Intel's Atom and the Rise of the Netbook

Silverthorne and Diamondville Atomized

Silverthorne and Diamondville Atomized

Exactly a month back, Intel shared with its partners and the media more information of the Silverthorne codenamed processors - Intel's first purpose-built processor designed solely for ultra mobile computing solutions. On 2nd of March, the company finally christened it as the Intel Atom processor. If you're wondering of its market potential, while niche at the moment, it has a very huge untapped potential in both emerging and mature markets thanks to the kind of devices that the Intel Atom will power. We'll give you a quick rundown with the state of things and why the Atom will be big (pun intended).

For several years, Intel has been capitalizing on their more power-optimized notebook-class processors to be used in smaller and lighter computing solutions (just as how desktop processor designs were scaled to the mobile space in the distant past of the pre-Centrino days). Think of the thin and light notebook solutions and the UMPC solutions to-date; while the notebooks have fared reasonably well in their form factor, the size, build and compute power of a UMPC has been far from practical. Part of the reason lies with the clunky Windows interface and the lack of a leaner Windows operating system that can operate smooth enough with the given UMPC hardware specifications. The other major stumbling block is the hardware powering the UMPC themselves which limit them to their existing chunky size. What they lack is processor that has similar computing capability as the current ultra low voltage processors, but with far lower thermal output and power requirements. The all-new Atom processor is targeted squarely at this segment as this single-core, 512KB L2, HT-enabled, 47-million transistor equipped processor is designed for sub-2W operation.

The die shot of the Intel Atom core processor.

As mentioned earlier, Silverthorne was the initial codename for the Atom processor but sometime later, Intel also mentioned of Diamondville. This is just a variant of Silverthorne, so both of these core code names belong to the Intel Atom processor family. How they differ is basically the segmentation of products they cater to. Silverthorne processors are really optimized for the lowest power possible (as low as 0.5 watts consumption) and are meant for devices like mobile Internet devices (MID) and other in-your-pocket devices. Diamondville however is more cost optimized and is suitable for UMPC and other low-cost, low-profile notebooks. With their native x86 ISA derived from the Merom architecture, the Atom processors hold the advantage of immediate software compatibility of the mass market as opposed to ARM-based processors and the likes. However the Atom (even considering the Silverthorne variant), is not quite yet the ARM application processor competitor in terms of size and power considerations for the handheld market, but it will eventually get to that stage sometime next year.

Another Centrino Ecosystem for MIDs

In addition to announcing the Atom processors, Intel is also embracing another Centrino brand category solely for pocketable mobile devices such as the MID and to push Intel's branding/architecture into this space. Formerly known as the Menlow platform, it is now the Intel Centrino Atom Processor technology. Chipset details are still sketchy, but we heard that Intel will not willfully enforce its own networking module in this platform and will allow third-party vendors to supply them too. The main reason was to allow OEMs and ODMs to tailor their mobility solutions to cater to varying needs and to hopefully drive up the adoption of the Centrino Atom platform with a little more leniency. Of course, once Intel gains a strong foothold, we can't say if they would still adopt this stance.

While other products like UMPC and compact notebooks may choose to adopt the Intel Atom processors and the Menlow platform, they are quite unlikely to bear the Centrino Atom branding as it was specifically targeted for the MID-class devices.

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