April 08, 2013, 3:06 AM — After years of incremental improvements, Atom chips are poised for a big jump in performance and power efficiency with a new generation of low-processors that have shipped to server makers for testing.
Atom chips are primarily designed for smartphones and tablets, but have also been repurposed for low-power servers. The server variant will be the first Atom chip made using Intel's 22-nanometer manufacturing process, which is considered the most advanced in the industry.
The Atom chip, code-named Avoton, will become commercially available in servers starting in the second half. Avoton chips will be based on the new Silvermont microarchitecture, which is the first major Atom architecture redesign since the chip was first released in 2008.
Atom chips based on Silvermont for smartphones and tablets will follow the server chip. Tablets will be released during the holiday shopping season later this year with an Atom chip code-named Bay Trail, while a smartphone chip code-named Merrifield could appear in smartphones starting next year.
The overhauled microarchitecture will significantly improve Atom chips compared to existing offerings based on the current, aging processor design,, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.
Silvermont is a fresh take on Atom chips, and stresses performance and power efficiency, Brookwood said. Intel has said Silvermont-based chips will bring more battery life and performance to mobile devices.
Specifically, Avoton server chips will bring more performance-per-watt to microservers, Brookwood said. Microservers are an emerging category of dense servers backed by companies like Dell and Hewlett-Packard in which performance can be scaled quickly while keeping power consumption low.
"All the Atoms they have been shipping were based on the original Atom core," Brookwood said.
Avoton chips will also get power and performance benefits by virtue of being made using the 22-nanometer process. Chips manufactured using this process have transistors stacked on top of each other, which is a change from traditional design in which transistors are placed next to each other. The 3D design, called FinFET by the semiconductor industry, allows chip makers to pack more transistors in a smaller space, which results in power and performance boosts.
Avoton will succeed Atom server chips code-named Centerton, which shipped in December and were made using the old 32-nanometer process. Centerton failed to find much adoption, but will be in Hewlett-Packard's new dense server -- developed as part of a project called Project Moonshot -- that will be announced on Monday. HP will likely move its server over to Avoton chips once they become commercially available.