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December 22, 2009

New Atom processors: N450, D410 and D510

On December 21, 2009, Intel announced the next generation of Atom processors. The new generation of Atom processors includes the single core N450, the single core D410 and the dual-core D510.

Up to this announcement, millions of netbooks (as well as related devices such as tablets and boards) used the Atom N270 processor with its two companion chips, the ICH7M I/O chip and the 945GSE graphics and memory controller. The combo of the latter two is known as the Intel 945GSE Express chipset and makes for a total of three chips. Of N-Series processors released prior to this latest announcement, the Atom N280 was really just a very slightly faster N270 (1.66GHz vs 1.6GHz), and the Atom 330 (technically not N-series, but still in the "Diamondville" family as opposed to the more industrial "Silverthorne" Z-series Atoms) a dual-core version of the desktop-oriented Atom 230.

With the new chips, the big news is that Intel reduced the chip count from three to two by integrating the graphics and memory controller into the CPU itself. The old ICH7M I/O controller chip is replaced with the Intel NM10 Express. This means fewer chips to mount, lower power consumption, and, not mentioned, one less reason to seek third party chipsets (such as NVIDIA's Ion Graphics Processors).

Of the three new processors, the N450 is specifically geared towards netbooks whereas the D410 and D510 processors, all working in conjunction with the new NM10 I/O controller, are geared towards low-end desktops. The new NM10 I/O controller consumes just two watts compared to the older southbridge ICH7M's 3.3 watts. More amazingly, while the old GMCH display and memory controller with its 945GSE northbridge chip with GMA950 graphics consumed six watts, the Graphics Media Accelerator 3150-based integrated solution only adds about three watts to the consumption of the netbook-oriented N450 (chip max TDP (thermal design power, a measure of power consumption) 5.5 watts vs 2.5 watts of the N270 w/o graphics).

From what I can tell, the GMA3150 has hardware acceleration for MPEG-2 but not for H.264, so there's still no HD hardware decoding, which means a third-party HD decoder chip will come in handy. Onboard video is now likely to move from 17 : 10 aspect ratio 1024 x 600 pixel to a somewhat more palatable 1366 x 768 pixel, with significantly higher (2048 x 1536) external analog video possible (though some reports say that the N-Series chip is limited to 1400 x 1050, which would be less than what we have now). Somewhat surprisingly for a new chip, memory support is for DDR2 instead of the newer DDR3 standard.

Transistor count goes from the N270's 47 million to 225 million in the new single core models and 317 in the new dual-core chip, which means the CPU alone goes from 47 to 92 million transistors, with the graphics and memory controllers using about 133 million transistors. What exactly the extra 45 million transistors do is not clear as the tech specs look pretty much the same.

Note that Intel targets the D410 and D510 processors specifically for desktops. Though the D410 has the same clockspeed and uses the same NM10 I/O controller, it max TDP is almost twice that of the N450, 10 watts versus just 5.5. That's likely due to the graphics core running at twice the speed in D-series chips (400 vs 200MHz).

Overall, it doesn't look like the new Atoms, which have the Intel 64 extensions, will bring much of a performance improvement to netbooks and netbook-level rugged or embedded devices. Reducing the chip count from three to two is nice, but the Z-series processors already had that. Graphics seem somewhat improved, but not enough to make a huge difference, and there's still no HD playback hardware support. I am also not quite sure why the D410 and D510 processors are aimed at the desktop when the D410 chip combo has a total system TDP that's the same as that of the N270 and N280 (12 vs 11.8 watts), and the dual-core D510 just a bit more (15 vs. 11.8 watts). Also interesting is that Intel highlights the smaller footprint when it was a larger footprint that was lauded at the introduction of the "large package" P and PW series of industrial processors just a bit ago.

Overall, it's good to see these new Atom chips although I can't help but feeling that Intel looked out for itself more than adding compelling value for consumers.

Here is Intel's list of the entire Atom processor family.

Posted by conradb212 at 05:47 PM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2009

The Atom processor predicament

Well, this is going to be interesting. Despite the Intel Atom chips' modest performance, consumers have bought millions and millions of those little netbooks. I am quite certain they bought them because of the low price that made netbooks an impulse buy as opposed to spending more for a "real" notebook computer.

Whether or not customers are happy with their netbooks largely depends on how they use the computers. The small display with 1024 x 600 pixel resolution is confining for almost any real work as there's just not enough real estate. And while the term "netbook" implies that the devices are especially well suited for accessing the web and browsing around, that really isn't true. Netbooks are generally sluggish browsers and mostly unable to deliver adequate multimedia performance. And those who hoped to run HD video on their netbooks struck out completely, because first-gen netbooks simply couldn't do that at an acceptable pace.

On the other hand, the netbooks' small size and weight made them wonderful travel companions, and with an extended battery they practically ran forever on a charge (well, six hours or more in the case of my Acer Aspire One). And when hooked up to a big screen and a full-size keyboard, netbooks work really well as office computers. I hook up my little Acer to a 1680 x 1050 pixel 22-inch wide-screen.

However, we always want more, and so netbooks have been creeping up in size and power. Display size went from 7 to 8.9 inches, then 10.1 and now 12.1 inches. Which means netbooks are morphing ever closer to standard notebook range, which also means customers will continue to want and expect more. I mean, if the netbooks are so large now, why not an optical drive, and could we have the screen just a bit larger yet? Obviously, what customers really want is a device that costs as little as a netbook, but is as large and powerful as notebooks were before they became hefty giants with 19-inch ultra-wide-format displays.

Problem is, the Atom N270 simply isn't up to powering anything more than a little netbook, and even that just marginally. So Intel released the very slightly more powerful N280 and the dual-core N330. And NVIDIA came up with the NVIDIA Ion Graphics chipset that is supposed to work better with Atom N-Series chips than Intel's own chipset. I recently read a review of the Asus Eee PC 1201N netbook that uses both the N330 chip and the NVIDIA chipset, has a 1366 x 768 12.1-inch screen and lists for US$499. According to the review, you can now actually watch HD video, play many games, and things feel quite a bit less sluggish. Battery life is less than it was for the older, smaller netbooks, of course, and for 500 bucks you can easily get a "real" notebook with far higher performance and many more features.

Why do I bring all this up? Because the rugged market has also heavily invested in Atom technology and almost everyone has Atom devices in their lineup or pipeline. Almost all of them are based on either the Atom N270 or the Z510/530/540, i.e. the first generation of Atoms, the minimal ones with "targeted" performance. And now, just as we're starting to see nicely optimized Atom systems that live up to battery life expectations, some of those initial chips are already going to be replaced by the N280, N330 and soon by next gen Atom chips. That's bad news for rugged manufacturers whose first-gen Atom products are just now becoming available.

The moral of the Atom story is, at least for vertical market manufacturers: pick an Atom chip that Intel is likely to support for several years, and make certain the drivers are fully optimized and all the power saving features are fully implemented. Atom can deliver superior battery life and acceptable performance, but manufacturers must carefully target those products so customers won't be disappointed. We've seen Atom-based machines that use hardly less battery power than devices with much more powerful processors. That won't do. And we've seen some where non-optimized graphics drivers made the machines painful to use.

Using an automotive analogy, with the Atom Intel created a small and miserly 4-cylinder engine for use in fuel-efficient vehicles that provide adequate performance as long as the car isn't too big and heavy and customers have not been led to have unrealistic expectations. With the new and upcoming Atom chips, Intel is already making bigger, more powerful engines, obsoleting the earlier ones and giving in to the demand for more horsepower at the expense of efficiency and good design.

Posted by conradb212 at 01:41 AM | Comments (0)