Intel's new Atom chips bring 4K video to VR headsets, robots

Intel's new Atom T5500 and 5700 chips -- codenamed Broxton -- have Gen9 integrated graphics processors

In 2009, Apple CEO Tim Cook memorably trashed Atom-based netbooks for being "junky" hardware that underperformed. Intel's Atom chips have come a long way since, with the latest generation code-named Broxton boasting the most impressive improvements.

The new Atom T5500 and 5700 chips have features found in low-end PC processors, but the chips are instead targeted at robots, drones, wearables, and smart home devices.

A standout feature is 4K decoding and encoding capabilities, which could allow the chips to be used in virtual reality and augmented reality headsets.

Intel showed smart glasses, a bartending robot, and a smart motorcycle helmet with the Broxton chips at the Intel Developer Forum this week. Intel also said the chips could be used be in storage or media servers.

Earlier this year, Intel abruptly discontinued Atom chips for smartphones. At the time, Intel said it would stop developing Broxton chips, but the company appears to have changed its mind.

The target markets for Broxton chips aligns with the company's focus on the growing markets of virtual reality and the internet of things. Intel is trying to position Atom chips for devices outside of PCs, which have seen shipments fall.

But over the last few months, Intel has softened its stance on how it could use Atom chips. Broxton could be used in specialized enterprise tablets, and there's a remote possibility that device makers will use the new Atom chips in low-end or thumb stick-sized PCs.

The new Atom chips will support Windows 10 desktop, Windows 10 IoT Core, Linux, Android, and the VxWorks real-time OS.

You can get the new Atom chip through Intel's latest Joule developer board, which like Raspberry Pi 3, is targeted at people looking to build devices. The US$369 Joule 570x has a 1.7GHz Atom T5700 processor, 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, 16GB of storage, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

The Joule could be an expensive, albeit excellent, media server with support for 4K and the latest Wi-Fi technology.

The T5500 and T5700 chips are based on Intel's latest Goldmont architecture, which will also be in upcoming Celeron and Pentium chips code-named Apollo Lake. The chips draw only six to 12 watts of power.

The 4K video capabilities come thanks to an improved Gen9 integrated graphics processor, which is also in Intel's current batch of chips based on the Skylake architecture. The chips can support up to three 4K DisplayPort and HDMI displays at a 60Hz refresh rate.

Visual computing is becoming important, especially with robots, drones, and self-driving cars relying on cameras for motion tracking and gesture and image recognition. The Atom chips have a next-generation image processing engine that speeds up visual computing.

There is also a 50 to 80 percent improvement in memory bandwidth compared to the previous Atom chip, based on the Silvermont architecture released in 2015, according to Intel. There is also support for error correction, which was previously available only on Atom server chips.

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