Low power is a tough subject to tackle. You have active and standby power issues that come into play. And you must always think system power rather than component power. The Intel® Atom N450 isn't the lowest-power member of the Atom family. But if you consider power along with feature integration and system power and performance, the new N450 may be the very best choice for your low-power embedded system design. The processor is already finding use in products destined for automotive, industrial, and entertainment applications where cooling fans may not be available and space is at a premium.
From inception, the Intel® Atom™ processor family has targeted lower-power applications more specifically than have other Intel® Architecture families. But the Atom family is now sufficiently broad that embedded design teams can really focus designs based on the processor technology at high performance or low power.
Moreover, the family is clearly on a path toward higher levels of integration so design teams need to look beyond the processor core when matching processors to applications. Features such as integrated graphics mean that you must consider specifications such as power consumption at the system level. The Atom N450, for instance, integrates both graphics and memory controllers saving space, cost, and power elsewhere in a system.
To get a feel for the broad spectrum of Atom processors, consider the N450 relative to the ground that I covered in my recent performance-oriented Atom post. I covered the D- family processors and the fact that the D510 with dual cores can serve in performance oriented applications like communication appliances. Today, we'll look at the N450 that is significantly lower in power consumption. Moreover, the N450 includes additional power-saving technology such as enhanced sleep states.
The single-core N450 has a power specification of 5.5W TDP. That's less than half of the power rating of the dual-core D510 and barely more than half of the 10W D410 that is the single-core brethren to the D510. The Z530 announced earlier has a TDP rating of 2.2W. But the Z530 requires both memory and graphics capabilities implemented in one or more additional ICs. Plus the N450 is a 64-bit design whereas the Z530 is a 32-bit design.
Both the N450 and the Z530 processors include enhanced functionality when it comes to sleep states that can reduce standby power. Last fall, I described the C6 state that Atom Z-series processors can enter that stores the processor state in a special SRAM array. The N450 doesn't support the C6 state, but does support the C4/C4E enhanced deeper sleep states that lower the processor voltage and flush cache to main memory. Both processors come close to zero power consumption in the deepest supported sleep states.
Clearly companies in the board and modular computing space have taken notice of the performance and low-power potential of the N450. For example, IBASE Technology* has designed a ruggedized system called the I-VC5 that targets in-vehicle infotainment systems. The N450-based fan-less design is certainly power optimized but also very capable from a performance perspective. The system supports video capture, featuring H.264 video compression and can drive NTSC and PAL video displays.
IBASE also offers a number of N450-based board-level products. For example, the company recently announced the MI888 Mini-ITX motherboard that supports a choice of the N450 or D510. IBASE is targeting the medical, kiosk point-of-sale, digital signage, and gaming applications with the board.
Other vendors with N450 products include Emerson Network Power Embedded Computing** and Advantech***. Advantech, for example, offers a number of ruggedized systems that use its ARK family of fan-less enclosures for industrial applications. The company also has products in the PC/104, EBX, ETX, and COM-Micro form factors. Emerson, meanwhile, offers the N450-based COMX-ATOM-420 COM Express module that targets industrial control, kiosks, and test-equipment applications.
Please tell fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community about your experiences with the Atom family. What have you done to minimize system power? How have you used the enhanced sleep states? Other readers would love to see your comments.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
*IBASE Technology is an Associate Member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance
**Emerson Network Power Embedded Computing is a Premier Member of The Alliance
**Advantech is a Premier Member of The Alliance