In its latest bid to expand beyond PCs and servers into industrial and consumer electronics applications, Intel has announced a new family of embedded processors.
These chips are not based on the Atom processor already used in netbooks and Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs)--those versions won't arrive until sometime next year. Rather the EP80579 family consists of eight chips all based on the Pentium M core, running at speeds from 600MHz to 1.2GHz. These are System-On-Chip designs (SoCs), meaning that in addition to the core processor a single chip also integrates system-level functions. In this case, that includes the memory controller, I/O controller hub and, on some chips, RISC-based accelerators for specialized tasks such as data encryption.
Initially these SoCs will be used primarily as microcontrollers for industrial applications. Intel is seeking to capitalize on what it sees as a trend toward making everything from ATM machines to VoIP controllers more like PCs with higher performance and more powerful networking capabilities. Though it gave few details, Intel said it has more than 50 customers working on 15 different designs based on its "Smart SoCs." Eventually Intel hopes to push its SoCs into a wide range of consumer electronics including set-top boxes, TVs and in-car entertainment systems.
By integrating the functions of up to four different chips on a single piece of silicon, Intel said its SoCs are 45 percent smaller and use 34 percent less power. They are still, however, too power hungry at 11 watts to 21 watts to be used in many portable devices. By comparison, the ARM-based chips found in many smartphones typically require less than 2 watts.
That is why future SoCs will be based on the 45nm Atom chip, which will not only use less power but should also cost less. The EP80579 SoCs range from $40 to $95, while the simplest Atom-based SoCs could start around $3. Atom-based SoCs will reportedly include Canmore (later this year) and Sodaville (2009) SoCs for consumer electronics, new embedded processors (2009), and Moorestown for MIDs (2009-2010). Eventually these SoCs will have multi-core processors and contain hundreds of millions of transistors. All told, the versatile Atom will cover three markets: MIDs, netbooks and embedded processing.
Intel is renewing its effort as its main competitor is moving away from consumer electronics. Last week AMD took an $876 million charge to exit the handheld and digital TV businesses, which were part of the company's $5.4 billion acquisition of ATI in 2006. AMD will release a new processor, code-named Bulldozer, for low-cost PCs, an area where higher-end, Atom-based netbooks and low-end, Celeron M-based laptops are beginning to overlap, but this is a different market.
That's not to say there aren't direct competitors in this space; there are plenty of them cranking out ARM-, MIPs- and PowerPC-based embedded processors including Broadcom, Freescale, Samsung, STMicro and Texas Instruments. And Marvell designs and sells processors for storage and networking products using the same ARM-based XScale technology from Intel's last foray in this area. But Intel believes the time is right, and that an x86-based design that is compatible with existing software and relatively easy to program will finally crack these markets.
More coverage of the EP80579 SoC family announcement: