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May 06, 2010

"Moorestown" — Intel's new Z6xx Atom platform and how it fits in

On May 4th, Intel introduced the next generation of its initial family of Z5xx Atom processor. Codenamed "Moorestown," the Z6xx family, together with a new I/O controller and signal processing chip are meant to make Intel competitive in the booming smartphone and internet access device market. On paper at least, the new processor family looks very good and may yet help Intel establish itself in the device market (which, interestingly, they abandoned when they sold the XSCALE application processor business to Marvell a couple of years ago). But before we go into details of Moorestown, let's backtrack and see how Intel's whole Atom venture began and developed.

"Silverthorn" and "Diamondville"

The Intel Atom processors have been around for over two years now. Initially, Intel launched two different product lines, the Z5xx "Silverthorne" processors geared towards mobile internet devices (MIDs), and the N2xx line of "Diamondville" processors for standard low cost PCs and netbook class devices.

The Z5xx versions of the Atom processor had a 13 x 14 mm package footprint and used the also new “Poulsbo” System Controller Hub. The processor had about 47 million transistors—more than the original Pentium 4. Bus frequency was 400MHz or 533MHz, and the Thermal Design Power (TDP) was between 0.85 watts for a low-end 800MHz chip, and 2.65 watts for a 1.86GHz Z540 version. The chipset used about 2.3 watts, which meant total CPU and chipset consumption wasn’t even 5 watts, far less than any of Intel's standard mobile processors. And the chipset had hardware support for H.264 and other HD decoding (but required the appropriate codecs to take advantage of it!). However, as the combo was targeted for internet devices, there was only PATA and no SATA support, though SATA could be added.

The Atom N2xx "Diamondville" family, released a bit later, was very similar to the Z5xx, so much so that to this date, I've yet to find someone who can convincingly describe why a manufacturer would pick one or the other, or what truly differentiates the two families. The Z2xx was a bit larger, measuring 22 x 22 mm, and the most popular model—the 1.6GHz N270—also had a, for Intel, very low Thermal Design Power of just 2 watts. The N2xx processors did not come with a newly designed chipset, but used lower power versions of the standard Intel 945 chipset and a separate ICH7M I/O chip. There was no HD decoding or hardware acceleration, but the chip did support the SATA interface.

The initial Atom processor families did not use two cores for cost and power conservation reasons. Instead they used Intel’s older HyperThreading technique that can process two threads, yet increases energy usage by only about 10%. Intel also developed a more power-efficient bus and a cache that could be disabled when it was not needed. The Atom Z5xx further used a new "Deep Power Down" C6 state, and similar advanced power management was available in the Atom N2xx.

What happened next was interesting. While Intel probably had high hopes for the Z5xx chips in the emerging "mobile internet device" market, it was the "Diamondville" processors, and more specifically the 1.6GHz N270, that almost singlehandedly created the new category of "netbooks" (well, the term had been used before, but never to describe a separate class of mobile computers). Despite the N270 chip's modest performance, consumers bought millions and millions of those little netbooks, most likely because of the low price that made netbooks an impulse buy as opposed to spending more for a "real" notebook computer.

The N270, however, was the sole bright spot in the Atom lineup on both sides of the Atom family, as neither the desktop-oriented N230 nor the entire mobile internet device Z5xx family did much of anything. The Z5xx chips were used in some industrial products like computers-on-modules, small form factor CPU boards, industrial tablets (such as the Handheld Algiz 8, the Mobile Demand T7000, the Logic Instrument Fieldbook, or the WinMate I980), MCAs (such as the Panasonic H1 or the Advantech MICA-101), or clamshell UMPCs (such as the Fujitsu UH900), but by and large there seemed no truly compelling reasons to go with Silverthorne.

