Intel’s Atom is The Big News at IDF

For the second year in a row, Intel is holding its spring Developer Forum in China as opposed to a San Francisco show, as had been tradition for several years. In another break from tradition, Intel’s PC processors stepped aside and let the newest member of the product family, the Atom processor, take center stage.

Atom is the name for a family of mobile and embedded processors developed under the codename “Silverthorne”. These chips are based on the IA-32 architecture, which is a few years behind the Core 2 architecture that forms the basis of every new Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) PC processor on the market.

Whereas Core 2 chips go in laptops, desktops and servers, Atom processors are designed for mobile Internet devices (MIDs), pocket devices, mobile phones, GPS systems and other consumer gadgets.

The company introduced five new Atom and Centrino Atom processors at the show Tuesday. Atom/Silverthorne is just the CPU while Centrino Atom/Menlow is the CPU and single-chip controller that features a high-speed controller and high definition video graphics processor.

This may be an embedded chip but with its x86 instructions it can run PC software, including Sun’s Java and Adobe’s Flash, in a Web browser. Intel Atom processors have a power draw ranging from only 0.65 to 2.4 watts and run at clock speeds from 800MHz to 1.86Ghz.

“Our goal here is to fill a gap and bring consumers devices that blend the best of the PC along with wireless technology and the Web for the best overall user experience,” said Gary Willihnganz, director of marketing for Intel’s ultra mobility group on a conference call from China.

These chips are the delivery of a promise CEO Paul Otellini made in one of his first IDF events as CEO, where he showed a chart that showed Intel’s unit volume shipments doubling due to consumer devices over the next few years.

An enormous change

“Most people in the audience went ‘yeah, yeah whatever.’ They didn’t realize this is an enormous change for Intel,” Van Baker, research vice president at Gartner told “This is a major shift into a completely new segment for them and they are accomplishing it by leveraging the asset they have, the IA-32 architecture, and shrinking it to fit a variety of devices.”

The move to Atom puts Intel in direct competition with ARM, the long-time maker of embedded processors, but Intel has an advantage, Baker noted. “They think they have a shot at displacing ARM due to the IA-32 architecture, and they think they have the advantage because that’s the architecture the Web was built on. This is the same processor architecture that they have used for years. That’s a problem for ARM,” he said.

Intel will also show off two new Centrino platforms at the show. The Centrino 2 platform, developed under the codename “Montevina,” will feature Penryn-based mobile processors, a new chipset, WiMax support and Intel’s Turbo Memory, which uses Flash memory to improve PC performance – the latter is expected to be released this June.

Also, Intel will show of Capella, the next-generation of Centrino reportedly designed to compete with AMD’s Fusion. It will feature a desktop and mobile version of Nehalem, Intel’s forthcoming chip design with integrated graphics that supports Blu-ray decoding and solid state drive support.

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