For years, chip giant Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) has developed two distinct lines of processor cores for its personal computer chips: Atom for lower-cost, lower-performance systems and Core for higher-cost, higher-performance computers.
Intel has leveraged the existence of both processor cores to effectively segment its processor product lines. That segmentation has helped the company to both improve its cost structure on lower-cost chips (since the Atom cores are smaller and are cheaper to produce) while also improving the company's product mix (since there are tangible benefits to paying more for a Core-based system over an Atom-based one).
According to Intel's latest software developer manual, the company's next-generation Atom processor core is known as Tremont.
Let's go over what we know about Tremont and why it matters.
Likely new core design, built on 10-nanometer tech
Per Intel's software development manual, Tremont includes a substantial number of new instructions -- these are, in effect, commands that the processor understands. The addition of so many new instructions seems to signal that Intel has made substantial changes and enhancements to the design of the processor core compared to its predecessor, known as Goldmont Plus.
Significant design changes should enable higher performance and better power efficiency, something that we've seen Intel deliver a few times over the last five years with its Atom processor cores.
Perhaps just as importantly, though, Tremont should be manufactured on some derivative of the company's 10-nanometer chip manufacturing technology. The migration from 14-nanometer (Intel's current Goldmont Plus processors are built on the company's first-generation 14-nanometer technology) to 10-nanometer should yield substantial performance and power efficiency benefits on top of whatever design improvements Intel has made.
An important core for PCs -- and beyond
I think that over time, Intel's Atom-based processors will prove increasingly important for fending off competitive challenges from ARM-based processors in Windows-based computers, particularly as it seems likely that Atom processors will get integrated modems before Core-based parts will.
However, I don't think Atom's usefulness in helping Intel defend its core markets ends with personal computers. Intel has used its Atom processor cores to build low-power server/networking chips in the past. While those chips have admittedly seemed like low-effort projects, I think (or, perhaps, hope) that Intel will get more aggressive in building many-core Atom-based processors as ARM-based chips become more credible offerings for certain types of data center workloads.
Today, Atom-based server/networking chips are positioned as low-end alternatives to Intel's higher-end Core-based Xeon processors, but in the future, Intel could position such chips as equal partners to its higher-end Xeon processors. There are some workloads where fewer but much more powerful cores are needed, but there are others -- as some of the ARM-based data center chip vendors are showing -- where many more lower-performing cores prove to be more compelling options.
Intel is smart to continue to invest in its Atom line of processor cores, and I hope to see that the company puts them to good use in products that'll help it defend its core markets while also allowing it to push aggressively into new areas.