Intel's new Atom could give phones PC-level power

1st Jun 2013 | 15:00

Intel's new Atom could give phones PC-level power

A PC in your pocket? Now that sounds familiar...

Remember the Pocket PC, back in the days when that meant a PDA and pointing stick? Ironically, those Pocket PC devices were based on ARM CPU cores. Yup, Intel made ARM chips back then.

Today, of course, the idea of the Pocket PC seems pretty quaint. It's all about iPhones and Galaxies and iOS and Android. But you know what? I think the notion of a PC in your pocket is just about to become relevant again.

That's because Intel is finally going to give us a new Atom processor core. For clarity, Intel has rolled out all manner of Atom chips. Single-core, dual-core, models for netbooks, models for tablets and most recently models for phones.

At last, a new Atom core

But the actual CPU cores used in all those chips has remained the same since the first Atom chip appeared in 2008. At last, Intel is about to give us a new Atom core, codenamed Silvermont.

The big news is the transition from in-order to out-of-order execution instruction. The short version of why that matters is that in-order architectures involve quite a bit of waiting around for instructions to execute in careful succession.

Out-of-order chips can plow on and worry about tying everything together later. A gross oversimplification, but the key notion is that out-of-order chips do significantly more work every clock cycle. The shift to out-of-order alone should boost Silvermont's per-clock-per-core performance by 30 per cent, maybe more.

It's a big deal. Indeed, so critical is out-of-order processing that ARM's new Cortex A15 chip, as found in many of the latest tablet and smartphone chips, have gone out-of-order.

Pocket PC promise

Intel has tweaked Silvermont in various other ways, too, for additional performance. Net result? Very probably an ultra-mobile x86 chip that delivers on that ancient Pocket PC promise.

The impact of all this will be multi-pronged. First up, I'm hoping it will mean cheap tablets running Windows 8 will be properly usable. Personally, I wouldn't fancy anything running Windows 8 on the existing Atom chips. They're just too feeble.

Then there's Silvermont in a smartphone handset. Atom already compares pretty well to the best smartphone chips, so Silvermont is shaping up to absolutely blow them away.

Frankly, Intel needs nothing less if it's to break into the smartphone market. Being merely as good or a bit better isn't enough to wean everyone off their ARM addiction in the smartphone arena.

So, Silvermont could give Intel the leg up it needs in smartphones. But it also reboots that age-old idea of device convergence.

Forget about phablets

I'm talking, here, about an end to lugging about phones, tablets and laptops, all the while you have a desktop PC at home or in the office. If you could pack proper desktop x86 performance into a handset, well, your only limitation becomes the screen size.

Admittedly, the desire for a decent screen for certain tasks does mean that you're going to need more than just a handset for the foreseeable future. But I certainly like the idea of picking up my production PC and popping it in my pocket when I walk out the door.

OK, I'm not sure that even Silvermont is quite on that level. But it might be surprisingly close and, like I said, it should make for cheap Windows 8 tablets that are decidedly decent to use. Sounds good to me.

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