Monday, December 21, 2009

Intel launches redesigned Atom chip for Netbooks

Intel is launching the biggest makeover of the Atom processor since the seminal chip debuted in the spring of 2008, and consumers can expect a crush of new Netbooks to follow.

(Credit: Brooke Crothers) As previously reported, Intel's latest N450 processor and NM10 Express chipset--technology that had been previously referred to as "Pine Trail"--will be used in a new raft of Netbooks that will debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Dell, Asus, Toshiba, Lenovo and others are expected to either announce new systems before the show or exhibit new models there.

Intel said there will be more than 80 new Netbook designs--typically priced around $350--on the way, with systems coming available by January 4.

The Pine Trail design squeezes the graphics function, previously on a separate chip, onto the central processing unit, or CPU, a first for Intel. The result--by decreasing the number of chips from three to two--is a reduction in the overall chip package size by 60 percent.

"This is the first monolithic processor with the graphics built in and the memory controller built in," said Anil Nanduri, director, Netbook Marketing at Intel, in an interview. The size of the accompanying NM10 "I/O" chipset has also been reduced, Nanduri said.

To the consumer this means better battery life and thinner designs. "We'll see sleeker designs coming into the market and longer battery life," said Nanduri, adding that average power consumption has dropped 20 percent over the previous generation of Atom technology.

"We got more than eight hours of battery life out of this system," said CNET Review's Dan Ackerman, after testing the new Asus Eee PC 1005PE Netbook, which is equipped with the updated Atom silicon.

Intel has integrated the graphics function onto the CPU, resulting in lower overall power consumption

(Credit: Intel) Atom-based systems will be sold primarily with Windows 7 Starter or Home Basic. "These are the ones that hit the right price points," Nanduri said. "The kind of applications you load up as you go into Home Premium--with a much more richer experience--more performance is needed for that," Nanduri said, referring to higher-price Windows Home Premium.

Windows XP Home and Intel's Moblin Linux operating systems will also be supported. Moblin offers some benefits over Windows. "You will get a very snappy experience on Moblin and faster boot times because it's very purpose-built for this category," Nanduri said.

Intel expects robust growth ahead for Netbooks. Nanduri cited numbers from ABI Research that show Netbook annual shipments reaching 100 million units sometime in the next three years. Since introduction, Intel has shipped more than 40 million Atom chips for Netbooks to major PC makers.

Intel is also launching a new Atom processor with two processing cores, the D510, which it is targeted at entry-level desktops and replaces an existing dual-core Atom. Also, a new single-core D410 design is being introduced.

Though radically redesigned, the gigahertz ratings and cache memory specifications of the new Atom chips have not changed from the previous generation. The N450 runs at the same 1.66GHz speed as the current N280 Atom and cache memory sizes are the same.

Nvidia claims consumers will need its Ion chipset coupled with the new Atom processor to get a mainstream laptop-like experience.

"We offer a 'premium' Windows experience, whereas with Pine Trail (the new Atom) you will only be able to get a 'Starter' (experience)," said David Ragones, product line manager at Nvidia, referring to the Windows Home Premium and Windows Starter editions, respectively. Ragones said that with the chipset, video sites like Hulu will run better, and Ion also allows more game playing.

Pricing and availability for the new Atom will be announced in January as systems become available from Netbook suppliers.

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