Intel 'breaks' Moore's Law with new Atom chips

With no speed bump and focus on price, Nvidia might make inroads on performance

It seems Moore's Law doesn't apply to the next generation of Intel's Atom chips. The low-cost, power-sipping chips, codenamed "Pineview," will greatly improve upon both of those traits, but at the expense of any significant speed boost, according to authentic-looking specs leaked this month.

The trio of processors is expected to come in single and dual-core versions running at 1.66 GHz. For users, that would be an imperceptible increase over the 1.6 GHz speed of most of today's Atom chips.

Similarly, the graphics chip Intel is said to be planning to pair with the upcoming Atom CPUs will only be slightly faster than its existing one.

Publicly, Intel has all but conceded the lack of speed boost, saying that the biggest change in Pineview is that the Atom CPU will be integrated with a single chipset that holds both the graphics processor and the memory controller.

This architecture change will bring these components closer together and nearer the CPU, enabling netbooks and net-top PCs running Pineview -- or "Pine Trail," as the integrated platform will be called -- to be a little faster than today's generation, says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64.

Beside the longer battery life that comes with more efficient chips, lower heat also means some netbooks with the new Atom chips will not require a fan.

But more important to Intel, the chief benefit of Pineview is that it will be able to make tinier Atom chipsets for lower cost -- a benefit it should be able to pass on to netbook makers.

Chips cool, competition heats up

Analysts say the strategy shows Intel is focused on countering the threat posed by ARM chips, which are cheaper and more energy-efficient than today's Atom processors, and are just starting to make their way into netbooks.

But by mostly ignoring performance, Intel could leave an opening for Nvidia Corp. to make inroads with its multimedia-savvy Ion platform.

"Intel wants to serve the broadest market it can, but I think that will leave room for a smaller player like Nvidia to find a niche it can serve very well," said Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research.

Nvidia's Ion platform bundles an Atom N270 processor with Nvidia's 9400M graphics chip, used in Apple Inc.'s powerful MacBook Pro.

Ion has been slow to catch on, due to its much higher price versus Intel's Atom-and-GPU bundle.

But at the Computex conference earlier this month, about 20 Ion-based machines were unveiled.

The upcoming Pineview Atom N450 will reportedly be paired with Intel's GMA 500 graphics chip. The GMA 500 will run at a faster clock speed and double the number of graphics "pipelines" to four. But it will still run at half the speed of Nvidia's 9400M chip and boast only a quarter of its graphic pipelines.

The GMA 500 is "indeed better than the old 945," said Jon Peddie, principal at Jon Peddie Research, but it's still not in the league [of the Ion.]"

Despite the architectural change, Pineview-class Atoms will still technically be able to run with Nvidia's Ion, says Intel.

At the same time, Intel argues that Pineview will still shove Ion aside and leave Nvidia out in the cold.

Brookwood agrees. "Once the [Intel] GPU moves onto the same die as the CPU, you have to wonder what role, if any, a discrete GPU from Nvidia can play," Brookwood said.

Nvidia, which has complained about interference from Intel as it tries to sell Ion, did not return a request for comment.

The big gamble: HD

Not boosting Pineview's performance may vex customers hoping to watch HD movies or play shooter games on their netbook or net-top PCs. It's unclear how many consumers will demand HD and gaming capabilities.

Intel's bet: not many. That will help it prevent potential cannibalization of sales of Intel's more powerful, pricier CPUs.

"Intel wants Atom to be successful, but not too successful," McCarron said.

For consumers demanding HD video, Intel reportedly plans to offer Broadcom Corp.'s Crystal HD video decoder chip as an optional add-on.

Hewlett-Packard Co. is already using the Broadcom chip in its just-released Mini 1101 netbook.

That will add an unknown amount to the price of Pine Trail, bringing it closer to or even equal to the price of Nvidia's Ion.

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Eric Lai

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