Intel Fires Up New Atom Processors

Technical highlights: Specifications and hardware features

Atom, who are you?

The UMPC disaster (Intel actually disagrees that the UMPC platform was a failure, since vendors such as Samsung were able to ship more than 100,000 of them) could be considered one of the apparent reasons why Intel is coming out with this new MID platform, which, if you look at it carefully, really is what the UMPC or Origami (as Microsoft called it) was promised to be. A handheld pocket computer you would carry with you anywhere you go. UMPCs are currently powered by the firm's A100/A110 processors (Stealey core), which is a re-animinated Pentium M processor with 90 nm Dothan core.

Comparisons with the A100/A110 have been made already, and while they are interesting, these two chips are not related to each other. In fact, if there is any relationship, it goes back to the Timna processor (which was developed in the late 1990s as a Celeron successor). Intel representatives told us that some ideas for Silverthorne have been taken from Timna, but the company declined to provide details which ones they may have been and stressed that carried over "ideas" are insignificant. The most accurate description of the origin of Atom may actually be that it is a chip that has been designed from scratch. Intel engineers told us that it was easier for them to design a CPU from the ground up to achieve the 2 watt power goal than taking advantage of existing architectures.

In the end, Atom's beginning was a design that was stripped of everything but minimal features that provided instruction set compatibility, Intel said. Rather than adjusting or fine-tuning existing products, Intel explained that it created Atom feature by feature with the main goal being to eliminate power hungry circuits. In today's world, you really don't get closer to a barebones design than that.

We were lucky enough to get a technical overview of the Silverthorne some time before today's launch and I have to admit that the processor sports an impressive design. The size and features of the Atom processor makes it the most impressive CPU design we have seen so far.

Atom is manufactured in a 45 nm production process. Intel squeezed 47,212,207 transistors into a 25 mm2 die (the package measures 13 mm x 14 mm x 1.6 mm). To visualize the size of each transistor, you would have to imagine each of those devices being 44 times smaller than average bacteria. 28% of the transistors represent the core of the processor, while the L2 cache (part of the "Uncore") accounts for 22%. The remaining portions of the Uncore are distributed as follows: 9% for BIU, 35% for IO FSB and 6% for PCL and Fuse.