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Friday, September 5, 2008

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Atom everywhere: Intel's MID, netbook, and nettop strategy

Intel is talking up the mobile market at Computex this year, unveiling detailed information on upcoming Atom-based products. We've covered what Intel refers to as Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) before, but the CPU giant is now detailing plans to introduce products into two new system tiers it refers to as "netbooks"and "nettops." These new systems will be powered by the Atom N230 and Atom N270 processors. Despite the different nomenclature, these chips are architecturally identical to the Z-series of Atom we've previously discussed. The difference between the two series is in the chip packaging—the Z-series package is 13mm x 14mm, while the N-series is 22mm x 22mm.

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Netbooks: a step below the laptop

Netbooks and nettops are, as the name implies, small, low-power systems that will fit below the standard laptop/desktop markets. According to Intel, "Netbooks are compact mobile devices that children, first-time Internet users and people who desire an extra PC can use for basic computing applications, listening to music, e-mailing and surfing the Internet. They can also be used for playing basic online games, social networking and making voice over IP phone calls." The company doesn't offer an analogous definition for the term "nettop," but notes that these systems "offer an affordable at-home experience on a reliable computing device." Intel specifies a "typical" netbook system as consisting of an Intel Atom N270 processor (1.6GHz, 512K L2 cache, HT-enabled), a 7-10" screen, 802.11b/g support, 256-512MB of RAM and between 2-4GB of flash-based storage. The target price point for such a system is $250, though we'll undoubtedly see systems above (and possibly even below) that point as various manufacturers jockey for market position.

Nettops: ditto for the desktop

Nettops will presumably offer more RAM or greater storage space but are expected to occupy the netbook's equivalent position within the low-end desktop market. Nettop systems in 2008 will be built around the Intel Atom N230 processor. The N230 and N270 processors are identical in every respect, save one. The N270 (netbook) has a listed TDP or 2W, while the N230 (nettop) has a TDP of 4W. All other features, including L2 cache, core clock, and HyperThreading apabilities are identical. Intel is also rolling out new chipsets for both processors; netbooks will be paired with the 945GSE Express, while nettops use the 945GC chipset. Exact details on the two chipsets aren't available at this time, but the 945GSE has been designed with an eye towards low power consumption. The 945GSE's features include the ability to allow all memory rows to self-refresh when the system is in the C3 power-saving state, a technology Intel refers to as "Smart 2D," which supposedly reduces memory reads; Automatic Display Brightness (self-explanatory); and the Intel Matrix Storage Manager, a feature capable of reducing SATA and chipset power consumption. Intel's push into the emerging mini-notebook market segment isn't limited to processors and chipsets. As of today, Santa Clara is announcing its new Intel Z-P230 PATA Solid-State Drive (SSD). Pricing on the drives is not yet available, but the typical netbook specifications Intel has given (listed above) would seem to indicate that a 2-4GB drive would fit within a $250 device price point.

A growing market with lots of competition

Intel is obviously maneuvering to establish itself as a one-stop solution for vendors
wanting to launch products into the MID, netbook, and nettop segments, but Atom isn't the only game in town—at least, not yet. NVIDIA unveiled its own ARM-based system-on-a-chip product line yesterday, codenamed Tegra (and covered by our own Jon Stokes). Battery life on the high-end Tegra 650 is said to be better than Atom's, and NVIDIA expects Tegra-equipped devices to fall into the same $199-249 price range Intel is targeting with Atom. Finally, there's the VIA Nano, formerly known as Isaiah. Nano and Atom aren't likely to cross hilts in all of the new emerging market segments given the power consumption disparity between the two processors, but the two could end up slugging it out at the upper echelon of the netbook and nettop markets. VIA, like Intel, is also capable of providing a comprehensive chipset/graphics/processor ombination, and the company's products have often been significantly less expensive than their Intel counterparts. Atom is a major launch for Intel, and will undoubtedly leave its mark upon the industry. From a technological perspective, however, Intel's superiority is far from assured. Both ARM and VIA have substantial experience when it comes to building low-power, efficient CPUs aimed at handheld or mobile devices. Long-term, Atom will have to compete on its own technological merits, and Intel's ability to scale the design.