IDF Fall 2008: Through the Silent Glass

The Silent Front
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August 25, 2008 by Mike Chin

The Fall Intel Developers Forum has been held for many years at the West building of the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. There's usually at least one or more major PR attractions to capture journalists' attention beyond Intel's latest and greatest technology. The biggie this time around was a space shuttle on the third floor. No, not the NASA space shuttle but a smaller, DIY spaceship called the Hermes, developed by Morris Jarvis, an American private citizen who does not have any megacorporations or government agencies behind him. What was this novel thing doing at IDF? Trying to attract enough attention to raise the $1.5 million needed by its progenitors to complete, and lend a bit of PR zing for Intel, who is helping out with technology of all sorts, including, not surprisingly, microprocessors to help the spacecraft in flight. Star Systems' goal is give anyone who wants to go into space (and... uh... has enough money) the opportunity to do just that.

The Hermes Spacecraft features many low power, off-the-shelf Intel chips such as the EP80579 integrated processor SoC and the Atom processor.

Another curiosity in the hall was an eclectic historical display of Intel processor development. Among them were ingots of silicon — looking like other-worldly remnants from meteorites or props from old X-files sets — which I'm sure few, if any, of the attendees have ever seen before. This is an early starting point of all those bazillions of chips in computers.

The business card-sized sign reads "Very rare 2-inch purified silicon ingot". The white spots and other streaks are reflections off the glass case.

Moving on to the heart of this season's IDF, three items stand apart for SPCR:

1. The wildfire success of the low cost, low power Atom processor. It's being integrated into every type of small computing device, from net-tops (small web-centric desktops), to ultraportable notebooks, mobile Internet devices and even high-falutin' mobile phones. All this is astonishing for a product only released half a year ago.

2. Intel's entry into Solid State Drives: It is surely going to both intensify competition and development in this sector, and drive prices down faster. For the other SSD makers, it has to be like the 800-lb gorilla stomping into your corner of the jungle.

3. Intel's newest CPU, Nehalem, now renamed Core i7, is new in a plethora of ways. Its architecture is based at least partly on the existing Core Duo / Quad processors, but it also incorporates hyperthreading, an new LGA socket with 1366 pins, and new technologies for better management of both power and performance. Benchmarks on performance and power run by third parties in workshops at IDF as well as in previews by Anandtech and Hexus have shown that when it is released to market in the next few months, the new chip will clearly take over the x86 processor crown from Intel's current top models and likely keep AMD struggling to catch up for some time to come.


When the Atom 230 was first introduced in March, it seemed an unlikely Intel product: A very low power (under 4W TDP), 1.6 GHz, single-core, hyperthreaded processor. It was embedded with Intel's 945GC chipset in a mini-ITX board, the D945GCLF, but also sold to numerous partners in a variety of component forms. Currently, there are some two dozen consumer-level ultraportable devices which utilize the Atom, and at least as many "nettop" (mini PCs). Intel stated that there are over 700 projects involving the Atom, and that demand has far exceeded supply thus far.

Just a few of the dozens of ultraportable notebooks powered by the Atom 230 processor.

Aigo P8880 is one of many Mobile Internet Devices powered by an Intel Atom processor. This model offers a full slide-out keyboard, WiFi + CDMA 1X connectivity and a GPS among its many features.

The original target market was ostensibly emerging markets in the developing world where low power, low price, small size and basic functionality are most important. The reality, however, is that sales to the developed and developing worlds are evenly split, because of new demand for net-tops, ultraportable notebooks and MIDs, especially among consumers who already have one, two or more PCs. It would be nice to think that these Atom-powered devices are being sold to buyers in place of bigger, more power-hungry, low-end or starter PCs, but this is unlikely to be true; such consumers are usually far less informed about the latest tech gear and make much more conservative buying decisions. No, most of these Atom-powered devices are going, at least in the developed world, to people who already have lots of computers. As such, the new small and light tech sector represents new growth potential to help make up for the rapid decline in traditional desktop sales, which increasing notebook sales is not fully compensating.

A new dual-core variant of the Atom is also being introduced. Dubbed the Atom 330, it will be embedded in a new Intel mini-ITX board, the D945GCLF2, which appears to be identical to the original D945GCLF, except for the CPU, which will have two cores and cache increased from 512kb to 1024kb. Current Atom/945GC systems can only handle up to about 720p video playback; the CPU upgrade might help future systems achieve 1080p hi def playback, which is important to some users. The original board has been criticized as having a chipset that's too power-hungry; it draws considerably more power than the CPU and must be fan-cooled, unlike the CPU. The new board will probably be criticized for the same trait. The Atom 330 will undoubtedly be released to Intel's partners for use on other boards.

The D945GCLF2, featuring a dual-core Atom and the same 945GC desktop chipset as the D945GCLF, will be released in September.

The tremendous buy-in from the industry and the sheer numbers may make it seem as if Intel invented the embedded low power sector, but VIA Technologies has been keeping it percolating for years. Now with Intel's Atom splashy entry, the sector may never be the same again. VIA is making efforts not to let Intel dominate the headlines. A refresh of the C7 VIA processor, timed just before the start of this IDF, has led to a new name, Nano. Reviews of the latest Nano embedded boards by Trusted Reviews, HardOCP, Hot Hardware, and Ars Technica have concluded that the VIA chip/board performs substantially better than the Atom 230. However, the Atom may have the advantage of lower power demand, making it much more suitable than the Nano for UltraMobile PCs or MIDs where cooling is at a premium. Regardless of the nuances of market reactions to the Nano and the Atom, with Intel's clout and far more attractive pricing, VIA's largely unchallenged dominance of the mini-ITX / low power sector is probably over.

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