Intel revealed key details of its redesigned Atom microprocessor product line this morning. Code-named Silvermont, this all-new microarchitecture marks the first time that Intel will use its 22nm manufacturing process and 3D Tri-gate transistor technology to build a system-on-a-chip (SoC) platform for devices ranging from smartphones and tablets to microservers.
Intel's current Atom line is based on the five-year-old Bonnell microarchitecture introduced back in 2008. Although Intel switched from a 45nm manufacturing process to a 32nm process in 2012, resulting in the current Saltwell platform, Saltwell is not fundamentally different from Bonnell.
As a result of the age of their underlying architecture, Atom processors have not been competitive with mobile CPUs based on designs from the UK's ARM Holdings. The Apple A series, Nvidia Tegra, Qualcomm Snapdragon, and Samsung Exynos mobile CPUs that power the vast majority of modern smartphones (and many non-Windows tablets) are all variations on one or another ARM platform.
Intel claims that will all change with Silvermont, and that Atom processors based on this new microarchitecture will deliver three times the performance while consuming five times less power (compared to its current-generation Atom cores, at least). "This is not just a tweak of Saltwell," said Intel Fellow and chief architect Belli Kuttanna and at an embargoed press briefing last week, "it's a fundamentally new design." Kuttanna explained that many of the features present in Intel's powerful Core series of desktop CPUs have been brought over to Silvermont, and that Silvermont SoCs will be available with up to eight CPU cores.
At that same press briefing, Rani Borkar, VP General Manager Intel Architecture Development Group A, described the new SoC as "the foundation for a full spectrum of products that will be introduced this year." Borkar said that Intel plans to refresh the Silvermont microarchitecture annually. She gave broad target dates for the following first-generation CPUs by their code names:
Bay Trail: A low-power, quad-core SoC designed for tablets that will be available in time for the holiday shopping season. Intel also expects manufacturers to tap Bay Trail for "entry laptop and desktop computers in innovative form factors."
Avoton: Designed for microservers. Available in the second half of 2013.
Rangeley: Designed for infrastructure devices, such as routers, switches, and security appliances. Also available in the second half of 2013.
Merrifield: A next-generation smartphone chip that Intel plans to ship by the end of 2013 for products hitting the market in the first quarter of 2014.
An out-of-order execution pipeline is one of the key features that renders the Silvermont architecture superior to Bonnell and Saltwell. Those architectures must wait for input data to perform a program instruction. But Silvermont can skip ahead to whichever of the next instructions can be executed immediately, so the CPU should never sit idle with no workload to handle.
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