Intel thinks small with Atom

Intel has announced a new processor range to target the mobile device market. The processor, branded Atom, is based on Intel's x86 architecture and is optimised for low power consumption. According to Intel, Atom has a clock speed of up to 1.8GHz and consumes between 0.6 and 2.5 Watts.

Comment: Intel is signalling its intention to move from laptops, desktops and servers into mobile and embedded devices. Its main obstacle in achieving this is the market dominance of the chip designer ARM Ltd. In the mobile phone market, for instance, ARM claims that its architecture is in upwards of 90% of the 3.3 billion devices currently in the installed base.

To make inroads into this market the Atom chip (previously codenamed Silverthorne and Diamondville) would have to compete head on with ARM's highly-optimised architectures. Comparing Atom with ARM's latest chipset, the Coretex-A8, illustrates how much Intel still needs to optimise its processors to compete with ARM in this area. Where Coretex-A8 power consumption is less than 300mW, Atom is, at best, twice that.

With the mobile handset market effectively closed off to Intel, the company intends to drive demand for Atom by creating a new category of devices that it calls MIDs (mobile Internet devices). There is no definitive definition of a MID, but in general they are small (under 23cm/9 inch displays), inexpensive (between €200 and €300) handheld devices. Early examples of MIDs in the market today include the Asus Eee PC and Nokia's Internet tablets, including the N810.

Intel predicts that the market for this type of device will be about 180 million units by 2010. Higher than expected consumer demand for products such as the Eee (350,000 units shipped to date) is an early indicator that this product category may achieve significant potential over the next five years.

However, while it may prove difficult for Intel to move down into ARM's market space, at least in the short term, ARM will have less trouble addressing the MIDs opportunity. Intel will need to offer OEMs more than just x86 software compatibility to ensure they are the processor of choice for this category of device.

Adam Leach, Principal Analyst