The official release of the new Intel® Atom™ Processor E3xxx (Bay Trail) is made right about now. New features compared the prior generation Intel® Atom™ Processor N2xxx/D2xxx (Cedar Trail) are for instance the fact that the platform is specified for operation in temperatures from -40°C to +110°C, the processor has up to four cores, the graphics engine is new and improved.
The general computing performance is increased and what was processor and I/O controller hub in separate components in the prior generation of Intel Atom is now a one-chip processor platform.
Some of the characteristics are similar though. The power consumption is about the same, roughly 5 Watts to, let’s say 10 Watts. The clock frequency stays below two gigahertz now as was the case in the prior generation.
The features in focus for most applications using Intel Atom, has been and still are low power operation, compact dimensions and still of course as much computing performance and graphics as possible given the restrictions. Power consumption needs to be kept low to increase the battery life time and to keep the heat generation low. Often passive cooling is required. At the same time the demand for faster end products with increased functionality is keys to success on the market.
Increased clock frequency has been one of the ways, or signs of general performance acceleration comparing new processor generations with their predecessors. The new generation of the Intel Atom processors is found in roughly the same clock frequency span, below two gigahertz. It seems that the number of CPU cores is the new strategy to increase performance. It shows not only in processor releases from Intel but also from what is being offered by other X86 and ARM processor manufacturers.
Increasing computing performance
Intel® Atom™ Processor E3xxx is offered with up to four CPU cores. Two cores was the limit in the prior Intel® Atom™ processor generation. For really simple tasks in large quantities, tasks not requiring data transfer, the performance is more or less proportionate to the number of cores. Two cores perform the tasks twice as fast as one core and four cores double what two accomplishes in the same amount of time.
In reality the situation is of course more complicated than that. Resources shared between CPU cores such as cache memory, data speeds on internal buses and external I/O interfaces are in most real cases bottlenecks that set limits to how much of the theoretical performance increase from multicore are realized in practice.
The application software and operating system are keys to utilize the potential advantages of multicore processors. The better result is obtained when the application software is given a structure including multiple threads, a structure that corresponds to the advantages of using parallel cores. In cases when such parallelism isn’t possible to introduce in the application operating systems still, to a limited extent at least, have functionality that can draw advantages from multicore processors.
Shrinking processor platform foot-print
The performance increase from, among other things, four cores makes this new generation Intel Atom a choice to consider for a number of new application types. That’s one way of putting it. Another way to describe it is that the same level of performance is available in a much smaller format. Intel® Atom™ Processor E3xxx is a one-chip processor platform. Intel refers to it as a system-on-a-chip, SoC.
The advantage with an SoC processor platform is that less board space is required on the COM module or motherboard. Thus an increased performance level is feasible in smaller embedded computer boards and COM modules in form factors such as Qseven (70 mm x 70 mm) or COM Express Mini (84 mm x 55 mm). Thus smaller end products are an option without compromises on functionality, performance or battery life time.
Evolution moves towards applications including more and more graphics with increased resolutions, multiple displays and increased requirements on image reproduction quality. Intel’s answer to the demand for better graphics in Intel® Atom™ Processor E3xxx is called Intel HD and is based on the graphics engine from Intel Core i3/i5/i7. Intel Atom E3xxx supports the H264 standard, MPEG4 decoding, MPEG2 encoding and resolutions up to 2560×1600.
Intel® Atom™ Processor E3xxx targets for example applications in which powerful graphics are required like for instance Digital Signage and Infotainment in cars and other vehicles. Additional applications where to expect that the choices fall upon this processor platform are within Industrial Automation, Medical Technology and HMI:s. Requirements common to quite a few of the applications mentioned include operation in harsh environmental conditions such as shock, vibration, damp, dust and extreme temperatures.
Wider processor temperature range
Intel® Atom™ N2xxx/D2xxx, the previous generation, is released specified for a temperature range of 0°C to +90°C. Such a guaranteed temperature range found in the processor platform is typically enough to develop embedded boards and systems in what’s sometimes called a consumer temperature range, 0°C to +60°C. This first release of Intel® Atom™ Processor E3xxx contains a couple of processors specified for -40°C to +110°C. It increases the chance of seeing extended or industrial temperature range (-40°C to +85°C) embedded products based on the processor platform.
The fact that the technical evolution gives us increased performance, better graphics, smaller formats and that power consumption and heat generation is still limited is always welcome to designers. But it’s maybe not all that surprising. In this case one could argue that the bigger news, the greater leaps forward compared to what’s usually the case as a new processor generation is released are the much increased graphics performance, the four CPU core maximum combined with the fact that this is a one chip processor platform. The combination will of four cores in one chip opens up for reduction of the size of the end products.