When Intel first introduced their Atom line of processors, they told us it was aimed at smaller, so-called MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices). Soon after that, Asus released the first netbook, and a new category of computers was born. But they weren’t really MIDs. In fact, the term MID hasn’t really caught on, and there are very few devices that are generally considered to be MIDs. Nokia’s internet tablet series for and Sony’s Mylo come to mind. But both predate the Atom processor.
Atom’s major advantage over other small, power-sipping CPUs is that it uses the same x86 instruction set as desktop CPUs. This means that Atom-based devices, if powerful enough, can run Windows. Intel probably thought this would be essential for MID adoption. But then Apple released what would prove to be a game-changing device.
If there’s one popular gadget out there right now that could be called an MID, it’s the iPad. Building on Microsoft’s Tablet PC idea, it’s not as small and portable as the typical MID, but many people carry it around anyway, and use it to connect to the internet. And its single most important innovation is that is runs a mobile OS.
Right up until Apple revealed the iPad, it was believed to run their OSX desktop operating system. Instead, it turned out to run iOS. This makes the iPad much easier to use and maintain, and keeps using it fun. But is also means there’s no need for x86. iOS, like Android and Symbian, runs on ARM processors. And current ARM-based platforms, like nVidia’s Tegra2, are more than powerful enough to be used in devices with bigger screens. And that’s what seems to be happening with every MIDs currently being released, like the many new 5, 7 or 10 inch Android tablets.
At the same time, netbooks appear to be moving away from Intel’s Atom platform. First, most of the cool new ones swapped Intel’s motherboard chipset for nVidia’s ION to boost graphics performance, and now it seems manufacturers are looking at new CPUs as well. I’ve seen quite a few new models introduced with lower end Celeron processors as well as AMD’s Neo platform.
Intel hasn’t really done anything with the Atom line since introducing it. Clocks speeds are still pretty much the same, and the new integrated graphics are still no match for ION. As a result, Atom-based netbooks are still just barely fast enough for casual browsing, and frustratingly slow at everything else. Using a netbook with Windows isn’t nearly as snappy as using a mobile device running iOS or Android.
The end of Atom?
Recently, Intel bought Infineon’s mobile division, which means they’re back in the ARM game. Does this mean they’ve given up on Atom as a mobile CPU? Will the lowest end x86 segment, netbooks, continue to be dominated by Atom CPUs? I don’t know. Intel probably needs to seriously step up its game if it want Atom to succeed. The question is probably whether they really want to.