Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The week after Computex, it's a good opportunity to look at the hot topic - MIDs and small, cheap notebooks (Intel calls Netbooks, others Laptots) and Intel's Atom processor.

The MID market is the newest battleline between the PC and the smartphone. Smartphone solutions are based on the ARM instruction set that dominates the smartphone business, including the iPhone. Leading chip suppliers include Broadcom, Qualcomm, and TI. NVIDIA released our version called Tegra. These designs focus on ultra-low power for long battery life and the small, fanless form factors of handsets. For minimum space, these chips are system-on-a-chip (SOC) designs with multiple dedicated media and networking accelerators for maximum power efficiency. The higher-end chips are closely related to media players chips, so media functionality is quite good. The leading operating systems include Blackberry, Linux, Symbian, WinCE, and Windows Mobile.

Intel’s Atom approaches the MID market is far different from above. Intel is trying to scale an x86 processor and chipset to fit into a very small form factor. The system design is presently a direct scaling down model of the standard PC architecture, baggage intact. The advantage of the scaled down PC is that it is flexible enough to run full Windows, as well as Linux and other x86 embedded operating systems. The disadvantage is that is on the order of 10 times less power efficient today than on ARM SOC.

Still, the Intel Atom is a work in progress. The first version has a separate processor and chipset, not optimal for power or size. The chipsets themselves are derivatives of existing Intel chipsets running on older process technology. It’s not until the next generation of Atom arrives next year, called Moorestown, that Intel achieves some level of integration, but even that processor doesn’t approach the level of integration of NVIDIA's Tegra SOC.

While Intel promises leading edge process technology, and the first Atom launched in 45nm process, the chipset uses older technology (n-1 or N-2 process) and by the time Moorestown ships in 2009, the 45nm process will be considered a mature process. Intel still looks to be years away from matching ARM designs in lowest power.

Ultimately it will be the consumers who decide the victor: the long battery life, media savvy and lower power of the ARM designs, or the PC-like flexibility of the Atom design.