Intel walks down Pine Trail with next-gen Atom announcement

Intel logoIntel formally announced its Pine Trail platform, which is the next version of its successful Atom line. Pine Trail, which will launch in the last quarter of 2009, cuts the number of chips in the Atom chipset down to two by putting the GPU and CPU on the same die.

Intel renewed its netbook push Tuesday with the formal announcement of its next-generation Atom platform, codenamed Pine Trail. The details of Pine Trail, including the late 2009 launch date, had already been widely leaked, and today's disclosure provided little new information. But for those who haven't followed the Pineview leaks, I'll break down the details of what was announced.

Pine Trail's CPU, Pineview (confusing, I know), is a more highly integrated version of Atom that puts the memory controller and GPU on the same die as the CPU. As the diagram below shows, this move will shrink the number of chips in the Atom platform from three to just two.

The reduced number of chips results in a cheaper platform with a lower power draw. So Pineview-based netbooks and MIDs will have improved battery life; or alternately, Intel could choose to increase the clockspeed and performance of the processor core and keep the overall platform within the same power envelope. Given that Atom's performance is still on the low end of "acceptable" (depending on your needs), my bet is that many netbook makers will push for the latter option.

The Pineview processor is a 45nm part, but the process node for the I/O hub isn't clear. (It's probably still some legacy process, like 130nm or 90nm). Also unclear is the type of memory controller included, though previous rumors suggested it's a single-channel DDR2 controller. Older rumors also have single- and dual-core variants in the works, though no mention was made of core counts in today's disclosure.

In moving the GPU onto the same die as the CPU core, Intel arguably pushes Atom into SoC territory. Of course, Pineview will still require a separate I/O hub chip (a southbridge), but this CPU/GPU combination is new territory for Intel, and it will give us a taste of what Moorestown will be like when it launches. (Atom and Moorestown will both be based around Intel's Lincroft CPU core, and presumably they'll have the same GPU core, as well.)

Pineview and NVIDIA

Pineview's announcement raises two issues with respect to the ongoing Intel/NVIDIA brawl. First, Pineview is a two-chip Atom solution, but so is NVIDIA's Ion, and Ion has been out for a while. Even worse for Intel is the fact that, from a performance perspective, Ion is just plain better. Think about how these rival two-chip platforms stack up against one another: Pineview pairs a single Atom core with a GPU core of questionable quality, while Ion pairs two Atom cores with a really great mobile GPU (9400M). I can tell you which one I'd rather have, but then again I'm probably less concerned about battery life than the average netbook user so I lean more towards the performance option.

I'm sure Pineview will have less power draw than Ion, making it preferable for many netbook users, but the real killer for NVIDIA is that Pineview will widen the price gap between Atom and Ion even further. NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun is griping today about how Intel sells its three-chip Atom platform for $25, but charges $45 if you unbundle it and just buy the processor alone. When Pineview comes out, Intel will still probably charge $45 for a standalone Atom, while dropping the price of the two-chip platform even further. This will place NVIDIA at a severe price disadvantage, and will seriously hamper the company's ability to gain traction with Ion in the netbook market, which is mainly cost-sensitive and not performance-sensitive.

Of course, that still leaves the HTPC market for NVIDIA to dominate with Ion, but that market is significantly smaller than the netbook market.

The second problem with Pineview from NVIDIA's perspective is that once the GPU moves onto the (Intel-owned) CPU die, it's totally shielded from real competition. In this respect, an on-die GPU is sort of the ultimate in Intel vendor lock-in. But I do wonder if Intel's TSMC deal doesn't complicate this picture.

Intel's stated goal in porting Atom to TSMC is to let SoC customers combine their third-party IP with Atom to produce custom SoCs. What will Intel do if NVIDIA, a TSMC customer, decides that it wants to have a go at Moorestown by trying to combine an Atom core with its own graphics and I/O hardware?

At the time of the TSMC announcement, Intel stressed that it would retain "full control" over who gets to use Atom, and that customers would deal with Intel on building and buying any outsourced Atom variants—TSMC is just the fab in this arrangement, and has no customer-facing role. So someone (NVIDIA, or a third party who wants an NVIDIA/Atom combo) would have to approach Intel about such a part, and I'm sure Intel would have none of it. But in light of the chipmaker's recent antitrust troubles, can they afford to openly punish rivals like that? I don't know the answer to this question, but I suspect that we may eventually find out.

Source: ars technica

Tags: Atom, Intel, netbooks

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