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December 18, 2009

The Atom processor predicament

Well, this is going to be interesting. Despite the Intel Atom chips' modest performance, consumers have bought millions and millions of those little netbooks. I am quite certain they bought them because of the low price that made netbooks an impulse buy as opposed to spending more for a "real" notebook computer.

Whether or not customers are happy with their netbooks largely depends on how they use the computers. The small display with 1024 x 600 pixel resolution is confining for almost any real work as there's just not enough real estate. And while the term "netbook" implies that the devices are especially well suited for accessing the web and browsing around, that really isn't true. Netbooks are generally sluggish browsers and mostly unable to deliver adequate multimedia performance. And those who hoped to run HD video on their netbooks struck out completely, because first-gen netbooks simply couldn't do that at an acceptable pace.

On the other hand, the netbooks' small size and weight made them wonderful travel companions, and with an extended battery they practically ran forever on a charge (well, six hours or more in the case of my Acer Aspire One). And when hooked up to a big screen and a full-size keyboard, netbooks work really well as office computers. I hook up my little Acer to a 1680 x 1050 pixel 22-inch wide-screen.

However, we always want more, and so netbooks have been creeping up in size and power. Display size went from 7 to 8.9 inches, then 10.1 and now 12.1 inches. Which means netbooks are morphing ever closer to standard notebook range, which also means customers will continue to want and expect more. I mean, if the netbooks are so large now, why not an optical drive, and could we have the screen just a bit larger yet? Obviously, what customers really want is a device that costs as little as a netbook, but is as large and powerful as notebooks were before they became hefty giants with 19-inch ultra-wide-format displays.

Problem is, the Atom N270 simply isn't up to powering anything more than a little netbook, and even that just marginally. So Intel released the very slightly more powerful N280 and the dual-core N330. And NVIDIA came up with the NVIDIA Ion Graphics chipset that is supposed to work better with Atom N-Series chips than Intel's own chipset. I recently read a review of the Asus Eee PC 1201N netbook that uses both the N330 chip and the NVIDIA chipset, has a 1366 x 768 12.1-inch screen and lists for US$499. According to the review, you can now actually watch HD video, play many games, and things feel quite a bit less sluggish. Battery life is less than it was for the older, smaller netbooks, of course, and for 500 bucks you can easily get a "real" notebook with far higher performance and many more features.

Why do I bring all this up? Because the rugged market has also heavily invested in Atom technology and almost everyone has Atom devices in their lineup or pipeline. Almost all of them are based on either the Atom N270 or the Z510/530/540, i.e. the first generation of Atoms, the minimal ones with "targeted" performance. And now, just as we're starting to see nicely optimized Atom systems that live up to battery life expectations, some of those initial chips are already going to be replaced by the N280, N330 and soon by next gen Atom chips. That's bad news for rugged manufacturers whose first-gen Atom products are just now becoming available.

The moral of the Atom story is, at least for vertical market manufacturers: pick an Atom chip that Intel is likely to support for several years, and make certain the drivers are fully optimized and all the power saving features are fully implemented. Atom can deliver superior battery life and acceptable performance, but manufacturers must carefully target those products so customers won't be disappointed. We've seen Atom-based machines that use hardly less battery power than devices with much more powerful processors. That won't do. And we've seen some where non-optimized graphics drivers made the machines painful to use.

Using an automotive analogy, with the Atom Intel created a small and miserly 4-cylinder engine for use in fuel-efficient vehicles that provide adequate performance as long as the car isn't too big and heavy and customers have not been led to have unrealistic expectations. With the new and upcoming Atom chips, Intel is already making bigger, more powerful engines, obsoleting the earlier ones and giving in to the demand for more horsepower at the expense of efficiency and good design.

Posted by conradb212 at December 18, 2009 01:41 AM

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