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Intel's Atomic 'Pine Trail' arrives early

Nettops? Fuggedaboutem

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Intel's new-and-slightly-improved Atom processors and support chips met the waiting world Monday morning, a couple of weeks earlier than their oft-rumored rollout at the upcoming Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Their early appearance is one of the only surprises about the new Atom platform, code-named Pine Trail. As widely reported, the Pine Trail platform consists of two sets of chips: one, code-named Pineview, houses the Atom processor core, integrated memory controller, and GPU. A second, code-named Tiger Point, houses I/O.

The incorporation of the memory and graphics controllers onto the processor die is essentially the only major difference between this new generation of the Atom and its predecessors. The chip is still manufactured using a 45nm process, and although access to memory is quicker, the architecture of the compute core is fundamentally the same in-order execution scheme as before.

The single-core Atom N450 is designed for netbook use, and it's joined by two more power-hungry parts aimed at what Intel used to call "nettops" but now calls "entry-level desktops": the dual-core Atom D510 and the single-core Atom D410.

The demise of the term "nettop" is a welcome one. "We still believe that there will be devices called nettops in the market, but the term really didn't catch on," Intel director of netbook marketing Anil Nanduri told a gaggle of reporters gathered in San Francisco last week for a pre-briefing on the release.

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I/O duties in the Pine Trail platform will be handled for all three chips by the new NM10 Express Chipset. And yes, despite the designation of "chipset," the NM10 is a single chip.

Netbooks and nettops entry-level desktops built using the new chips will run on Windows 7 Starter and Home Basic, plus Windows XP home and Intel's Linux-of-choice, Moblin.

The N450 is intended to replace the current Atom N270 as Intel's prime offering for the netbook market. Sharp-eyed Reg readers will note that the N450 is listed as having a TDP of 5.5 watts, over double that of the N270's 2.5 watts, and wonder whether Intel is going in the wrong direction, power-wise.

Remember, though, that the N270 required Intel's 82945GSE graphics and memory controller, which sucked up an additional 6 watts. The new 5-watt N450, on the other hand, has shrunk those functions of the 945GSE into the 45nm N450, resulting in more-miserly power requirements.

In addition to the power savings - which Intel calculates will average around 20 per cent after all other factors are taken into account - the N450 is 60 per cent smaller than the N270, and the two-chip scheme will further reduce required motherboard real estate.

When asked about whether Intel's new netbook platform will be able to compete with upcoming ARM-based "smartbooks" touted by Qualcomm, Pegatron, and others, Nanduri was dismissive. "I know there's a lot of press about those devices," he told the assembled press, "but we have yet to see any, so it's all speculation.

Absent from Nanduri's remarks was any mention of MIDs - the mobile internet devices that Intel has trumpeted in the past. And for good reason: The Pine Trail combos are still too power-hungry to form the basis of a handheld device. Entry into the MID market - if it even exists - will have to wait until the next shrink of Intel's low-end processors, Moorestown, expected for later in 2010.

Bootnote

By making its Atom announcements at the beginning of Christmas week, Intel has apparently chosen to reserve the CES spotlight for the new additions to its Core i3/5/7 processor line, including the new 32nm Arrandale mobile and Clarkdale desktop parts, which are scheduled to meet the public on the morning of January 7 from 7:30 to 8:02.

Yes, you read that time correctly. As explained to us by an Intel spokesman: "32 minutes. 32nm..."

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