"Diamondville" gets a little boost

On the Diamondville netbook side, the problem with the Atom N270 was that despite being used in all those netbooks, it was barely powerful enough to drive even those small, inexpensive computers. Anyone trying to do video or games on a netbook came away sorely disappointed. As a stop-gap solution, Intel released the very slightly more powerful N280 (1.66GHz clock speed instead of 1.6GHz) for netbooks, and the dual-core N330, which was really a dual-core version of the little-used desktop N230. With Atom video performance lagging, NVIDIA came up with the NVIDIA Ion Graphics chipset that was supposed to work better with Atom N-Series chips than Intel's own chipset, but it didn't come in time to make it into any of the first generation netbooks.

"Silverthorne" gets tougher

For embedded computing, in March of 2009 Intel quietly expanded the Z5XX platform with larger form factor versions that carried a "P" in their name, and then a special "large form factor with industrial temperature options" version marked with a "PT." This added the Atom 1.1GHz Z510P and 1.6GHz Z530P as well as the 1.1GHz Z510PT and 1.33GHz Z520PT. The P and PT versions used a larger 22 x 22 mm package (which is the same size as the N2xx chips) that used a different "ball pitch"—the spacing of the little balls of solder that replace pins on the underside of these tiny processor packages. That was probably done because the 0.6mm ball pitch of the original Z5xx series required high density interconnects (HDI) on the printed circuit boards, and those are more difficult to do and also more finicky, not what you'd want in the kind of rugged devices the chips were actually used. As far as temperature range goes, 32 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit is considered "commercial," whereas -40 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit is considered "industrial." Interestingly, only the "PT" series processors support the industrial temperature range; the "P" series versions are listed with the same commercial temperature range as the initial chips.

RuggedPCReview's assessment in 2009 was that "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."

"Diamondville" begets "Pinetrail"

In December of 2009, Intel announced the next generation of Atom processors, or really the successor of "Diamondville." The new "Pinetrail" generation of Atom processors included the single core N450 (heir to the N270) and, adding yet another letter class, the single core D410 and the dual-core D510, both meant for low-end desktops. The big news here was 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 was replaced with the Intel NM10 Express. That meant fewer chips to mount, somewhat lower power consumption, and—not mentioned by Intel—one less reason to seek third party chipsets such as NVIDIA's Ion. Reducing the chip count from three to two was nice, but the Z-series processors already had that. Graphics seemed somewhat improved, but not enough to make a huge difference, and there was still no HD playback hardware support. Our assessment was that we could not "help but feeling that Intel looked out for itself more than adding compelling value for consumers."

So for now, the N450 and the slightly faster 1.83GHz N470 are taking care of the netbook market, but what of the ever more important MID and smartphone market that Intel tried to address with Silverthorne? By now it was very obvious that Silerthorne had zero impact on that market and no one was going to base a smartphone or anything like it on an Atom Z5xx chip. Intel might have suspected as much, as even in the early days of Atom, their roadmap included codename "Moorestown," a system-on-a-chip platform.

Silverthorn replaced by "Moorestown"?

Well, Moorestown was officially introduced on May 4th, 2010. It includes the "Lincroft" Z6xx series of Atom chips, the "Langwell" Platform Controller Hub MP20, and the "Briartown" Mixed Signal IC (yes, Intel loves its code names). In its press release, Intel mentioned "significant power savings while increasing performance" in a design scalable across a range of devices including "high-end smartphones, tablets and other mobile handheld devices."

So what does Intel promise for the Z6xx platform? Nothing very specific as of yet. Power "breakthroughs" include much lower power consumption at idle and with audio active (i.e. music playing), and 2-3X reduction while browsing or playing video. That's good. Intel also promised a full 1080p video experience (really already possible with the Z5xx chips, albeit perhaps not "full"), with clock speeds up to 1.5GHz and low-power LPDDR1 memory for smartphones and 1.9GHz and faster DDR2 memory for tablets (current Z5xx series chips range from the 1.1GHz Z510 to the 2.0GHz Z550. Intel highlights that the new chips result in greater than 40% reduction in package area and a greater than 50% reduction in board area for the Z6xx and MP20, so their combined package real estate is less than 400 mm2, and the board area required less than 333 mm2. The new "Langwell" Intel Platform Controller Hub MP20 has a package size of 14 x 14 mm (same as Apple's A4) with a 0.5mm pitch and uses 65nm technology. That's down from the 22 x 22mm Poulsbo. The Z6xx chip itself is also on a 14 x 14mm package (see below).

