiracy theory. Let's talk about tecnical issue here.