New Intel handheld chip “as fast as Centrino”

Intel has dropped very broad hints about the performance of its tiny new Silverthorne processor, destined to appear in handheld devices, iPhone competitors and UMPCs next year. But, amazingly, the processor’s design is closer to the obsolete Pentium than the latest Core 2.

Justin Rattner, the company’s chief technology officer, claims the microscopic chip, which consumes as little as 600mW of power, is a “very healthy chip” and “can really crank”.

“I would put the performance in the range of the early Centrino processors,” he says, which suggests handheld devices with the power of a laptop bought around four years ago. The miniscule chip manages to pack 47 million transistors onto a die with an area of just 25 square millimetres.

Surprisingly though, the design isn’t based on Intel’s all-conquering Core 2 architecture. “It’s not based on any core,” says Rattner, adding that Silverthorne is a “ground-up new microarchitecture”.

“We looked very hard at taking Core 2 Duo and bringing it down to sub-1W [power consumption] and concluded that wasn’t feasible… we convinced ourselves that something more reminiscent of Pentium was best for getting into that sub-1W power range.”

The result is a single-core chip that features the HyperThreading (HT) facility found in latter-day Pentium 4 processors. HT gives some of the benefits of multi-core processing, allowing the CPU to execute a second thread of code with parts of the processor currently not being used by the main thread.

And while it’s clear that Silverthorne is nothing like the power-hungry beast that Pentium 4 was, Intel is still coy about giving definite figures on its computing efficiency. “We’re not commenting about performance-per-watt,” adds Rattner.

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