An x86 Wednesday: Intel's Atom Illness, And Nvidia's Symptom-Squelching Adroitness
It’s been a busy day in PC microprocessor land, hasn’t it?
My cover story on value-oriented x86 CPUs (Intel’s single- and dual-core Atom, and Via’s C7 and Nano) will be published for your perusal in three weeks (and a few hours). For purposes of this evening’s writeup, I’ll give you a brief preview to whet your appetite:
- Atom is an impressive microprocessor, particularly considering its price tag, but it’s unfortunately mated (at least until now) to a geriatric Intel chipset with high power consumption, poor graphics performance and limited video decoding acceleration with modern codecs.
- Via’s ARTiGO, built on a pico-ITX foundation, is a compelling form factor constrained by the archaic 1 GHz C7 CPU inside it.
Wouldn’t it be great, I kept thinking a month ago as I was doing my testing, if someone would stick Atom in an ARTiGO-reminiscent form factor, and mate it with a more capable core logic companion? Specifically, I was thinking of Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M, which the company had unveiled a month earlier as the chipset heart of Apple’s latest MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro iterations. So imagine my happy surprise when a week and a half ago, I was invited to Nvidia to hear about…the mating of Intel’s Atom CPU and Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M (a combination known as Ion in Nvidia’s marketing moniker terminology) on a pico-ITX board, squeezed into a 5.7" (wide) x 4.4" (deep) x 1.5" (high) case with 0.6 liter volume.
The frontside, left-to-right, proffers a power switch, two ESATA connectors, six USB ports, a S/PDIF audio output, and a suite of analog audio inputs and multi-channel outputs:
The backside offers HDMI, dual-link DVI, VGA, USB v2 and GbE ports, along with a power supply input:
Here’s an overhead view with the active heatsink installed:
and removed. Note that Nvidia’s core logic chip is bigger than Intel’s CPU, both from package and die size standpoints! The underside of the board includes a SoDIMM DDR2 SDRAM slot. Wi-Fi connectivity can be accomplished via, for example, an Ethernet bridge or USB2-based transceiver.
To be clear, this is a de-clocked version of the 9400M in Apple’s computers, reflective of Atom’s 533 MHz frontside bus in contrast to the 1066 MHz FSB in Intel’s Penryn CPU (Nvidia assures me, by the way, that it’s frontside bus licensing agreement with Intel also covers Atom). Still, the demos I saw at company headquarters were mighty impressive; H.264-encoded high-definition material playing back with no frame drops and at sub-50% CPU utilization, for example, along with modern 3D games smoothly rendered at high resolutions (albeit at reduced quality levels as compared to a high-end gaming PC).
Target system form factors on Nvidia’s radar screen include netbooks, net-tops (low-cost desktops) and small-footprint media center systems, the latter explaining the array of multimedia conections on Nvidia’s reference design system. Here’s what I’m curious to see; how will Intel respond? Granted, on the one hand the company would prefer to sell a bag o’chips, encompassing the CPU, core logic chipset, Wi-Fi transceiver…and why not an SSD, while they’re at it?
On the other hand, given that I came to EDN from Intel, I’m well aware of the relative profit margins of CPUs versus chipsets…and from that perspective, anything that sells more Atoms is a good thing. So I suspect that the Santa Clara, CA silicon principal will choose a two-prong path; a public condemnation of the non-Intel solution, coupled with private acquiescence to customers that choose an Nvidia chipset path.
Then, of course, there’s the question of what impact Atom-based netbooks (and larger notebooks), especially those derived from robustly apportioned chipsets, will have on Intel’s traditional mobile computing business both from revenue and profit standpoints. For more on that topic, you’ll have to wait for another near-future Brian’s Brain writeup.
Nvidia promises me a system to test for myself sometime next month. Stay tuned…