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Intel's Moorestown Could Be Game Changer for the Chip Maker

Like Microsoft, Intel is often seen as an "800 pound gorilla," beating its chest atop a mountain of fallen foes. Yet, neither Intel nor Microsoft gained stature defending ground.

When desktop publishing proved a single file management metaphor (folders) could work pervasively across a whole OS, Microsoft ate Apple's lunch, with Windows 95. When the Internet era showed browsing mattered, Microsoft wasn't caught napping long.

For Intel's part, the displacement of desktops by notebooks was a biggie. Another example? The Internet server boom opened the door to all kinds of RISCy ventures, before Intel gained the upper hand. Then it chased the pretenders a ways up trail, contesting high-performance computing via Itanium. That'll teach 'em.

So it's kind of an irony, but Intel and Microsoft have stayed on top not by defending territory, but by winning or competing well in important emerging segments.

And, what, praytell, emerges today?

The main thing is computers are being killed off by success. We now rely on them so much, we simply need them with us, always. Without a computer, the Internet, and our own particular "cloud" of apps, we're incomplete, stranded, at a disadvantage, almost regardless of what our particular competitive arena may be.

Today's computers don't travel well. Yet, consumers want, nay need, the "full Internet experience" (FIE) on dozens of emerging computing device types. Automotive infotainment. Portable media players. Handheld gaming devices. Web tablets. E-book readers. In-car, on-bike, and pedestrian navigation devices. And the biggie, smartphones.

Extreme miniaturization is needed to enable the mobilization of computing via these and other FIE devices. Five years ago, if someone said Intel could compete in these categories, well...

Since forever, common sense held x86 better for anything with a complex user interface, true. That's a big part of the personal computing experience.

But idle power, hello? Show stopper!

Intel, like everyone else, licensed ARM cores when venturing off-grid more than an hour or two.

And then there was Moorestown.

Moorestown is Intel's third-generation LPIA (low-power Intel architecture) offering, and the second embedded platform (following Menlow) based on Atom. Its already-announced successor is codenamed Medfield, due sometime next year.

Moorestown has not yet shipped. But, Intel marketing literature says its idle power is up to 50 times improved, compared to Menlow. If true, Moorestown will change everything. For Intel, for the computing market, and for you and me and computer users everywhere.

A look at Moorestown

Menlow comprised a "Silverthorne" processor built on then-industry-leading 45nm process technology. But, all the I/O blocks, as well as most all the traditional "northbridge" blocks, were packed onto a relatively ginormous (130nm process) companion chip codenamed "Poulsbo." Guess you gotta start somewhere.

Moorestown is much more "highly integrated" than Menlow.

Moorestown\'s CPU is called "Lincroft." It's still 45nm, but it's much more "highly integrated" than Silverthorne. Northbridge functions have shifted up onto the CPU die itself. That should save power and boost performance, since memory access is key to in-order pipeline architectures, Intel says.

Moorestown also includes a "Langwell" companion chip, so it's still a chipset rather than a true system-on-chip. This arrangement could increase flexibility, if Intel and/or its chipset partners can easily spin multiple versions of the 65nm companion part. But, it will likely keep Moorestown out of the smallest form factors -- read, smartphones -- for now. It'll also hurt the platform in form factors where power efficiency is truly of the utmost importance.

But no matter.

For one thing, Apple's entrance into the pad/tablet market should raise a mean tide beneath all kinds of "tweener" tablet form factors. Priced right, Moorestown could help itself to a healthy piece of that pie. Ready-made Linux environments like MeeGo, and famed x86 ease of development, will be its calling cards.

More important, there'll be Medfield, and lots more where that came from -- if Moorestown really does solve idle power.

"How to be Idle," "The Idler," and other great works of literature

Along with Linfield and Langwell, Moorestown includes a "Briertown" power management IC. Reportedly developed in cahoots with traditional embedded powerhouses like Motorola, Freescale, and Texas Instruments, it sort of keeps the nightlight on, waiting for interrupts, while everything else is gated off to sleep.

ARM systems have managed power in hardware like this for several product generations. Noted Linux device house MontaVista (now part of Cavium) did good trade for years hooking similar PM hardware up to user space applications, via its "dynamic power management" portfolio.

Finally, in anticipation of its ultimate intended telos as a smartphone platform, and in keeping with Intel's tradition of coat-tailing radio chips onto its platform releases, Moorestown nominally includes the versatile "Evans Peak" radio chip. EP integrates a ridiculous number of radios, many using the same unlicensed frequency bands, a testament to engineering cleverness, for sure. It also reportedly lets cellular carriers integrate IP blocks and/or software radio microcode onto different versions of this chip.

Gordon, who?

When a company code-names something after the company founder, you know something big is happening. And indeed, if Moorestown can be the first x86 platform to work well on battery power, it will truly be a watershed product for the company.

When most people think of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, they think of his eponymous "Law," which predicts a fixed rate of transistor miniaturization  -- half every two years. (Moore's Law). But make no mistake. A lot more is happening in Moorestown than just die-shrinking x86 enough to work off-grid.

Even a casual glance at Moorestown reveals a deep commitment to fundamental, profound change, on Intel's part, while preserving the all-important software backwards compatibility. From a new in-order architecture, to increasing levels of integration, to ready-made software/tool stacks like Moblin, Intel seems to be throwing everything it can into this new segment.

As for Microsoft, Moorestown's funky power management approach and non-standard PCI implementation could give Linux a healthy headstart in mobile x86 devices. But that's a topic for another day.

 

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