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Wednesday, April 02, 2008, 03:45 pm PT (06:45 pm ET)

Intel ships Apple-bound Atom, hints at 2009 notebook platform

At the spring edition of its bi-annual Developer Forum, Intel has released the first Atom processors, some of which should reach Apple's ultra-mobile devices. The company has also provided first clues as to the future of the Centrino platform that will form the basis of next year's Macs.

The semiconductor firm's Atom range is now shipping with five processors that cover the entire range of very small computers rather than the small initial offering that was mentioned during a preliminary unveiling last month.

Four of these models are intended for sub-notebooks and ultra-mobile PCs that can afford larger batteries and cases than conventional handhelds. The first models will run at clock speeds between 1.1GHz and 1.86GHz and will consume between 2 and 2.4 watts of power in normal use — less than a tenth of the power used by a typical Core 2 Duo notebook processor, which uses 35 watts. All but the 1.1GHz chip will support Hyperthreading, a carryover from the Pentium 4 era that can provide some (though not all) the benefits of dual cores by running two program threads at once.

However, a fifth processor is destined for the smallest of devices, according to Intel. Running at just 800MHz, the most portable version of Atom will use just 0.65 watts of power and is built to run without ever needing active cooling. This is primarily built for a new class of devices known as Mobile Internet Devices, or MIDs, which are pitched as a cross between portable media players and Internet communicators.

Every processor will have access to a System Controller Hub chipset that links the Atom to the rest of the handheld and also accelerates all of the device's media playback, including 3D visuals, HD video, and sound.

The shipment will likely prove critical for Apple and helps define its mobile strategy for 2008. Late last year, AppleInsider exclusively revealed that the Mac maker would use the UMPC platform extensively in a range of devices, which may include the company's in-development presentation by Intel Mobility Group manager Dadi Perlmutter. While shy on details, the executive reveals that a 2009 update to the Centrino mobile chipset — so far nicknamed "Calpella" — will feature much more intelligent power management that extends to wireless networking. When only used lightly, a Calpella-based notebook will ramp down power to its Wi-Fi radio to conserve energy.

The platform will also have stricter security measures and should upgrade the integrated graphics hardware. This comes in addition to improved memory support and overall performance that will ship with the Nehalem processor architecture the same year.

While Apple has often used different wireless chipsets in its computers, the Cupertino-based company has used all other components of Intel's Centrino platform in its iMacs, Mac minis, and MacBooks since switching to Intel's architectures in 2006 and is expected to continue using successors to Centrino for the foreseeable future.