Intel expands a processor line you've likely never heard of: Quark

Intel serves the embedded market with its standard x86 processors, because there are times when an embedded system actually needs a Xeon. They are used in heavy equipment or places where power is not an issue, like networking equipment.

Intel also has Core-based and low-power Xeons, but there's another chip you probably haven't heard of that serves its own markets. It's called the Quark, a chip introduced just last year. A new series has been introduced, and they serve a very different market than the Core and Xeons.

First off, Quark is even more retro than Atom. It's an SoC with a single 80486-class CPU core plus extra Pentium instructions running at 400 MHz and incorporating 16KB of unified L1 cache and 512KB of embedded SRAM.

If that leaves you scratching your head, you're not alone. It was introduced last minute at the most recent Intel Developer Forum and Intel people were literally pulling analysts aside minutes before the keynotes to give them the word, and then Intel proceeded to tell them nothing, according to Jim McGregor, president of Tirias Research.

"They made the announcement but didn't give us any details, which is really unusual for them. You kinda got the impression the thing was half-baked at the time," he said.

Since then, a clearer picture has emerged. Quark is a lower performance version of Atom designed for everything from industrial and automotive to wearables and the Internet of Things, except a chip that draws 2 watts of power won't work in a wearable. It needs to draw a fraction of that, McGregor noted.

The X1010 and X1020D also support PCI Express 2.0, USB 2.0, 10/100 Mbit Ethernet, high-speed UART and other interfaces, none of which would be needed in IoT devices or wearables. If anything, PCIe would be a bad idea in some scenarios because it draws so much power.

Intel first introduced the Quark X1000 processor before adding two new models, the X1010 and X1020D, the latter two being nearly identical to the X1000, except Intel added ECC memory and Secure Boot support.

This week, Intel added three more chips to the line: the X1001, X1011 and X1021D, which are the old chips but certified to operate from -40°C to +85°C while offering the same performance and feature sets as the prior models. The temperature certifications mean these chips will be going into industrial equipment, cars, and other mechanical devices that experience extreme temperature.

It's a strange strategy. The first Atom was a 32-bit chip, single core and low clock speed. It didn't have the power efficiency of the newer generations but over time, Intel has gone to dual and quad core designs, 64-bit architecture and all kinds of instruction creep that the Atom just gets bigger and bigger, even if they have made it more power efficient.

Now Intel is starting over again with a low power, single-core, 32-bit chip and the first thing it did was seemingly overengineered it, when it should be as lean as possible. I have to admit, this is confusing.

Quark is still in its early stages so we'll see where it goes. I really hope this doesn't turn into another boondoggle like Atom. It would be rather embarrassing for Intel to have released two processor families and see both rejected by the marketplace.

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