IDF 2011: Intel's Cedar Trail Atom aims for netbook-tablet hybrids

At IDF this week Intel gave an update on its Atom roadmap and talked about how the upcoming Cedar Trail SOC will work in hybrid devices that blur the lines between laptops and tablets.

Tablets get all the attention, but the majority of Intel's Atom processors are still used in netbooks with a traditional clamshell design. At IDF this week, Intel gave an update on its Atom roadmap, and talked about how the upcoming System-On-Chip (SOC), code-named Cedar Trail, will work not only in netbooks but also in hybrid devices that blur the lines between laptops and tablets.

Cedar Trail will replace the current Atom N4xx and N5xx processors, known as Pine Trail, which are primarily used in netbooks. Intel said the first Cedar Trail processors, which will be manufactured using a 32nm process, will ship in the fourth quarter. Intel has a separate processor line, the Atom Z6xx series, or Oak Trail, for tablets. This will be replaced in 2012 by a new SOC code-named Medfield. A third SOC on the roadmap for 2012, known as Clover Trail and also manufactured on 32nm, will be used for both tablets and hybrid devices. Cindy Ng, an Intel marketing manager, said the company was on track to move Atom to Intel's 22nm tri-gate technology in 2013.

Intel listed four reasons why device makers should choose Atom over competing solutions: Intel's advanced process technology; the company's manufacturing capacity (Intel has shipped more than 100 million Atom chips); the ability to use multiple operating systems including Windows, Chrome OS, Android and MeeGo; and the additional features that Intel has been developing. These features make system boot up faster, receive notifications while in sleep mode, synchronize files with other mobile devices and stream images and video to external displays wirelessly.

Atom is already the most popular solution for netbooks, though recently AMD's low-power C- and E-Series Accelerated Processing Units have found some success too. But with Cedar Trail Intel is also aiming for hybrid devices that blend some of the features of netbooks and tablets. These devices typically have a keyboard/touchpad and a touchscreen display measuring 10- to 11.6-inches. Hybrids are thinner than netbooks, but not as thin as tablets. And they have the I/O options typically found on laptops and netbooks plus many of the sensors (GPS, compass, accelerometer, gyroscope, ambient light and proximity) found on tablets.

The Cedar Trail platform includes the 32nm Cedarview processor and a separate NM10 Express chipset that also supports touch input and GPS. To make it easier to integrate other sensors, the Cedar Trail platform can also be used with a USB sensor hub manufactured by other chipmakers such as ST Microelectronics.

The hybrid isn't an entirely new concept. Convertible tablets with swiveling displays have been around for years and lately computer makers have been experimenting with other hybrid designs using sliding keyboards (Samsung Sliding PC 7 and Asus Eee Pad Slider), rotating displays (Dell Inspiron Duo) or keyboard docks (Asus Eee Pad Transformer). But these are niche products. With Cedar Trail, Intel is hoping to better define this category, incorporate more tablet features, and find a bigger audience. To make things even more confusing, some Ultrabooks will also have a lot of the hardware characteristics of hybrids as well, but they will use Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge Core processors that provide better performance.

The hybrid has never really caught on, and so far users seem to be opting for a separate laptop and tablet. But the time may finally be right for this in-between category. The introduction next year of Windows 8, which will include both a Metro-style user interface for tablets and the traditional Windows desktop, could give a boost to this hybrid category.