From an architecure standpoint, the new 1Z6xx CPUs integrate a lot of the functionality that used to be part of the Poulsbo chipset, such as graphics, decoding/encoding, memory controller, etc., leaving the "South Complex" "Langwell" chip to concentrate on I/O. The graphics core integrated into the "Lincroft" CPU is the same as that on the older "Poulsbo" chip, but the core can now run at up to twice the frequency and has been optimized for power and performance. Video decoding remains the same, but there's now 720p H.264 and MPEG4 encoding and also H.263 videoconferencing encoding. Intel says that 3D graphics performance should double.

The "Briertown" "Mixed Signal IC" is meant to integrate components such as audio, touchscreen, voltage regulator, display and comms drivers and such. Intel stressed that it will be available from mutiple sources (such as Freescale, Maxim and Renesas).

While more performance was desirable, less power consumption was essential if the new chips are to have a chance in the device market. So Intel did some major work on power states. Instead of the older system-wide power management, much greater power savings are now possible by giving each subsystem its own power management capabilities. So whenever any part of a "Moorestown" system is not needed, it's turned down or off. Intel refers to those savings mechanisms as "power islands" on both the MP20 hub and on the Z6xx chip and it's all done with an involved combination of software, hardware and firmware features. The sum total of all this is that the three chips that make up the Moorestown platform combined use less power under load than the first gen Menlow platform did when running idle.

That's impressive, but also necessary. What Intel envisions for Moorestown-based devices is a range of form factors, from smartphones to sleek tablets with 10 days standby, two days music playback, over five hours of video, multi-tasking/multi-windowing/multi-point video conferencing, 1080p playback and 720p recording, and and "PC-like" internet.

With Moorestown Intel is clearly taking another run at a market where it is simply not represented. Apple has set the bar for smartphones and tablets very high, and really nothing less than the kind of performance and battery life found in Apple products will do. The performance of current Atom-based systems, those assisted by NVIDIA chips not included, ranges from perfectly adequate to rather anemic, especially with video. It's Moorestown's task to potentially change that.

NVIDIA likely won't be happy. Just when the first Atom N450/N470-based nebooks with its Ion graphics appear on the market, Intel throws another curve by including graphics into the very processor of the next generation of "internet device" Atom chips.

For embedded systems and rugged/vertical market systems developers, the ongoing fragmentation of the Atom platform into two families, and the rapid obsolescence of the two most frequently used chips (the N270 and the Z530) is also not very good news. While more performance is always better, if the Moorestown platform turns out to be that much quicker and more economical, then products based on the older chips will have suddenly become a lot less desirable.

Now what?

As far as the future of Moorestown for smartphones and mobile internet devices goes, Intel will not only have to overcome ongoing confusion about their two Atom families, but it will also face formidable competition from the ARM processor architecture camp. That includes Nvidia's Tegra, the Qualcomm Snapdragon, TI's OMAP and others.

And then there is Apple. The iPad's A4 chip, also ARM-based, is Apple-only and thus not direct competition, but with the iPad Apple has shown what is possible with a tiny processor running at just 1GHz. The iPad is uniformly seen as an excellent performer with very quick browsing and excellent video playback. The iPad does not only not need a fan; it simply never warms up at all, not even after runnning video for hours. And with the iPad's ability to run video for ten hours or more, Intel's set goal of "over 5 hours" of video looks modest at best.

So Moorestown has a great deal to prove, and Intel has a lot to lose. If the platform succeeds, the N-Series branch of the family will suddenly look quite obsolete, which will require another tweak. If it fails, Intel's reputation of being behind in mobile chips will be confirmed yet again. No one's ever counting Intel out, but Atom, netbooks notwithstanding, has been a struggle.

Posted by conradb212 at May 6, 2010 10:42 PM