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Closer Look at Intel Pine Trail

During the enhancement of mobile and desktop processors, Intel sticks to the so-called “tick-tock” strategy. The idea of this strategy is that when a new CPU generation comes to replace the existing one, they either change the manufacturing process for processor dies, or introduce new microarchitectural improvements. However, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to Pineview processors that are the heart of the Pine Trail platform: Intel took a totally different approach here. They gave up their “tick-tock” principle, and to our great regret we have to admit that Pineview remained very similar to the old Diamondville in many aspects.

Namely, there were no microarchitectural improvements of any kind in the new Atom processors. It remained the same CPU with CISC computational cores supporting serial commands processing, Hyper-Threading technology and x86 instructions. Pineview didn’t even get any new SSE instructions, just like the Diamondville: the new CPUs only have the latest SSE3 instructions set. The manufacturing process also remained the same. Although Intel already has 32 nm production process in place, they will still manufacture new-generation Atom processors using 45 nm technology.

However, it would still be incorrect to believe that the new Atom processor is an exact copy of the old one. When Intel engineers designed Pine Trail platform they focused on its overall restructuring making sure that it would be modified according to the current tendencies. In other words, the developers decided to give up the sinking into oblivion FSB bus and combined the processor and chipset North Bridge in a single chip. As a result, the new Atom processor turned out somewhat similar to the new Clarkdale, which we have just reviewed in our latest article: from now on netbook and nettop processors will contain not only computational cores but also a memory controller and a graphics core.

Single-core Pineview die

At the same time, Pineview processors can even boast higher level of integration than Clarkdale CPUs: all their components are located within a single processor die. Moreover, Intel is going to use a special individual die for the dual-core new-generation Atom processors instead of combining two single-core processors within the same packaging as they used to do before.

Dual-core Pineview processor die

As a result, semiconductor dies for new netbook and nettop processors turned out pretty complex: for instance, dual-core Pineview contains 317 million transistors and is 87 mm2 big, which is comparable to the corresponding numbers for Wolfdale processor dies used in Core 2 Duo CPUs from E7000 series.

Dual-core Pineview processor

Nevertheless, the production cost of the new Atom processors is still low enough to ensure that the total price of the Pine Trail platform is lower than that of a platform based on an LGA775 Celeron processor.

In fact, being newly designed platform components, the memory controller and graphics core integrated into the Pineview processor can’t boast very impressive specifications, unfortunately. It looks like Intel engineers weren’t trying to increase the performance of their Atom processors. Otherwise, we are simply unable to explain why they integrated a single-channel memory controller into the new CPU modification. Nevertheless, this controller supports DDR2-667/800 SDRAM, that is why compared with the systems built around previous-generation Atom processors and i945GC and i945GSE chipsets it can still boast slightly better performance.

The same cosmetic changes have been made to the graphics core. Pineview features Intel Graphics media Accelerator 3150 graphics core that differs from the GMA950 integrated into i945GC and i945GSE chipsets only by higher clock frequency (which is not always the case). Other than that we see no improvements of any kind. This graphics core can’t provide acceptable 3D performance by today’s standards: it features only four pixel pipelines and is compatible only with DirectX 9.0c. Also, Intel didn’t care to provide their graphics core with means for hardware acceleration of high-definition video playback. GMA3150 only supports hardware MPEG-2 decoding, while just as popular VC-1 and H.264 formats again remained left out. It means that the base Pine Trail configuration can’t be considered an all-purpose multimedia platform.

But it is especially sad that Intel engineers have seriously restricted the maximum screen resolutions supported by GMA3150. In case of digital connection it supports only 1366x768, and as for high resolutions (up to 2048x1536), you will only be able to use it with analogue D-Sub interface, which is hardly a successful implementation.

All this suggests that third-party chipsets for Pineview with an external graphics core boasting richer functionality, such as the mythical ION 2, do make a lot of practical sense. Unfortunately, there is still a question as to whether they will in fact appear any time soon. The thing is that by moving the North Bridge into the CPU Intel gave up the FSB bus in their Pine Trail platform. As a result, they use DMI bus to connect the processor with the chipset in the new platform, just like they do in LGA1156 platforms. This bus used to connect the chipset North and South Bridges before. However, neither Nvidia, nor any other third-party developers have the license to manufacture chipsets supporting this interface.

Speaking of the new Atom processors, we have to state that they do not really differ from their predecessors in terms of their formal specifications. Their clock frequency is still at the same 1.66 GHz, they still have one or two computational cores, and the amount of L2 cache memory per core still remained at 512 KB. As a result, Pineview launch added two new processor models to the low-end desktop Atom lineup:

As for the netbook space, Intel can only offer one new Pineview Atom CPU at this time. There will be no dual-core Atom processors for netbooks.

As you can see from the tables above, new Atom processors became considerably more complex than their predecessors due to new functional units integrated into them. And it has certainly increased their power consumption rates. But on the other hand, increased CPU complexity allowed to make the chipset design much simpler: it now has only one chip instead of two – the South Bridge.

The new chipset, which now consists just of the South Bridge, is called Intel Nm10 Express. It is nothing special and offers the required minimum of external interfaces that should make Pine Trail a pretty fully-functional platform. It supports two SATA-300 ports, eight USB 2.0 ports, Intel HD Audio, 100 Mbps LAN and four PCI Express x1 lanes, that can be combined into single PCI Express x4 interface if necessary.

Unlike ICH7 South Bridge included with i945GC and i945GSE chipsets, the new South Bridge has slightly more limited functionality when it comes to ATA devices support, but Mini-ITX mainboards for nettops and especially netbooks should do just fine with two SATA ports.

Intel NM10 Express chip

I have to say that they use a pretty old 130 nm process to manufacture NM10 chipset. However, even despite this fact, reducing the number of chipset components to one and eliminating the individual chipset North Bridge allowed lowering the total Pine Trail platform heat dissipation by about 50% compared with nettop platforms on Diamondville and by about 20% compared with Diamondville configurations for netbooks. This particular feature, and not the increased performance, is the primary advantage of the new Intel platform for compact computer systems.

Moreover, Pine Trail boasts a few other advantages that will be pretty significant for OEMs and system integrators. The use of simpler platform design made the mainboard production considerably cheaper, because it allowed using four-layer PCBs instead of six-layer ones. And the lowering in heat dissipation makes it possible to design nettops equipped only with passive cooling solutions. As for the netbook developers, they should value the fact that the new CPU + chipset combo takes way less space on the PCB, so that they could continue designing even smaller systems.

Coming back to the discussion of the system performance, we should mention that this time Intel considered the possibility of “official” upgrade of their Pine Trail platform to ensure that it could play HD video. In this case the company offers an external Broadcom BCM70015 decoder-chip connected to the NM10 chipset via PCI Express bus. Note that not only the system makers will be able to use this upgrade option, but also the end users. There will be similar solutions for end-users in Mini PCI-E expansion card format.

In other words, Pine Trail platform enhanced with a Broadcom chip will become a pretty worthy competitor to Nvidia ION, which became very popular specifically due to its ability to accelerate high-definition video playback on the hardware level.

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