Intel set to unleash dual-core Atom

Intel is getting ready to pump up its Atom processor. A dual-core version of the made-for-mininote chip is expected to be demonstrated at next month’s Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco ahead of its official launch in late September.

The chip will carry the N330 brand and have the same 1.6GHz clock speed at the current single-core N200-series (comprising the entry-level N230 and the hyperthreading N270) which powers popular mini-notes such as Asus Eee PC 1000 Acer Aspire and MSI Wind.

Of course packing a pair of 1.6GHz engines rather than one will put significant pep into your mini-note’s step and the presence of hyperthreading to run simultaneous operations boosts this even further. The N330 will also be fitted with twice the L2 cache (1Mb compared to 512Kb).

Both the Atom N200 and N300 families belong to the same ‘Diamondville’ class of processors intended for mini-notes with the lower-power Atom Z processors from the ‘Silverthorne’ series designed for handheld mobile Internet devices and smartphones. Both families share the same 45nm microarchitecture which was originally codenamed Silverthorne.

The manufacturers of some premium mini-notes with 9-10 inch screens – which dictates a larger footprint thus providing room for a higher-capacity six-cell battery – may queue up for the N330 although they’ll run into difficulties if they want to preload Windows XP onto their meaty little machines. Microsoft’s mini-note license for XP not only limits such systems to 1GB but dictates a single-core processor. Of course Microsoft might soften its stance in the face of continued consumer incursions by Linux.

More crucially dual-core Atoms may also find their way into a new class of desktop PCs built around the low-cost ethos of the mini-note. (Intel has already suggested these be called nettops but we’re not playing. ‘Netbook’ we can live with but ‘nettop’ is just too lame.)

Asus has already sought to repeat its success with the Eee PC by releasing two very different desktop designs built around the Atom N-series. The bookend-sized Eee Box looks like the hybrid offspring of a Mac Mini and Nintendo Wii. The specs start at 512MB of RAM with disk-based storage from 80-250GB 802.11n Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet and a choice of Linux or Windows XP. Or there’s the Eee monitor which is in fact an all-in-one system perched behind a 19 inch or 21 inch screen.

Of course Asus won’t be the only player to step onto this field. The company enjoyed a head start in the mini-note segment because it essentially created the market. But competitors both big and small are resolved not to be caught flat-footed a second time around if the netbook-inspired desktop category takes off.

And what’s next? The dual-core N330 will be followed by a core kick to 1.87GHz according to Intel’s roadmap after which the nimble netbook processors should blaze past 2GHz around mid-2009.

Late 2009 or early 2010 is when Intel is slated to deliver its second-gen Atom platform codenamed Moorestown (we’re not counting the original A-series chips from 2007 which were merely reheated 90nm ultra-low voltage Pentium M processors).

The ‘Pineview’ processors will be built as a system-on-chip (SoC) design with an integrated graphics core and DDR2 memory controller. Pineview chips will also based on a new ‘Lincroft’ microarchitecture which is expected to see the Atom platform downshift from 45nm to 32nm. This is in keeping with comments by CEO Paul Otellini  a speech at Intel’s investor conference in California in March this year when Otellini stated that in 2009 ‘Silverthorne’ (as Atom was then known) would move to 32nm sometime in 2009. This is the same timeframe for the delivery of Intel’s first 32nm processors from the ‘Westmere’ family.