Atom Finds Its Way Into Tablets, Servers

While Intel has not said the Atom processor is wedded to the netbook/nettop/mobile Internet device (MID) sector, it has been widely viewed as being targeted at that low-power, modest performance product space.

But what about touchscreen tablet netbooks and rack-mounted servers? Those are for Intel’s (NASDAQ: INTC) Centrino and Xeon, or perhaps AMD’s (NYSE: AMD) Turion and Opteron, respectively — right?

Tell that to Asus and Supermicro, who are going after just those markets with the Atom.

Asus, maker of the popular Eee PC netbook line, first introduced the Eee PC T91 tablet netbook at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this past January. It comes with an Atom Z7520 processor, weighs just two pounds, and has a rotating lid/screen that could be turned 180 degrees and closed and used like a paper notebook. The 8.9-inch screen is fully touchscreen-capable.

Touchscreen technology and rotating panels are not technologies normally associated with netbooks, which normally operate at the low end of the performance spectrum. Rotating screens are frequently found in mid-range and higher-grade laptops costing $1,000 or more, and touchscreens are certainly not found in budget notebooks.

Asus has not yet given a release date, but UK blog Electric Pig claims the T91 will launch in the UK late this month or early next month at a suggested price of £449, which translates to US$684 — fairly pricey for a “netbook.”

But that’s still cheaper than the $1,299 Fujitsu U820 “netbook” that had the same features but a smaller, 5.6-inch screen, said Insight 64 Research Fellow Nathan Brookwood, who said he would welcome just such a lightweight device.

“Weight’s a big factor. As a tablet user, when you use it, you are typically holding it,” he told “They are typically five pounds, and you don’t want to have that in your arms when using it.”

“One of the advantages of Atom is you can back off on battery weight and still get comparable battery life,” he said. “Although it’s clearly a stretch compared with the netbooks and certainly a pricier alternative, nevertheless, for tablets, it can be attractive.”

The first Atom server

But that’s not the most unusual use for Atom seen this week. Supermicro Computer has announced Server Building Block Solutions, a pair of Atom-based, 1U rack-mounted servers with much lower power draw than your typical Xeon server.

The SuperServers 5015A is a 1U design that fits in a standard, 19-inch server cabinet, but is only 10 inches deep and weighs just 10 pounds. It takes one of two motherboards: the X7SLA-L with a single-core Atom 230 or the X7SLA-H with the dual-core Atom 330. The X7SLA-L has a four-watt power draw while the X7SLA-H draws just eight watts.

The platform supports up to four SATA ports with RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10 capability, seven USB 2.0 headers, 2GB DDR2 memory, on-board graphics and a Gigabit Ethernet port. The X7SLA-H has an extra USB port and SATA port. Supermicro says the unit weighs less than 10 pounds. The X7SLA-L starts at around $200, the X7SLA-H around $300.

“Bringing the low-power consumption advantages of Atom processors to the server appliance market empowers our customers with energy-saving, quiet solutions that provide flexible expansion and storage features previously unattainable with Atom solutions,” Charles Liang, Supermicro’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

It may sound like a crazy use of a low-power, low-performance device, but Brookwood thinks there is a place for Atom among the Xeon servers.

“If a datacenter doesn’t need a lot of number-crunching performance and is focused on moving a lot of data around and shuffling from one disk farm to another, Atom might be adequate for that,” he said. “Clearly, it’s going to use a lot less power than anything [else] on Intel or AMD’s list.”

Such uses for the Atom may seem unusual, but Intel said it wasn’t ruling out any ideas.

“The main thing is we’re really excited about is with all of the innovation that’s going on around the Atom processor,” Intel spokesman Bill Calder said. “Atom was originally designed for small devices with low power. While the original purpose, and it is purpose-built silicon, was for things like MIDs and netbooks and nettops, we understand and see that there’s a lot of innovation going around.

“In the case of this server there may be some apps where it has some usage,” he said.

Brookwood agreed that Intel doesn’t want to limit its options.

“I think Intel would like to see Intel products used in as many creative ways as possible,” he added. “They didn’t invent it just to go into netbooks, nettops and UMPCs [ultra-mobile PCs]. They would like to see Atom open up new markets for them.”

But, he warned, don’t assume you can pinch pennies by getting an Atom in place of a Xeon. “Buy according to your usage model. As good as that Atom processor is and is enabling a new class of affordable netbooks and nettops, people should not equate them with the full performance they would get out of a standard processor,” said Calder.

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