Intel to deliver dual-core Atom chip next month

Chipmaker reveals during the Intel Developer Forum that it is set to deliver the new power-efficient mobile processor next month.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel plans to bring its first dual-core Atom to market next month, it was revealed here Monday during the Intel Developer Forum. The chipmaker also disclosed more details of the Nehalem processor.

The power-efficient processor will be targeted at Atom-based desktops called nettops. Currently, Intel offers the Atom N230 processor for nettops. This chip has a slightly higher power envelope than the Atom processors built exclusively for mobile devices.

That news was revealed to this reporter by an Intel employee as senior vice president Pat Gelsinger was delivering his IDF keynote, which included more specifics about Nehalem, the family of chips the company plans to begin rolling out in the fourth quarter. Gelsinger, the general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, showed the first wafer holding individual eight-core processors, detailed the power-saving features of the Nehalem processors, and confirmed future mobile Nehalem processors.

Intel Nehalem processor lineup as shown at IDF 2008
Intel Nehalem processor lineup as shown at IDF 2008 Intel

Also due in September is the six-core Dunnington server processor, the final member of Intel's 45-nanometer "Penryn" family, which will ship to customers next month, Gelsinger said.

Most of his keynote centered on Nehalem, and one of the features Intel was pushing hard at IDF was a technology called Turbo mode.

Turbo mode is essentially a switch that turns off unused processor cores and then uses the remaining active cores more efficiently. This kind of sophisticated power-management technology will be used in both Nehalem-based laptops and servers, according to Gelsinger, and will become increasingly necessary as Intel brings out chips with more cores like the eight-core Nehalem processor due next year.

In short, in multi-core processors, cores not doing much can still use power. So, it's better to use, for example, a couple of cores more efficiently than four cores inefficiently.

The power saving technology is enabled by "an integrated microcontroller which only works on power management," said Rajesh Kumar, an Intel Fellow, who spoke during Gelsinger's keynote. There are about 1 million transistors dedicated solely to power management, Kumar said.

The feature "requires no operating system intervention. It is fully detected and managed by the hardware. If it has detected an idle core, it is able to reallocate that power budget to the other cores," Gelsinger said in an interview after his keynote.

On another front, Intel showed the first eight-core Nehalem chip. "This is the first showing of the eight-core Nehalem-EX," Gelsinger said in his keynote. He said the chip is a monolithic design, meaning that all eight cores are on one piece of silicon.

Nehalem-EP, or Nehalem Efficient Performance, will be a quad-core chip for mainstream servers and workstations. What Intel traditionally calls two-socket servers, Gelsinger said.

The mainstream desktop will be the Core i7. "With the i7 we have high-end desktop and extreme," Gelsinger said. The extreme edition is for overclockers, he said. Enthusiast gamers often overclock processors (ratcheting up clock speed beyond the rated speed) to gain extra performance.

"Turbo Mode" is a linchpin Nehalem technology
"Turbo Mode" is a linchpin Nehalem technology Intel

But there will be more pedestrian dual-core versions of Nehalem too. "There will be versions for the desktop that will be dual-core as well," Gelsinger said.

Gelsinger also talked about Intel's plans to put graphics directly onto the same piece of silicon as the processor. This will be a first for Intel.

He described why Intel is putting graphics right next to the processor. "There's a big sucking sound near the CPU. It keeps pulling things closer to it. This is uniquely enabled by Moore's Law...and as things get closer together I'm able to drive down thermal envelopes (i.e., heat) and decrease physical form factors (i.e., enable smaller computer designs)," Gelsinger said.

Gelsinger broke down the future processor lineup--with graphics on the processor die and without--as follows. "Lynnfield and Clarksfield are the versions without graphics. Havendale and Auburndale are the versions with integrated graphics." (Even Intel executives occasionally get confused by all the code names and it took two tries for Gelsinger to get this right.)