Home » Mobile Technology » Silvermont: Atom Steps Into the Spotlight

Silvermont: Atom Steps Into the Spotlight

Intel unveiled its Silvermont architecture for Atom 22nm and 14nm chips yesterday. The billboard numbers are 5x lower power consumption and 3x more performance than the current Atom chips, which use the Saltwell architecture at 32nm. The first chips based on the Silvermont architecture, codenamed Baytrail for tablets and Merrifield for smartphones, should start shipping by the end of 2013.

Highlight: Performance and Power Excellence vs. ARM

Intel projects the architecture will deliver significantly better performance, at lower power draw, than its ARM-based competition. Let’s get right to the fisticuffs.

Silvermont Performance/Power

Silvermont Performance/Power

In the chart above, Intel claims Silvermont-based Atom systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) will deliver more performance at lower battery draw in both dual-core (e.g., smartphone) and quad core (e.g., tablet) uses — at the time of product launch later this year. Moreover, Intel confidently predicts the dual-core Atom will beat quadcore ARM chips in performance and power usage. The gloves just came off.

Note though in the fine print that these are projected CPU performance based on architectural simulations. We’ll have to wait for the product launch for the real benchmark comparisons.

Is Intel just bluffing about wiping the floor with ARM on performance and power? We are strongly convinced that Intel is not bluffing; the launch videoconference was hosted at INTC.com, Intel’s investor relations portal where SEC-material announcements are made. Who in their right minds would want to bring the SEC and the class-action bar down on their heads with unwarranted and unsupportable benchmarketing claims?

Architecture Highlights

Our readers don’t want the full computer science firehouse on how the architecture works. A good review is AnandTech here. The important take-away points are:

  • Silvermont is a tour de force design that marries a custom version of Intel’s industry-leading, 22nm process with modern SoC design. It is optimized for low-power usage; new power-efficient design libraries were built and can be carried into other Intel architecture endeavors (i.e., Core).
  • Supports 2-8 cores in pairs. Each core has out-of-order execution (an Atom first), modern branch prediction, SIMD instructions, AES-NI security instructions, and Intel’s virtual technology (VT) for virtualization. Each pair of cores shares 1MB of level 2 cache. The design goal was low power consumption without sacrificing performance.
  • Like Atom’s big brother, Core, there is extensive on-chip digital power management including new power states. The SoC dynamically manages bursts of higher clock speeds, and looks  at first glance to be very sophisticated.
  • The overall dynamic power range is more efficient that ARM BIG:little approaches.

Where Will Silvermont Be Used?

The obvious places are in smartphones and tablets. Other than mentioning the market attractiveness of full Windows 8 on a tablet as well as the choice of Google’s Android — and maybe even a dual boot, let’s leave the smartphone and tablet war until another day when we compare real products. 

What we don’t hear today is talk about the likely growth for Silvermont-based Atom SoCs in markets other than phones and tablets. That’s a mistake because Intel surely has these markets in its sights:

  • Netbooks: Remember the 2008 low-cost Internet-consumption notebooks killed by ARM/Android by 2011? They’ll be back in spades. Lump Google Chromebooks in this category too.
  • Automotive: The abject failure of Ford’s My Ford Touch entertainment system using ARM and Microsoft Embedded Windows is the joke of the auto industry. Atom can play a role here as automobiles are today a processor-rich environment.
  • Retail Systems: Point-of-sale and checkout systems cry for low-power, small form-factor devices. Ditto ATMs.
  • Digital Signage: The market for personal ads on digital signage is just arriving. This will become a large market later in the decade.
  • Embedded Systems: Intel’s 2009 acquisition of Wind River Systems aimed to do more in real-time, embedded systems for healthcare, manufacturing, distributtion, automation,  and other activities. Silvermont-generation Atom chips are a big step forward for these markets.

Closing Thoughts

An architecture is not a testable or buyable product. Nevertheless, Silvermont looks to be the real deal for performance and power, and ought to be giving ARM licensees heartburn.

With the introduction of products based on the Silvermont architecture, Atom becomes a hero. Not a hero brand, but a hero family of chips that move out of the also-ran category to being in the spotlight as front-line performers in Intel’s many-chip continuum of computing strategy.

Silvermont is an important way-point in measuring Intel’s commitment and delivery of chips with: competitive power consumption, SoC maturity, and a new phone/tablet/embedded system workload target — without dropping the ball in the rest of the business. The proof of the architecture will be the Baytrail and Merrifield SoCs that start arriving by the holidays. And the Haswell announcement next month will clearly show Intel juggles multiple balls.

On balance, we are very pleased with the benchmark points that Intel promises to meet or exceed. That’s the proof of the pudding.


3 thoughts on “Silvermont: Atom Steps Into the Spotlight

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