10 Things You Need To Know About Intel’s New Atom

Jimmy Thang

How Intel's new Atom CPUs may be a game changer

10. It won’t suck.

Atom parts have long been the butt of our jokes for being the anti-performance parts that inspired the Netbook but anyone who ever tried to drive a Netbook for anything beyond browsing knows how much Atom’s sucked in performance. A dual-core, Hyper-Threaded 1.6Ghz Atom N2600 gives up a Cinebench 11.5 score of 0.47. That’s just barely faster than  a single-core Athlon 64 3200’s score of 0.42. For reference, a Core i7-2600K gives up about 8.1 and a 3.2GHz Core 2 Duo E8200 gives you about 1.91. The actual performance isn’t known, but the new “ Silvermont ” version of Atom should offer far more performance than we've ever seen before.

Meet the new Intel Atom family

9. No more process sloppy seconds

Atom has long been the bottom bin of Intel CPUs. It didn’t get access to the latest process technologies and while Core 2 and Core i7 have been on a “tick tock” strategy where two new designs are produced on each process, Atom has plowed along with a one “new” design for each process. With Silvermont, the chip gets moved to the latest 22nm process 3D transistors. Even better for Atom will be the next-generation. With the introduction of the 14nm process, Intel will introduce a “tick” Airmont and then a “tock” chip that doesn’t even have a codename yet. This is just another sign of just how important Intel sees Atom to its future.

Intel Atom core block diagram

8. Silvermont probably won’t bring back Netbooks.

The Netbook was the hottest piece of tech that was introduced at the right time. Who didn’t want a $300 mini-notebook when the entire financial world was collapsing? Unfortunately most users who bought them quickly became disenfranchised with the performance of the Netbook. In fact, Netbook sales numbers look like a failed rocket launch. Netbook sales peaked in 2010 with 32 million Netbooks sold, according to IHS. This year, 3.97 million Netbooks will sell with IHS predicting just 264,000 Netbooks will sell next year before Netbooks go extinct by 2015. Many blame the death of the Netbook on the iPad and other ARM-based tablets but we like to blame Atom. If Netbooks had had decent performance from day one, they might not have cratered so badly. Even with Silvermont and say, Core i7-lite performance, will OEMs try Netbooks again or have they had enough? We think OEMs have moved beyond the Netbook which is a bit of a shame because if they had decent performance years ago, maybe they wouldn’t be the Dodo bird of PCs.

Silvermont's wide range of operation

7. Think of it as Atom i7 or Atom 2 Quad

Silvermont will be built around a modular design. Each module will feature two cores and Intel can stitch together up to eight cores on a die. Unlike AMD’s modular design that shares chip resources, Silvermont’s cores are separate cores that only share a common L2 cache. All previous Atom chips have continued to use the ancient front side bus to connect the chips but Silvermont will feature a point-to-point interface connecting to a system agent which will hook into the memory controller. Also important in Silvermont is the move from the in-order design of all previous Atoms to an out-of-order design. Out-of-order designs allow instructions to be executed out of order to greatly increase performance over in-order designs. For perspective, out-of-order CPU designs have been used by Intel since the Pentium Pro chip. Most ARM-based CPUs have also been in order up until the Cortex A9 chips.

The main penalty to out-of-order designs has been an increase in power consumption and die space which is why Intel turned to an in-order design for the original Bonnell-based Atoms in 2008.  Intel says with its advanced 22nm process, it can now do an out-of-order design while keeping power consumption and die space to a minimum. Intel has also completely redesign Silvermont with larger branch predictors, improved decoders, redesigned execution units, larger L2 and reduced L2 cache latency. In a nutshell, performance of Silvermont will be a factor of 3x over the current fastest Atom’s with 5x lower power consumption.

Oh yeah, Silvertmont also gets SSE3.1, SSE4.2, hardware AES-NI encyprtion, hardware random number generation and several other instructions from the Westmere generation of CPUs.

6. Atom now gets Turbo too.

Intel’s popular and effective Turbo Boost makes an appearance in Silvermont which can now “burst” different cores up depending on the load. Intel says Atom also has the ability to run cores at different speeds as well. The company has previously pooh-poohed such an approach and still says it's more efficient to run all cores at the same speed when needed, but certain server, notebook, tablet and phone makers may want to intentionally run cores at asymmetric speeds to reduce power consumption sometimes.

Intel Atom Power Sharing

Click the next page to read about how it's faster and more efficient than ARM

5. Yup. From servers to phones

Silvertmont will go into micro-servers and scale down to phone iterations after introduced. And no, you aren’t likely to get a tablet or phone with an 8-core Silverton variant. Those are likely aimed at micro-servers which aren’t as power sensitive as a phone or tablet.

Intel Atom in tablets

4. No damnit, it’s not ARM

Analysts and self-appointed Internet experts have long speculated that Intel needs an ARM chip to compete with ARM because x86 can’t "get er done." For what it’s worth, Intel had an entire ARM division when DEC sold it the StrongARM family which turned into XScale. Intel sold XScale to Marvell in 2006 and apparently still has no regrets about it. Silvermont is pure x86.

Intel Atom workflow

3. Faster and more efficient—than ARM

The battle of the last three years has clearly not been Intel vs. AMD, but x86 vs ARM. ARMchair commandos have long said x86 can’t compete because it’s just too power hungry. But remember, ARM is no brainiac chip. Even the super weak sauce old iterations of Atom have been performance and on power parity with ARM chips (non-believers see here ). Intel says Silvermont will easily stomp all ARM chips into the dirt. While, Intel didn’t actually directly say the ARM word during press briefings but you don’t have to be Steven Hawking to guess what CPU architecture Intel is comparing Silverton to. Even with the power consumption of ARM chips far exceeding Silvermont, those CPUs still can’t match Silvermont’s performance. Up against four competing ARM chips, Intel says at the same power use, Silvermont will be from 1.6 times to 2.3 times faster and consume from 3 to 5.8 times less power.

2. But the competition has eight cores.

Intel’s arrogance is pretty well known. But the truth is you can’t be arrogant if your products suck. That gloat has been fading of late but during our media briefings with Intel engineers, we could see the spring in their PowerPoint decks. We know, the proof is in the pudding, but Intel says Silvermont’s better cores out-perform competing ARM CPUs that use inefficient quad-cores. And yeah, that thing where they have eight cores? Remember four of the cores are low power cores that take over when the high performance cores aren’t needed. Intel says it's long explored such little core, big core approach and it’s never been optimal.

Intel Atom's cores

1. Intel’s war begins with Silvermont

When did the x86 vs. ARM war begin? That’s hard to say. Some say 2010, others say 2011 or even 2012. We’d say that when the war began didn’t really matter. What matters is how each side reacts. Intel has long been a dangerous dragon tends to slumber when not challenged. Need proof? Go and Bing Pentium 4 or Intel’s lack of interest at the high-end desktop game today.  So does anyone want to piss that dragon off? ARM does. Over the last few years it and a merry band of dwarves have walked into the slumbering dragon’s cave, stuck a short sword in its side and threatened the dragon’s hoard of gold. Silvermont—if Intel’s claims are true—could very well indicate that someone’s going to get roasted.

About the Author
Jimmy Thang

Jimmy Thang has been Maximum PC's Online Managing Editor since 2012, and has been covering PC hardware and games for nearly a decade. His particular interests currently include VR and SFF computers.

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