Atom hits the catwalk at next week’s Computex, but AMD and VIA plan to crash the party.
It’s set to be a busy month for Intel, with both of its portable platforms ready for liftoff. The fifth-gen Centrino 2
is rumoured to be ready for launch at the end of June, but right now all eyes are on the Computex debut of the tiny Atom
low-power processor and Atom Centrino bundle for low-cost laptops (as well as desktops, which may pack a few surprises), UMPCs and mobile internet devices.
Atom was formally announced at the start of March, but while the corporate vision and chip design tends to be a US-centric thang (apart from the busy bees at Intel’s Israel facility, which spawned the Pentium M, Centrino and Core systems), it’s Taiwan – the home of the annual Computex industry expo, which kicks off next Tuesday – where the rubber hits the road.
Taiwan is home to the massive companies which design and/or build most of the world’s laptops at an estimated rate of almost three million per week – often under shadowy arrangements with the brands that end up stamped on the chassis. Quanta, Compal, Inventec, Acer offshoot Wistron and Asus’ parent ASUSTeK. Industry research firm DisplaySearch reports that 89% of the 29 million notebook PCs shipped worldwide in the last quarter of 2007 were made by these Taiwanese ODM/OEM giants. Quanta alone enjoyed 34% of the action, with Compal chewing up another 24%
Always with their eyes on the next big market, these companies have been quick off the mark to embrace the push for lightweight, low-cost and largely Linux-powered laptops. The first crop of Atom-based systems are expected to be on display, but with an emphasis on handheld mobile Internet devices built around the single-core Z-series ‘Silverthorne’ processor due to its low 2 watt overhead.
Intel may also use Computex to officially launch the Atom ‘Diamondville’ N-series, which will include a meatier 2.2GHz single-core engine (Silverthorne peaks at 1.8GHz) with a higher 4 watt ceiling, as well as a dual-core (8 watt) engine. These are likely to be aimed at the sub-note and desktop segments respectively, which Intel refers to as ‘NetBooks’ and ‘NetTops’.
Computex party crashers
However, Intel will also be fronting up to unexpected competition from Taiwan’s own VIA Technologies. VIA’s tiny 64-bit x86-based Isaiah processor is a potential threat to the Atom, while its NanoBook
reference design for a 7 inch touchscreen UMPC – part of VIA’s aptly-named Spearhead initiative to create ready-to-bake systems – has already been adopted by Everex for their popular CloudBook, France’s Surcouf sub-note, Europe’s Belinea s.book.1 (a name which tries a little too
hard to be cool) and Packard Bell’s Easy Note XS.
These all sport the same clamshell chassis which weights just 850 grams when fully loaded, and a basic spec set which includes up to 1GB of RAM, a minimum 30GB 1.8in mechanical hard drive, 8022.1g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, a 4-in-1 memory card reader, DVI output and two USB ports. The blue print also allows for snap-in USB modules to be fitted next to the screen to add VoIP, GPS and wireless broadband functionality.
Battery life based on the NanoBook’s current 1.2-GHz VIA C7-M ultra low voltage processor is claimed to stretch to four hours. NanoBook partners can load up their choice of OS – the CloudBook uses the Ubuntu-based gOS, the Packard Bell and Belinea models come with Windows XP, while the French Surcouf sub-note offers customers a choice between Linux and XP.
Also at Computex will be the first fleet of notebooks built around AMD’S Puma
platform (if you want to sound like an American, pronounce it as ‘poo-ma’). Despite the appearance of the new AMD Turion X2 Ultramobile processor, with its dedicated Hypertransport 3 bus for fast data transfer – an area where Intel will lag at least until its Nehalem-class 45nm processors arrive later this year – the platform’s most significant win should come from beefier graphics.
As we reported earlier this month, Puma’s “hybrid graphics” model partners an integrated GPU for the simpler 2D and 3D work (such as Vista’s GPU-accelerated windowing system) with to a discrete GPU chip that takes care of the heavy lifting 3D tasks for demanding apps such as games and Google Earth.