Inside Intel’s second-gen netbook platform

Intel has enjoyed spectacular success with its Atom processor but after a year on the market the pint-sized powerhouse is ready for a revamp. And it’s not just the chip which is getting a make-over.

Towards the end of this year Intel will launch a radically reshaped platform codenamed Pinetrail with versions for netbooks (Pinetrail-M) and low cost netbook-inspired desktops or ‘nettops’ (Pinetrail-D).

Like Nehalem and the forthcoming Centrino ‘Calpella‘ notebok and Moorestown  MID architectures Pinetrail sees the current three-chip design shift to a simpler and much smaller two-chip system.

The Atom processors which will clock at upwards of 1.6GHz (1.8GHz is a certainty and 2GHz has been rumoured) will adopt a ‘system on a chip’ or SoC design which integrates the processor graphics and memory controller onto a single 45nm chip or ‘CPU hub’ codenamed Pineview.

Pineview will come in single-core and dual-core editions although the dual-core chip is intended for desktops rather than netbooks. Memory speed will be boosted to 800MHz although the Level 2 cache will remain at 512Kb per core.

A second chip named Tigerpoint will handle all the I/O. And that’s all there is to Pinetrail.

The traditional combo of the northbridge chipset (Atom’s 945GC) and southbridge (ICH7) disappears as does the FSB pipeline between the processor and the chipset. This is replaced by a point-to-point Direct Media Interface (DMI) link between the Pineview and Tigerpoint.

The two-chip design makes for substantially smaller package size and lower power consumption. The current three-chip Atom system totals 2601mm² compared to just 773mm² – a 484mm² die area for the processor and 289mm² for the I/O hub.

Intel also expects power consumption to be halved. While the Pineview processors trim back their power from the current 2.5 watts to an even 2.0 watts the peak thermals of the complete Pinetrail package top out at 14 watts down from 29 watts for today’s three-chip slab. On a dual-core Pinetrail-D the overhead is a modest 17 watts compared to 33 watts for Atom 330-based systems.

But Pinetrail won’t be entirely the leap ahead which some would wish for. The graphics engine inside the multifunction Pineview processor will have the same performance (or lack thereof) as the GMA 950 leaving plenty of room for Nvidia’s Ion GPU chipset to make its mark.