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Designing a microprocessor like the Atom, Intel's smallest chip ever, is like planning a city so tiny it could fit into a single bacteria. First, architects map out which routes go where so that millions of switches can direct traffic in the form of ones and zeroes that shoot from transmitters to transreceivers across silicon expressways (called "buses"). The chip's fabrication phase is another logistical nightmare, some 300 steps involving chemicals, gas, and light. Martin Reynolds, VP at Gartner Inc, says that while the Atom won't rival desktop chips for speed or power, it's certainly quick enough to do what it was designed to do -- and, he adds, it's "really cheap." Intel's temporary technological advantage may mean trouble down the road. While Atom sales are jamming, according to the company, Gartner's Reynolds calls it a price-point enabler -- it could burn Intel by driving the margins out of the chip market. If everyone switches to Atom, Intel's revenue would go down, especially if it starts leaking into the notebook-and-desktop market. That could hurt.

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