Inside Intel’s smartphone superchip

Atom-powered netbooks may have redefined mobile computing for the masses but as the pint-sized processor nears its first birthday in April this year Intel has its eyes on a much bigger prize.

Smartphones along with a raft of other pocketable Internet-connected consumer electronics devices are expected to provide the headroom for the company’s future growth outside the near-saturated PC market.

“Every smartphone is a mobile internet device including the iPhone” says Pankaj Kedia director of ecosystems for Intel’s Ultra-Mobile Group. “If the device is mobile if it delivers a rich internet experience and has a targeted usage it’s a mobile Internet device”.

But Intel isn’t getting hung up on the MID brand which it originally touted as a broad description for the category. “The iPhone is a good example of a MID and it raised the water level of what is possible in these devices but not everyone will call their mobile Internet device a MID” Kedia explains. “Clarion calls their Atom-powered in-car system MIND for ‘mobile Internet navigation device’. OQO calls their device a UMPC. Nokia calls their (N-series) smartphones ‘multimedia computers’. And these devices are so personal that you’ll see a range shapes and form factors and so forth.”

Anand Chandrasekher
Intel’s senior veep for ultra mobility with the company’s
concept Atom-powered smartphone codenamed ‘Panorama’

About the only thing Intel wants these devices to have in common is ‘Intel inside’. But as thrifty as they are today’s Atom processors still demand at least ten times too much power for ‘tiny tech’.

So Intel is throwing everything it can at the second-gen Atom in an effort to slash the overall system power drain to a mere 10% of the current Atom series. This includes a ‘system on a chip’ or SoC design which integrates the processor graphics video encode/decode and memory controller onto a single 45nm chip or ‘CPU hub’ codenamed Lincroft.

Lincroft will be paired with a specialised I/O hub codenamed Langwell which will provide the connections to each system’s wireless storage and display components. “We left all the I/O off the CPU hub because all MIDs are not the same” Kedia told APC during a private briefing at last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

“MIDs coming from PC manufacturers phone and entertainment and navigation manufacturers will all be different and they will have different I/O needs. So instead of trying to put everything in the SoC which will make it kludgy we keep the I/O separate so our customers can configure it the way they want. A good example is wireless: some will just want Wi-Fi others will want CDMA or 3G others will want WiMAX.”

The I/O hub also contains advanced power management for those subsystems. “We can shut off parts of the system we are not using – the display disk drive and wireless. We’re not putting them to a low-power sleep mode we are turning them off completely so that they consume no power at all.”

Moorestown rolls all the core computing functions onto a single piece
of silicon
while relegating the I/O to a secondary hub

The Lincroft-Langwell combo creates an MID platform dubbed ‘Moorestown’ which is the successor to the ‘Menlow’ platform comprising of the Silvethorne processor and Poulsbo chipset.

Intel showcased the first working Moorestown silicon at it Taiwan IDF in November 2008 and expects to launch the platform “in or before 2010” Kedia says.

“Moorestown is optimised for the smartphone space and the CE space and with similar performance at the platform level the idle power reduction is 10x – in fact we’re actually doing better than that” Kedia admits.

“If you take a typical Menlow device including the display hard drive and wireless which has an idle power consumption of X then on an identical Moorestown system the power consumption is one tenth of that. This means you’ll get smaller form factors longer standby time and longer battery life.”

Kedia admits these traits this could see some netbook vendors choosing Moorestown over the conventional Atom-based netbook platform especially where slim size is paramount. Dell and Sony already use Menlow silicon in their respective Inspiron Mini 12 and Vaio P netbooks.

“Moorestown is designed for pocketable smartphone-like devices and consumer devices but will some manufacturers choose Moorestown for netbooks? Sure. Our customers will decide for themselves although we also have a very compelling netbook roadmap.”

Menlow’s main thrust has been into some 20 MIDs although few are sold outside Asia and the same demo models tend to be trotted out at every Intel techfest. Kedia predicts that MIDs built around Moorestown and its successors will take as many as five years to gain momentum in the market.

“Netbooks are an incremental usage model – people are used to their laptop and the netbook usage is similar. But as you move to the pocketable side it’s much newer. This is a journey that will take three four or even five years before we hit 100 million. And zero to 100 million is always more difficult. 100 million to a billion comes very fast.

“If you look at the cellphone space the first cellphone came out in 1983. It took 15 years until 1998 to hit 100 million. And then we went from 100 million to 1.3 billion in just the last decade. That’s how voice was unleashed. When we think about mobile Internet devices we think about the same phenomenon with the Internet.

“There are 1.5 billion Internet users almost all of them tethered. The Internet experience today is a ‘sit down’ experience but we think the mobile Internet device will unleash that experience and we’ll go zero to 100 million much faster than voice went mobile. We think it will happen in three to five years.”