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Next-Generation Intel® Atom™ Processor Goes Mobile

By Cameron Bird

Tech pundits and speculators have christened 2010 the year of the tablet. The iPad may make the biggest dent, as it drops from the Apple tree into many of the same hands currently juggling smartphones and netbooks.

And what MSI Computing’s Jonas Chen calls “lighter, smaller and stronger mobility products” are poised to get a lot more pervasive. This year alone, manufacturers are projected to ship 181 million more smartphones worldwide than they did in 2009, according to market research firm iSuppli. And by 2012, another estimate holds, 47.4 million netbooks will hit the marketplace – up from 13.1 million in 2008.

Intel is arriving in the midst of the boom. Intel® Atom™ processors have been present in a slew of past netbooks and Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), Wi-Fi-enabled mini-computers that fill a niche that next-gen smartphones, netbooks and tablets are arguably rendering obsolete. In 2006, the chipmaker sold its XScale line of mobile communications processors to Marvell. Rumors then floated that Intel was working with Apple on the iPad processor, but rival ARM ultimately got the gig.

In January, though, Intel announced its entry into mobile 2.0 via “Moorestown,” a 42nm SoC that combines an Intel Atom processor, as well as graphics and video cards befitting the next airlift of handhelds. Open x86 standards and pre-installed Linux-based MeeGo OS allow programming and design flexibility for OEMs, and variety for end-users. LG Electronics will be the first to tap into the platform this spring with a widescreen smartphone (aspect ratio: 2.13/1). Two other reference designs are set to follow: OpenPeak’s OpenTablet7 and AAVA’s Mobile (see Figure 1).

According to Joseph Byrne, senior analyst at the Linley Group, there’s no telling – only guessing – how well tablets will go over with consumers. But, he adds, it “will succeed or fail independently of the smartphone. If you look at something like an e-book reader and a tablet, then things start getting more head-to-head. The questions become, do you want a single-function device or a multi-function device? Is it the technology or the content that’s available? Who has Amazon lined up?”

Figure 1: The Aava Mobile prototype is a reference design for smartphones based on the Intel Atom “Moorestown” processor. The single-piece form factor features a capacitive touchscreen, accelerometer and several built-in networks: GSM/EDGE quad band, WCDMA triple-band (Band I, II and V), and 2 Mbps up-link/ 7.2 Mbps down-link.

Figure 2: Billed a Flash-friendly dark horse to Apple’s forthcoming iPad, OpenPeak’s OpenTablet7 is a design built on the “Moorestown” platform.

That much of this future content will be delivered through Web-based cloud servers, says MSI’s Chen, reinforces the imperative for more connected, robust and yet energy-efficient board-level components.

Nigel Forrester, marketing manager of embedded computing at Emerson Network Power, adds that “customers expect embedded equipment to keep pace with improved user interfaces and smaller, better industrial design. Concern over climate change and the cost of energy are making power consumption a major factor in the choice of form factor as well as processor.”

On idle, Moorestown expends 50 times less power than predecessor processor Menlow, according to Intel spokesperson Claudine Magano. The company declined to disclose specific watts benchmarks for the new chip, though Megano says that Intel has achieved “dramatic power reductions” in 720p video and audio playback (see Figure 2).

The next step of Intel’s foray into the smartphone, tablet, notebook and beyond world is codenamed Medfield. The 32nm single-chip SoC will be released in 2011. ARM, Intel’s primary rival in these markets, is also keeping pace with lowpower trends and Moore’s Law.

“The race that’s going on is for Intel to lower its power consumption and for ARM to raise its performance,” he says. “The gap between those two companies is getting narrower and narrower.”

Cameron Bird is editor of Extension Media’s EECatalog. com. He has written about technology for Wired magazine, daily news for the Orange County Register and entertainment for Newsday.