Intel Atom

While looking for a new laptop a couple of weeks back I was quite surprised by the sheer number that utilise the relatively new Intel Atom CPU.As I haven’t yet covered this particular processor, today seemed a good day to play catch-up.

The Intel Atom has been designed to compete primarily with the ARM Processor; due to its power saving features this processor is particular popular in mobile devices such as PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistant), GPS (Global Positioning System) and Mobile Phones.Power consumption has often been a struggle for Intel who typically tows the line of creating a processor then providing a lower power version that relies on practically the same architecture; this tactic often results in a slower processor which only offers a slight power saving.By comparison, Atom uses a completely different architecture, one that has been designed from the ground up to consume very little power.

There are different versions of the processor depending on whether it is destined for a mobile device such as a Mobile Phone or whether it will be fitted to a desktop PC or laptop.As it is unlikely you will pick your next phone based solely on the processor it utilises we will today focus on those destined for desktop and laptop computers.

If we begin by considering performance then it has to be said that while the Atom does include a fairly optimised instruction set, relatively fast clock speeds and hyper threading technology it certainly isn’t going to blow your socks off.Personally I would consider a PC designed around the Atom would ideally be a laptop as quite simply the performance of the CPU is underwhelming when compared with faster, more power hungry desktop targeted CPU’s.

As with all processors, the Atom works alongside a chipset, in this case the i945 range.The chipset is designed to provide the CPU with the facility to address memory, access peripherals and often output graphics through an integrated video controller.Unfortunately the i945 is a fairly old chipset, originally released in 2005, which itself draws a very large amount of power and suffers relatively poor performance, especially when trying to handle 3D graphics.

It is this chipset that appears to be holding the Atom back somewhat at present - Whilst the CPU has extremely low power consumption and the ability to jump quickly into and out of sleep mode (a state that only uses 0.3v of supply voltage), the potential power savings are somewhat diluted by the chipset.As an example, the i945GC chipset will typically burn 22W of power which dwarfs the Atoms miniscule 4W load.

In terms of the actual cost of the processor, it does represent a low cost purchase; typically laptops and desktop machines based around the Atom platform are remarkably cheap but capable entry level machines.

As it stands currently however, the Atom does seem to represent a missed opportunity.With some improvements to the chipset however and better models promised for the future (Faster Dual Core Atoms are already starting to make their way to market); this processor could still face a rosy future.


About the Author - Chris Holgate works for Refresh Cartridges who supply a wide range of printer cartridges at the UK’s lowest prices.