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Intel will push Atom beyond Moore's Law to catch up with ARM

Hopes for a wider role for its pint sized chip
Wed May 18 2011, 12:17

CHIPMAKER Intel will aggressively push its Atom processor over the next three years as it tries to narrow the gap between its x86 chip business and established ARM based system-on-chip (SoC) processors.

During Intel's investor event, CEO Paul Otellini outlined how Intel will accelerate the Atom's process node to 14nm by 2013. According to Otellini, Intel will push the Atom at double the rate of Moore's Law in order to increase the Atom's chances against SoCs using rival architectures.

Earlier this month Chipzilla announced it will adopt the use of tri-gate transistors to fab chips at the 22nm process node and the firm mentioned then that the Atom will be on an "accelerated tick-tock schedule". Otellini revealed that the 22nm Atom chip will be codenamed Silvermont with the 14nm variant codenamed Airmont.

Surprisingly, Otellini also said that Intel wants to increase the range of power consumption from SoCs, from the sub-1W region to almost 10W. Otellini's presentation said that this will give Intel a "full spectrum of products from milliwatts to megawatts".

While most SoC chip houses talk about the power efficiency of their designs, Intel seems to believe that the performance of its SoCs will mean that there will be applications where a 10W SoC can do the job of a traditional CPU. This is also one of the reasons why Intel has started to aggressively push its Atom chip in the server market where it believes the relatively low power Atom chip can serve the needs of firms such as Facebook.

Intel's Andy Bryant, EVP and chief administrative officer at Intel, who started his presentation with a dig at AMD founder Jerry Sanders by titling his presentation, "Real men have fabs, real business people have profits", said that eight quarters was about the "optimal cycle" to stick to a particular process node. Intel currently operates on a two-year 'tick-tock' cycle, under which it expects to ship 14nm chips by 2013.

Intel was also bullish on its smartphone performance, saying that it makes more money than any other silicon vendor in the smartphone market. Intel is technically correct as, although ARM-based chips are found in the vast majority of smartphones and tablets, the British firm doesn't actually make the silicon, instead it licenses designs to numerous chip designers, some of them fabless.

It's not surprising that Intel is pushing its Atom so hard because unlike its line of desktop, laptop and workstation chips, it simply needs make inroads into a rapidly growing smartphone market. Widening the possible uses for Atom chips will help, but what it really needs to do is work on getting an x86 Atom chip into milliwatt territory if it is really going to end up in the mobile devices bought by consumers. µ


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