Intel Aims Low-Power Atom Processor Line at MIDs -- and Beyond

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Electronic communications, like all human endeavors, faces short- and long-term challenges. The more immediate issues are handled on a practical and tactical level. The longer-term challenges grow increasingly ominous as people build plans and businesses atop the infrastructure threatened by problems.


Security is the highest-profile of these issues and the industry has reacted admirably. For the mobile industry, a less high-profile but no less serious matter is power. Over the past few years, the fear has been that increasingly demanding mobile devices will overwhelm the industry's ability to keep them running for an adequate length of time.


The industry is reacting in a number of ways. Much of the emphasis has been on increasing power by improving batteries and developing fuel cells. The other side of the coin has been better device management, which shuts down or limits features and applications whenever possible.


Still another strategy is to limit consumption. At the Intel Developer Forum in Shanghai earlier this week, Intel introduced five low-power Atom processors, a family known as Silverthorne before it was released. In the immediate future, Atom will be used in mobile Internet devices (MIDs) from Fujitsu, Samsung, Toshiba, Hitachi, Lenovo and a long list of other vendors. The second half of the story suggests that Atom technology will be an integral part of Intel's roadmap, and reach far beyond the fledging MID market. The Atom family, the story says, emits 0.65 to 2.4 watts, compared with the typical 35 watts for a laptop.


This Wired post on Intel, Atom and the MIDs raises a lot of interesting questions. Atom, which the writer says subsumes elements of the Menlow processor in addition to Silverthorne, will face competition from Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and STMicroelectronics. Atom eventually will end up in smartphones, but doesn't have enough power today.


A key question is how closely tied Atom will be to MIDs. MIDs, and the broader ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) form factor from which they emerged, are being squeezed by more functional smartphones below and by lower-functioning laptops above. The trick for Intel, it seems, is to set out a future for Atom independent of MIDs.


This IT Spot post deals in rumors from the end of last year -- and links to a CNET piece on the topic -- that Apple will use Silverthorne in its products. The writer says that it is unlikely that Atom, at least in its current form, will be used in the iPhone or iPhone Touch. The reason is physics: To use Atom in its current state, the writer says, the device would have to be about double the size of those iPhones. In 2009 or 2010, an Intel platform under development -- it is now called Moorestown -- could be a candidate.


Two of Intel's competitors recently announced mobile-device deals related to power consumption. PhoneMag reports that Qualcomm's low power mirasol display has been chosen by two companies: Cal-Com Electronics and Communications will use mirasol in phones aimed at emerging markets, while Inventec will deploy it as a secondary screen on smartphones. The reporter notes the irony that these uses are at the extreme ends of the spectrum. He says that mirasol consumes less power by using interferometric modulation, a reflective technology.


Integration of radios into as few chips as possible is a standard way to cut power requirements. At CTIA Wireless 2008 this week in Las Vegas, Texas Instruments launched NaviLink 6.0 (also known as the NL5500), which the story says is the first chip to combine GPS, Bluetooth 2.1, FM and ultra-low-power technologies in the same chip. The NL5500 is a product of the company's Digital RF Processing approach in which specific radios are integrated into chips when demand is deemed high enough. The piece says that by 2011, it is thought that 30 percent of cell phones will have GPS and 70 percent will have Bluetooth.