Size mattersAt a mere 25 square mm die size, the Atom’s diminutive size is one of its main selling points. The ability to cram considerable power into such a tiny package creates all kinds of opportunities in consumer as well as commercial and industrial computing applications.
Reduced power consumption for a greener planet (and lower electricity bills)Intel designed the Atom platform with power conservation at the forefront. With a low thermal design power (~2 W), embedded system manufacturers can build systems that consume up to 50% less power than with a ULV Celeron M, for example, and with comparable performance. Additional power savings are achieved by eliminating the need for active cooling fans on the CPU or in the system chassis. The processor supports a wide range of power and thermal management features, clock control, low power states, sleep states, power-down states and other clever mechanisms to ensure the lowest possible power consumption. The chipset’s Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) provides power management features to the operating system, enabling application control over system sleep states, device power states, CPU power states, CPU performance and throttling states. Enhanced SpeedStep technology reduces average system power consumption by allowing the clock speed of the processor to be dynamically changed by software. This allows the processor to meet the performance needs of the task at hand while minimizing power consumption and heat generation.
Perhaps most importantly, the basic architecture design of the Atom was revived from an older Intel design strategy to further emphasize reduced power consumption. While most recent Intel CPUs (such as Core 2 Duo) feature out-of-order execution, which allows the CPU to process multiple commands at once, the Atom brings back in-order execution, meaning that it can only execute instructions in actual program order. By going with an in-order design, Intel reduces the complexity of the chip's design as well as reducing its thermal output.
Passable performance for the priceThe power-optimized Atom platform includes several technologies to maximize performance, including Hyper-Threading, MMX, the SSE3 instruction set and an integrated 32-bit graphics media accelerator. While bleeding-edge performance was never the goal for the Atom, the design does aim to achieve respectable performance for most common situations. This strategy, as it turns out, plays perfectly into the design goals of embedded system manufacturers – where “good enough” performance at lower price points and bare minimum power consumption are paramount.
Respectable modern interface featuresThe Atom platform includes power-efficient graphics with an integrated 32-bit 3D graphics engine with SDVO, LVDS, CRT, and TV-Out display ports, and provides considerable I/O capabilities and flexibility via high-bandwidth interfaces such as PCI Express, PCI, SATA and USB 2.0. It also supports DDR2 system memory, SATA and PATA storage support – required for solid state disk interfaces like CompactFlash. By building support for most modern I/O interfaces into the architecture, Intel ensures the Atom platform will maintain long lifecycle availability, which is also critical for embedded system suppliers.
BenefitsDeveloping applications on the Atom platform saves time and cost due to the familiar x86 architecture and the simplified processor design. One of the Atom’s biggest advantages is its inherently superior support for PC applications. While minimizing cost and maximizing profit are important for high volume consumer products like netbooks, these goals are also equally important for industrial and commercial applications like digital signage or POS machines. As in the consumer segment, one of the major cost factors is the operating system. However, unlike in consumer PCs, IPCs typically do not require full-fledged operating systems with all the capabilities of a modern consumer PC. Linux is well-suited for low-cost IPCs with Atom processors, as is XP Embedded, or other stripped-down OS’s where cost is the primary consideration and the range of functionality can be sacrificed to keep costs low. Atom-based embedded systems can be designed for nearly any industrial or commercial application with a very low-cost OS and very little software reworking required.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the embedded computing industry, the Atom’s low heat generation allows for design of completely fanless small form factor systems. Removing the active cooling from the system further reduces power consumption, leading to even more savings for the end customer. Fanless and cable-free embedded systems provide more robust platforms for harsh environments such as factory automation. Fanless designs also add to the reliability of the system and reduce the noise generated. Noise reduction can be an important factor in many commercial applications such as in-vehicle infotainment systems or digital signage in quiet locations.
The Intel Atom platform provides a number of important advantages for embedded computing. By building embedded systems on the Atom, IPC companies can develop smaller, more robust and more energy efficient platforms for embedded applications in every aspect of modern life.