Intel today announced the Intel® Atom™ processor E6xx series, the first Intel® architecture (IA) processor designed specifically for embedded applications. This new processor is highly integrated, with embedded features that significantly lower the bill of materials (BOM) and hardware footprint. The processor is available in entry-level versions that are suitable for cost-sensitive applications, and for the first time developers can customize the I/O. In addition, the processor gets a major boost to graphics and HD video performance. In this blog we’ll review the new processor, look at some of the first boards and modules that use it, and review the OS and tool options.
Let’s start by looking at the on-chip integration. The Intel Atom processor E6xx series uses a system-on-chip (SoC) architecture that incorporates video and graphics engines, audio accelerators, and a memory controller onto the CPU, along with four PCI Express* x1 links for system expansion. The high level of integration is carried through to the Intel Platform Controller Hub EG20T chipset, which for the first time includes embedded-specific I/O like CAN, IEEE* 1588 rev2, SPI, I²C, UART, and GPIO. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Intel® Atom™ processor E6xx series offers a new level of integration and embedded-specific features. Shown here are the optional Intel® chipset and a combined power management IC (PMIC)/clock generator from Dialog Semiconductor.
In another first, the processor uses one of the built-in PCI Express links to connect to the chipset. (Previous Intel Atom processors used the proprietary FSB interface.) With this change, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series can connect to third-party application-specific chipsets. For example, OKI Semiconductor offers the ML7223 chipset for media phones, which includes telephony-specific features such as echo cancellation. The new Intel Atom processor can also be used as a stand-alone SoC that connects directly to discrete PCI Express devices, or developers can create their own FPGA or ASIC chipset. (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2. The Intel® Atom™ processor E6xx series can connect to a wide range of chipsets and/or PCIe devices.
The high integration and flexible I/O results in significant BOM and footprint savings. On the footprint front, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series measures 22 mm x 22 mm, and the Intel Platform Controller Hub EG20T measures 23 mm x 23 mm. Together, these components are 46\% smaller than the comparable Intel Atom processor Z5xx series platform. (I’m comparing chipsets that are rated for extended temperature ranges. If you can use commercial-temperature parts, the Intel Atom processor Z5xx series has the smaller footprint.) The additional I/O on the Intel Atom processor E6xx series means that the space savings will be even larger at the system level.
In addition to keeping BOM costs down, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series is available in an entry-level 600 MHz version for cost-sensitive applications. (Existing Intel Atom processors start at 1.1 GHz, nearly twice the speed.) With this new entry-level option, the Intel Atom is a viable option for applications that previously required a RISC processor.
Last but not least, the new Intel Atom also incorporates the Integrated Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 600 graphics engine, a power-optimized 2D/3D graphics engine that provides up to 50\% better performance than the previous-generation solution. The media processing features have also received a significant boost, as the processor now incorporates high-definition MPEG4 and H.264 hardware encode in addition to the previously-available MPEG4, H.264, WMV and VC1 hardware decode. These graphics and media features make the new processor a good choice for media-intensive applications such as digital signage and digital surveillance
A large number of hardware and OS vendors have announced support for the Intel Atom processor E6xx series. Let’s look at a few of the highlights. Advantech has announced a number of boards and modules, including the SOM-7564 module, which uses the new 84 mm x 55 mm COM Express* Ultra form factor in Figure 3. This module uses the Intel Atom processor E6xx series as a stand-alone SoC without a chipset, enabling a remarkably compact solution. Target applications for this module include portable and hand-held devices and rugged applications.
Figure 3. The SOM-7564 COM Express Ultra module delivers a high level of functionality in a compact 84 mm x 55 mm form factor.
Kontron also announced a COM Express Ultra module, the nanoETXexpress-TT (Figure 4). This module uses the just-approved COM Express* COM.0 R.2.0 pin-out Type 10 specification. Among other things this new pin-out supports Digital Display Interface (DDI) for SDVO, Display Port or HDMI displays—see Kontron’s excellent white paper for details. Other features of this module include a robust micro-SD Card socket and optional SATA Flash memory.
Figure 4. The Kontron nanoETXexpress-TT supports the new type-10 pinout.
As another example, Emerson has announced the NITX-300 Nano-ITX motherboard (Figure 5). This 120 mm x 120 mm motherboard features the Intel Atom Processor E6xx series at 0.6 GHz to 1.3 GHz, the Intel Platform Controller Hub EG20T, and up to 1 GB soldered DDR2 memory. Other board features include:
- Dual displays LVDS and VGA connectivity
- Gigabit Ethernet
- PCI Express
- Multiple USB and serial interfaces
- SATA interface and Slim Lite SSD connector
- PCI Express Mini Card slot to enable Wi-Fi/WiMAX connectivity
- CAN interface
- MicroSD memory card connector
Target applications include medical carts, portable instruments, set-top boxes, digital signage, media players and test devices.
Figure 5. The Emerson NITX-300 Nano-ITX motherboard offers an impressive list of features.
On the software side, the platform is supported by a range of OSs including Microsoft* Windows* Embedded Standard 7, Linux, MeeGo, Wind River VxWorks, and Green Hills Software’s INTEGRITY*. I saw a number of these operating systems running at the Intel Developer Forum, and I was impressed by the way the hardware and software worked together to form a complete system. For example, I saw an in-vehicle infotainment reference design from SBS that showed a MeeGo touch-screen interface housed in a standard DIN form factor. It was easy to imagine this reference design sitting in my car’s dashboard.
The new platform is also well-supported by development tools and debuggers. For example, Green Hills Software is supporting the new Intel Atom with the MULTI* integrated development environment (IDE), optimizing C/C++ compilers, and DoubleCheck* static analyzer. JTAG debugger solutions are available from several vendors, including Lauterbach and Macgraigor.
In short, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series brings together new levels of integration and flexibility, reduced costs, and improved graphics performance. Meanwhile, the board and module options as well as the OS, and tool support provide a solid foundation for building embedded systems. These attributes make the platform a strong contender for a wide range of embedded applications.
Advantech, Emerson Network Power, and Kontron are Premier members of the Intel® Embedded Alliance. Microsoft and Wind River are Associate members of the Alliance. Green Hills Software, Lauterbach, and Macraigor are Affiliate members of the Alliance. Dialog and SBS Science & Technology are General members of the Alliance.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
Embedded Innovator magazine