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December 26, 2013

Does your Pentium have an Atom engine?

There was a time in the very distant computing past where, when buying a computer, the sole decision you needed to make was whether to use the Intel 386/33 or save a few bucks and get the slightly slower 386/25. Today, if you use Intel's handy ARK app that lists every product available from Intel, there's a staggering 1,874 different processors listed. That includes processors targeted at desktop, server, mobile and embedded computers, but even if you leave out servers and desktops, there's still the choice of 949 processors for mobile and embedded applications. Not all of them are state-of-the-art, but even chips designated as "legacy" or "previous generation" are still in widespread use, and available in products still being sold.

The mind-blowing number of Intel processors available brings up the question of how many different Intel chips the world really needs. As of the end of 2013, Apple has sold about 700 million iPhones, iPads and iPhone Touch devices that made do with a mere dozen "A-Series" chips. Not too long ago, tens of millions of netbooks all used the same Intel Atom chip (the N270). So why does Intel make so many different chips? Even though many are based on the same microarchitectures, it can't be simple or cost-efficient to offer THAT wide a product lineup.

On the customer side, this proliferation serves no real purpose. End users make almost all purchasing decisions based on price. Figure in desired screen and disk sizes, and whether there's an Atom, Celeron, Pentium, Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 chip is inside is confusing at best. For hardware manufacturers it's worse, as they must deal with very rapid product cycles, with customers both demanding legacy support AND availability of the latest Intel products. THEY must explain why this year's Intel crop is so much better than last year's which was so much better than what Intel offered the year before. Or which of a dozen of roughly identical Intel chips makes the most sense.

As is, Intel has managed to bewilder just about anyone with their baffling proliferation of processors, and without the benefit of having established true brand identities. What Intel might have had in mind was kind of a "good, better, best" thing with their Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, where i3 was bare-bones, i5 added Turbo mode and some goodies, and i7 was top-of-the-line. But that never really worked, and the disastrous idea to then come up with a generation-based system that automatically made last year's "generation" obsolete only adds to the confusion. And let's not even get into Intel "code names."

Atom processors were supposed to provide a less expensive alternative to the increasingly pricey Core chips—increasingly pricey at a time where the overall cost of computers became ever lower. Unfortunately, Intel took the same approach with Atom as Microsoft had taken with Windows CE—keep the line so wingclipped and unattractive that it would not threaten sales of the far more profitable Windows proper and mainline Intel chips. At RuggedPCReview we deeply feel for the many vertical and industrial market hardware and systems manufacturers who drank Intel's Atom CoolAid just to see those Atom processors underperform and in quick need of replacement with whatever Intel cooked up next.

But that unfortunate duality between attractively priced but mostly inadequate entry level Atom chips and the much more lucrative mainline Core chips wasn't, and isn't, all. Much to almost everyone's surprise, the Celeron and Pentium brands also continued to be used. Pentium goes back to circa 1990 when Intel needed a trademarkable term for its new processors, having gotten tired of everyone else also making "386" and "486" processors. "Celeron" came about a few years later, around 1998, when Intel realized it was losing the lower end market to generic x86 chipmakers. So along came Celeron, mostly wingclipped versions of Pentiums.

Confusingly, the Celerons and Pentiums continued to hang around when Intel introduced its "Core" processors. The message then became that Pentiums and Celerons were for those who wouldn't spring for a real Core Duo or Core 2 Duo processor. Even more curiously, Pentiums and Celerons still continued when the first generation of the "modern era" Core processors arrived, and then the second, third and forth generation. Study of spec sheets suggested that some of those Pentiums and Celerons were what one might have called Core i1 and i2 chips, solutions for when costs really needed to be contained to the max. In some cases it seemed that Intel secretly continued its long-standing tradition of simply turning off features that were really already part of those dies and chips. A weird outgrowth of that strategy were the last-ditch life support efforts of the dying netbook market to answer the calls for better performance by replacing Atom processors in favor of Celerons that were really slightly throttled Core i3 processors. That actually worked (we have one of those final netbooks in the RuggedPCReview office, an Acer Aspire One 756, and it's a very good performer), but it was too little, too late for netbooks, especially against the incoming tide of tablets.

Given that the choice of mass storage, the quality of drivers, keeping one's computer clean of performance-zapping gunk and, most of all, the speed of one's internet connection (what with all the back and forth with The Cloud) seems to have a far greater impact on perceived system performance than whatever Intel chip sits in the machine, it's more than curious that Celeron and Pentium are not only hanging around, but have even been given yet another lease on life, and this one more confusing than ever.

That's because Intel's latest Atom chips, depending on what they are targeted at, may now also be called Celerons and Pentiums. It's true. "Bay Trail" chips with the new Atom Silvermont micro architecture will be sold under the Atom, Celeron and Pentium brand names, depending on markets and chip configurations. Pontiac once took a heavy hit when the public discovered that some of their cars had Chevy engines in them. Pontiac is long gone now, and General Motors has ditched other brands as well, realizing that confusing consumers with too many choices made little sense. Even GM, however, didn't have anywhere near the dominance of their market as Intel has of its market.

Where will it all lead? No one knows. Intel still enjoys record profits, and other than the growing competition from ARM there seems little reason to change. On the other hand, if the current product strategy continues, four years from now we may have 8th generation Core processors and 4,000 different Intel chips, which cannot possible be feasible. And we really feel for the rugged hardware companies we cover. They are practically forced to use all those chips, even though everyone knows that some are inadequate and most will quickly be replaced.

PS: Interestingly, I do all of my production work at RuggedPCReview.com on an Apple iMac27 powered by a lowly Core 2 Duo processor. It's plenty fast enough to handle extreme workloads and extensive multitasking.

Posted by conradb212 at December 26, 2013 06:35 PM

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