The Pocket Processor

Making processors for mobile gadgets is mostly an afterthought. Hone a chip from a desktop PC, tweak it to suck less power and vent less heat, and stick it in a laptop. Not so with Intel’s Atom. It’s Intel’s smallest-ever microprocessor, a 24-square-millimeter chip crammed with 47 million data-carrying transistors, and it’s paving the way for the next era of affordable, power-saving gadgets.

The key to shrinking the chip is a new manufacturing process that prints each conductive wire inside the circuit at about 1/2,000 the width of a human hair, half the size found in conventional chips
More circuits mean smarter features. The Atom’s sleep mode powers down parts of the chip when idling. And unlike other chips, Atom doesn’t run background programs if stalled on its primary task, which helps boost battery life.

Although some of its power-saving tricks slow performance, the chip still keeps pace with other mobile processors. It can turn out impressive 1.8 gigahertz of processing speed on less than a watt of power—serious savings compared with today’s 35-watt notebook chips. And because lower wattage means less heat, you can say goodbye to scorched laps. “It’s deeply satisfying to be able to place a finger on an Atom CPU and not receive a third-degree burn,” jokes Intel design-engineering manager Bryan Boatright.

Intel isn’t through shrinking chips. It aims to print even smaller transistors by next year, taking advantage of the space to further ramp up speed and battery life.