Intel's Atom Grows Up, Moves out of Netbooks

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Have you noticed Atom-based laptops seem to be getting nicer? The latest models sport bigger screens, more RAM, and slimmer and lighter designs than anything that's come before. They are also using versions of the Atom processor that weren't originally intended to be used in laptops.

The Atom processor family tree is split into two main branches. The side of the family that's gotten the most attention so far is the 1.6GHz Atom N270, formerly called Diamondville. This chip is the heart of Intel's netbook platform, an Atom processor paired with Intel's 945GSE Express chipset and intended for use in small, portable laptops, like Asustek Computer's Eee PC and Acer's Aspire One.

The N270 is closely related to two other chips, the 1.6GHz Atom 230 and 1.6GHz Atom 330. Both chips are designed for use in low-end desktops, a product segment that Intel calls nettops.

The other side of the Atom processor family is the Z-series, formerly called Silverthorne, a range of chips released before the N270 that run at clock speeds from 800MHz to 1.86Ghz.

"Certainly, the bulk of the volume and majority of netbook designs are and probably will remain on the N270. That said, if customers want to use a Z-series for these laptop designs, that is their choice," said Bill Calder, a spokesman for the chip maker.

Both the Z-series and the Atom chips found in netbooks and nettops have the same basic processor core. The only difference, apart from clock speeds, is that the Z-series processors support Intel's VT virtualization technology and Demand-Based Switching, a technology that reduces power consumption by adjusting the chip's voltage and frequency depending on how heavy the processing load is at a given moment.

Another feature of the Z-series is its chipset. Unlike the two-chip 945GSE Express used with the N270, the Z-series processors are paired with Intel's single-chip System Controller Hub US15W chipset, formerly called Poulsbo. The single-chip chipset helps cut power consumption and allows hardware makers to put Atom processors inside smaller computers.

The Z-series chips were originally designed for small, handheld computers that Intel calls mobile Internet devices, but they're now making their way into a new crop of Atom-based laptops, such as Sony's P Series.

The P Series mini-laptop, unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, is arguably the nicest of the new machines. Priced at US$900, the P Series has a 1.33GHz Atom Z520 processor, 8-inch widescreen display, 2GB of RAM, a 60GB hard drive, a built-in GPS and 3G modem, as well as Wi-Fi and other features packed inside a sleek 680-gram package that's just 2 centimeters thick.

Even though the Z520 is a slower processor than the N270, Sony executives are adamant that the P Series is not a netbook, pointing to the GPS and 3G support as features that set it apart.

"It's definitely more than a netbook, it's a full-featured PC," said Michael Abary, senior vice president of product marketing at Sony Electronics.

Micro-Star International (MSI) showed off another good looking laptop based on a Z-series processor at CES. The X320 bears a strong resemblance to Apple's MacBook Air, but will be cheaper and significantly less powerful. Packing a 1.33GHz Atom Z520, the X320 has a 13.4-inch screen, 2GB of RAM, and -- at 1.8 centimeters thick -- the 1.3 kilogram laptop is slimmer than Sony's P series.

The similarities between MSI's X320 and Macbook Air are only skin deep: The 1.6GHz or 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo with 8MB of cache inside the Macbook Air easily outpaces the Atom, which has just 512KB of cache. On the other hand, expect the X320 to cost a fraction of the Macbook Air's US$1,800 price tag.

Other laptops based on the Atom Z-series are on display at CES, including two new models from Asustek, including one with a 512GB solid-state drive, and another system from MSI.

"The Z-series was designed for low power and pocketable devices, but as you can see, it can be applied in other larger devices," Calder said.

The popularity of netbooks puts Intel in a tough spot. Demand for these devices has risen quickly since the first Eee PC hit the market in 2007 and this product segment represents one of the few bright spots these days for the hardware industry, which otherwise faces slowing end-user demand for new computers. But Atom processors are less expensive than Intel's other processors, and can represent a smaller percentage of the total component cost of a laptop.

For these reasons, Intel executives would rather see users with Core 2 Duo-based laptops as their main computers instead of a netbook.

Intel has done a good job of locking down the specifications of the N270-based machines, limiting manufacturers to screen sizes of 10 inches and less, and capping the amount of RAM in each system at 1GB. The aim was to segment the laptop market into low-end netbooks based on Atom and larger, more powerful laptops based on the Core 2 Duo, preventing netbook sales from eating into sales of mainstream laptops.

With these system limitations in place, Intel rivals like Via Technologies and Advanced Micro Devices saw the gap between netbooks and mainstream laptops as an opportunity, with user demand for lightweight, portable laptops with more capable specifications than a typical netbook.

The first sign of change in Intel's limitations on Atom-based systems came from Dell, which unveiled the Z520-based Inspiron Mini 12, which sports a 12-inch screen, in October. The arrival of that system signaled the Z-series was not bound by the same hardware restrictions as the N270.

With the appearance this week of other laptops based on the Z-series, the product gap that exists between netbooks and mainstream laptops appears to be closing, even as Intel seemingly remains firm on the specifications of netbooks that use the 1.6GHz Atom N270 processor.

Whether or not the Z-series processor, especially more powerful models with higher clock speeds, become widely used in laptops remains to be seen. If users willing to pay US$900 for a laptop expect more processing power than the Atom Z-series can muster, such as the ability to encode high-definition video files, the number of laptop models based on the Z-series may be limited. Time will tell.

Martyn Williams in Las Vegas contributed to this story.

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