Embedded designers that are new to using Intel® Architecture (IA) family processors may be surprised at the breadth of the processor family. From an end-user perspective, we are virtually all exposed to IA in the PC space. But it might not be immediately clear how broadly the PC and server market has become and how that can be a tremendous benefit to embedded design teams. For example, processors and chip sets with a notebook PC lineage that enter the Intel embedded program offer true top-notch performance, but can be packaged in tight, fan-less enclosures.

 

Several of my recent post have looked at the extremes of the IA family. For example, I recently covered the 6-processor Intel® Xeon® processor 5600 series that falls at the far end of the performance spectrum. Likewise, I covered the ultra-low-power Intel® Atom™ family and the incredible integration levels of the Atom N450.

 

Today let's look more toward the middle of the spectrum at processors and chip sets that can still operate in a fanless environment, that offer relatively high levels of integration, and that leverage much of the latest in IA microarchitecture enhancements.

 

Specifically, I'll focus my discussion on the GM45, and GS45 Express Chipsets that each has a lineage to the notebook market. Each of the platforms integrates a Mobile Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator. As the "Express" in the name implies, each supports PCI Express. A PCI Express link in the GM45 and GS45 memory and graphics controller ICs (commonly referred to as the north bridge) can also connect to external graphics accelerators. Moreover, each can connect with an I/O controller IC (commonly referred to as the south bridge) that provides six additional PCI Express ports.

 

The difference in the platforms comes down to memory bus speeds and other features. For example, the GS45 supports RAID 0/1 disk arrays and Intel® Active Management Technology whereas the GM45 does not..

 

Embedded designers can mix and match these core logic platforms with a choice of Intel® Core™ 2 Duo and Intel® Celeron®. The Celeron processors provide the lowest-power options, but all can serve in rugged fan-less designs.

 

At the high end of the choices from a performance perspective, the Core 2 processors are less than a full generation behind the Xeon family in terms of microarchitecture. For example, the Core 2 includes support for version 4.1 of the Streaming SIMD Extensions (SSE) that are invaluable in multimedia applications (see my prior post on SSE for more information). Moreover the Core 2 Duo brings two cores to multimedia applications.

 

For an example of a rugged, fan-less system, that targets multimedia, consider the IEI Technology* ECN-381B Multimedia Box. The system uses the GM45 core logic and offers 1080p. HD-video support via an HDMI output with HDCP content security. In fact, the system includes MPEG-2, WMV0 (VC-1), and H.264 (AVC) codecs and support for DirectX 10.

 

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IEI based the design around a passive cooling architecture. The system has an aluminum enclosure with heat fins in evidence. Internally, the design relies on a heat pipe and extruded aluminum fins that convectively transfer heat from the CPU and core logic to the case.

 

The ECN-381B can serve in a variety of entertainment-oriented applications. The system can play Blu-ray video. IEI targets applications including fine-art demonstrations, live fashion shows, and digital signage applications with large-screen displays.

 

The company actually offers the system with a choice of Core 2 Duo or Celeron processors. Other options include a hard drive, a CompactFlash card, and SATA disk-on-module technology. IEI also includes a One Key Recovery function that creates a full system backup for easy system recovery.

 

How do you choose the power/performance point in terms of processor choice for embedded designs? Perhaps more important, how do you decide what's acceptable in terms of thermal issues related to power dissipation? How have you cooled your fan-less designs? Please share you experience with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community.

 

Maury Wright

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)

Intel® Embedded Alliance

 

*IEI Technology is an Associate Member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance