Intel to rev up Atom development, executive says

The chipmaker plans to accelerate development (and speed) of its Atom processor, used prominently in Netbooks, according to executive vice president Sean Maloney.

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
2 min read

Intel will accelerate development of the Atom processor, according to an executive, marking a different tack than the slow-but-steady strategy to date.

The Atom chip is used most prominently in Netbooks, and its hallmark has been power efficiency--not speed. But Intel will put more focus on speed, according to Sean Maloney, an Intel executive vice president.

"We'll spin Atom more frequently. Do more like a tick-tock on Atom. Make it faster, faster, faster," said Maloney in an interview at Intel Developer Forum last week.

The tick-tock Maloney refers to is Intel's strategy for its mainstream processors: one year--the tick--Intel delivers new manufacturing process technology; the next year--the tock--it delivers a new processor microarchitecture.

Atom is slated to get its biggest makeover to date with a technology code-named Pine Trail, due at the end of this year--or early next year, at the latest. This will put the graphics function directly on the central processing unit, or CPU--a first for Intel.

And what does this single-chip processor-graphics combination mean? "Better battery life. But performance more than anything," Maloney said.

Intel executive vice president Sean Maloney
Intel executive vice president Sean Maloney Stephen Shankland, CNET News

Intel will likely ratchet up processor speeds. The Netbook-based Atom chip has been holding steady at about 1.6GHz for more than a year.

Another way to boost Atom's performance is to add processing cores. Currently, however, there are no plans to make Atom dual-core, at least not in the immediate future for the low-power Netbook market. Intel already sells a relatively power-hungry dual-core Atom for tiny desktop PCs called Nettops.

"We don't currently have plans to introduce dual-core Atom processors for Netbooks. But we will base our product road map on market needs," Intel said in a statement Monday.

This would be a tough call for Intel, as it now walks a fine line between Netbook and notebook processors. Intel already has very power-efficient dual-core notebook processors such as the Ultra-Low-Voltage Pentium SU4100 and Core 2 Duo SU7300.

These chips are now used in so-called "ultrathin" laptops that claim up to 10 hours of battery life. But these are different processor architectures and, at least theoretically, would not be able to achieve the power efficiency of a dual-core Atom. Nor would they be used in laptops as inexpensive as Netbooks.