A Whole New Atom Family

Intel’s Bay Trail platform arrives for Windows and Android system and puts Clover Trail in the rearview.

This past spring I spent some time with Intel at its offices in Santa Clara to learn about a brand new architecture called Silvermont.  Built for and targeted at low power platforms like tablets and smartphones, Silvermont was not simply another refresh of the aging Atom processors that were all based on Pentium cores from years ago; instead Silvermont was built from the ground up for low power consumption and high efficiency to compete against the juggernaut that is ARM and its partners.  My initial preview of the Silvermont architecture had plenty of detail about the change to an out-of-order architecture, the dual-core modules that comprise it and the power optimizations included. 

Today, during the annual Intel Developer Forum held in San Francisco, we are finally able to reveal the remaining details about the new Atom processors based on Silvermont, code named Bay Trail.  Not only do we have new information about the designs, but we were able to get our hands on some reference tablets integrating Bay Trail and the new Atom Z3000 series of SoCs to benchmark and compare to offerings from Qualcomm, NVIDIA and AMD.


A Whole New Atom Family

It should be surprise to anyone that the name “Intel Atom Processor” has had a stigma attached to it almost since its initial release during the netbook craze.  It was known for being slow and hastily put together though it was still a very successful product in terms of sales.  With each successive release and update, Diamondville to Pineview to Cedarview, Atom was improved but only marginally so.  Even with Medfield and Clover Trail the products were based around that legacy infrastructure and it showed.  Tablets and systems based on Clover Trail saw only moderate success and lukewarm reviews.

With Silvermont the Atom brand gets a second chance.  Some may consider it a fifth or sixth chance, but Intel is sticking with the name.  Silvermont as an architecture is incredibly flexible and will find its way into several Intel products like Avoton, Bay Trail and Merrifield and in segments from the micro-server to smartphones to convertible tablets.  Not only that, but Intel is aware that Windows isn’t the only game out there anymore and the company will support the architecture across Linux, Android and Windows environments. 

Atom has been in tablets for some time now, starting in September of last year with Clover Trail deigns being announced during IDF.  In February we saw the initial Android-based options also filter out, again based on Clover Trail.  They were okay, but really only stop-gaps to prove that Intel was serious about the space.  The real test will be this holiday season with Bay Trail at the helm.

While we always knew these Bay Trail platforms were going be branded as Atom we now have the full details on the numbering scheme and productization of the architecture.  The Atom Z3700 series will consist of quad-core SoCs with Intel HD graphics (the same design as the Core processor series though with fewer compute units) that will support Windows and Android operating systems.  The Atom Z3600 will be dual-core processors, still with Intel HD graphics, targeted only at the Android market.

What might be surprising to some is the return of the Pentium and Celeron brands!  That’s right, for very low cost notebook and desktop systems Intel is going to insert the Silvermont architecture and Bay Trail processors into these recurring brands.  Quad-core options for notebooks and desktops will get the Pentium brand while the dual-core options will be called Celeron.  The Silvermont-based Pentium and Celeron processors are not aimed at the same markets as the Core processors and instead these will be found in very low cost solutions.

For the Atom Z3000 series Intel has some lofty goals for both performance and mobility.  More than 8 hours of battery life and 3 weeks of standby time will definitely put Silvermont in the right area to compete against the many low-cost Windows laptops on the market, but for Android devices that usable battery life is a bit on the low side.  Intel wants flexibility for all the major platforms (Windows and Android) though the obvious starting point is going to be Windows due to the familiarity on both sides with the x86 architecture.  Bay Trail has significant performance increases on both the CPU front and the GPU side compared to Intel’s previous Clover Trail platform while also adding support for features like high-resolution and wireless displays. 

Enterprise will also find the adoption of Bay Trail easier thanks to many technologies being included that were previously only on the Core-series of Intel processors.  Security and management will function nearly exactly as IT is used to with Core notebooks and system today.  Intel is promoting 64-bit processor support as well, which is true, but it isn't quite ready yet.  While Intel says that the hardware is perfectly compatible with 64-bit technology, they are waiting for early 2014 to release models on 64-bit versions of Windows. 

Intel already sells Core-based tablets and convertible laptops and with the release of the Haswell architecture this year they became much more useable as solo devices.  Bay Trail and the Atom Z3000 series will replace the Clover Trail systems in the pricing area under $599.  Intel is reserving the Ultrabook brand  solely for Core based systems, which I think is a good decision as it maintains some performance expectations that users can count on.  Thin form factor devices powered by Bay Trail will simply be called convertibles and ultraportables. 

Here the product lineup for the Atom Z3000 series being announced today.  At the high end we have the Atom Z3770 and Z3770D, quad-core processors with 2MB of L2 cache and clock rates as high as 2.4 GHz with bursting.  Remember that this is different than Turbo Boost on the high end parts that sustains these higher speeds; Bay Trail uses them to maintain a smooth user experience.  The memory configuration of these two parts differs with the Z3770 sporting a dual-channel design and the Z3770D with a single channel (though with higher clock rates).  This actually has important ramifications in memory capacity support (4GB on dual-channel, 2GB on single channel) as well as the maximum supported resolution (2560×1600 on dual, 1920×1200 on single). 

The clock speeds here are listed as maximums, and when I asked about base clocks and the frequency of hitting these peaks, there were some interesting looks from Intel.  The base clock of the Z3770 parts is 1.8 GHz and the other parts are at 1.5 GHz.  How frequently you can hit 2.4 GHz is up to the design of the system you are using the cooling solution efficiency.  Very small (7-in) tablets will be hard to keep at 2.4 GHz for long, but it can reach it when it needs it most.  Notebooks and larger devices that room for better cooling could run at 2.4 GHz for the majority of the time under load. 

Obviously for higher end tablets that focus on performance and require a higher resolution screen the Z3770 is going to be the SoC of choice. 

The Atom Z3740 and Z3740D are still quad-core, 2MB L2 cache options though their frequencies top out at a 1.8 GHz burst clock rate.  Single and dual-channel options still exist with the same resolution restrictions. 

The Z3680 and Z3680D are dual-core SoCs with 1MB of L2 cache and clock speeds that will reach 2.0 GHz but each only has a single channel memory controller.  In this case though, the Z3680 will only support a resolution of 1280×800 and a 1GB memory capacity compared to the 1920×1200 and 2GB capacity of the Z3680D.  It’s a bit confusing for the ‘D’ model to be higher resolution and capacity than the standard (opposite of the Z3770/D) but the naming scheme maintains the memory controller type information.

« PreviousNext »