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Analysis: Intel's Preps Atom for World Domination

By Wolfgang Gruener - March24, 2008

Santa Clara (CA) - Intel today released the brand name of its Silverthorne and Diamondville processors for mobile devices - products the company has called its most significant product since the introduction of the Pentium processor: While the chips won't set new performance records for your desktop PC or your notebook, they are very low cost chips pumped out in huge volumes to conquer the market of portable devices and low-end PCs.

The new brand of processors is "Atom", targeting initially mobile Internet devices (MIDs) and, as time goes by, cheap PCs that may be heading into emerging markets to reach consumers with little money to spend. The overall idea isn't new, AMD has been in this market for some time with its Geode CPUs, Via has its C7-M chips and ARM has a variety of core blueprints that the company has licensed to manufacturers around the globe.

For Intel, however, this market is relatively new (if we forget the 90 nm Pentium M-based A100 series of processors the company markets for the most recent UMPC generation), and Atom is built up as a serious attempt to capture market share in mobile devices and low-cost devices. The company will offer two versions of Atom: The version for mobile devices will be based on the Silverthorne core, the version for low-cost PC is based on the Diamondville core, which is a derivative of Silverthorne that likely integrates optimizations to run desktop applications.

Silverthorne is a 45 nm chip that integrates 47 mm transistors on a 25 mm2 die, which compares to 410 million transistors on a 107 mm2 die in the latest 45 nm Core 2 Duo dual-core processor generation. When talking about Silverthorne's performance, Intel likes to compare the chip to the 90 nm (single-core) Pentium M with Dothan core; however, Silverthorne integrates less L1-D cache (24 compares to 32 kB) and less L2 cache (512 kB compared to 2 MB), while clock speeds should be comparable: TG Daily heard the chip will launch with up to 1.8 GHz. Anandtech has taken apart Silverthorne's tech and you can read the details here.

What makes Atom special is not so much is performance or power consumption, which is 0.6 - 2.5 watts, but the fact that Intel is creating yet another platform ("Atom Centrino") and it apparently is able to produce this CPU for a few dollars. The Centrino strategy has worked out well for Intel and this approach - which will include graphics, Wi-Fi, 3G and WiMax through on the "Menlow" platform - is now combined with a new effort to drop the production cost as much as possible. Intel is able to fit about 2500 Atom CPUs on one 300 mm wafer. According to chief executive officer Paul Otellini, Silverthorne is the company's lowest-cost CPU in 20 years and there is an opportunity to integrate these processors into products with prices of less than $100. Initially, we expect these MIDs to be considerably more expensive, a $300 - $500 should be realistic.

AMD appears to be behind in this game right now, but It will be interesting to watch how Via will be defending itself in this market. The company recently announced first details about its Isaiah processor, Via said that the CPU will offer similar power consumption, but will be considerably faster than Silverthorne.

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