Off the Beaten Track - Why the Intel Atom is Doomed

Image credit: Toshiba
Intel's Atom has been around since 2008 and today controls pretty much the entire netbook market. However, the company has been slow to push the platform forward, giving only mediocre performance updates. Does advances by Intel's rival AMD, a delayed product schedule and previous product releases by the chip giant signal an end for the humble platform's dominance? Should Intel take this as a serious wake up call or be content sitting on it's laurels? Based on my experience with some newer netbooks recently, here's what I believe could be the new status quo in 2011 and beyond.


Already in 2009, Intel was beginning to show signs of trouble when it's initial Pinetrail release was delayed. Consumers had to wait until 2010 before they could get their hands on an N450-based product. Even so, the marginal update in performance still managed sell quite well. The platform as a whole enabled manufacturers to ditch Windows XP in lieu of Windows 7, and was able to provide 6+ hours of real-world battery time.

Finally in 2010 Intel stepped up the ante with the dual-core N550. This HT-enabled chip (2C/4T) was a welcome increase in netbook performance compared to the previous single core, but it still did nothing for graphics. The lackluster abilities of the 3150 was one reason why some manufacturers turned to Broadcom for their Crystal HD video accelerator. Even so, driver inconsistencies made the Broadcom solution perform only sub-par, and it still did not address one major issue - 3D graphics.

And so came AMD, presenting their Nile platform in 2010. Their K625 processor was far more powerful than Intel's N550, ran 64-bit software and allowed system RAM to go beyond 2GB. Pair that with a Mobility Radeon HD 4225 GPU that supported DX10, Open-GL and flash hardware acceleration, and you can see why it became such a prized possession for enthusiasts. In my review of the HP dm1z last year, I in fact gave it my best netbook award, simply because Nile was able to do what nothing else at the time could.


Enter 2011. Amidst the slew of slate "announcements" grabbing all the attention, we have Intel's N570 dual core Atom trading blows with AMD's Brazos platform. How different is Brazos from Nile? For one thing, Brazos now offers two performance "tiers", Zacate and Ontario. Think of Zacate as the replacement for Nile, while Ontario is targeted at Intel's Atom. Zacate is the more powerful of the two, while Ontario offers the lowest TDP.

But going into Zacate further, it's not exactly the same as Nile was in 2010. The E350 processor used in some Zacate SKU's is actually slower than the K625, more closer to the K325 in performance. That would mean Intel's N570 may actually perform on par with Zacate on some CPU benchmarks. On the other hand, Zacate now offers a more powerful Mobility Radeon HD 6310, roughly 30% faster than the already capable 4225. Zacate also uses less power, pushing battery times further than Nile, and very close to Pinetrail numbers.

Ontario, meanwhile, is a direct attack on Atom where it hurts - multimedia performance. It's dual-core C50 processor will provide battery times comparable to the leanest N450-based system. The killer feature though is the HD 6250 integrated graphics, promising not only better video than the current Broadcom solutions, but decent 3D gaming all within a 10" footprint. If there was ever an excuse for manufacturers to design a true multimedia netbook (or dare I say slate), Ontario is it.


Street prices have come down quite a bit since my look at the HP dm1z last year. As of right now, I can pick up (with coupon) a fully-loaded HP 210 mini netbook for $404, something that would have cost at least $500 last year. As for HP's own dm1z, the Zacate model is selling fully loaded with SSD for around $100 less than last year's Nile version. Still, $700+ is much too steep for a netbook, but you only have to take off the SSD and that price now comes down to just $412. That a difference of a mere $8!!! Considering it's 64-bit and multimedia capabilities, Zacate gives Pinetrail the most embarrassing spanking I have ever seen.

As for Ontario, netbooks can be had today with the C50 for as low as $329. That's an incredible performance-per-dollar value, especially when models like the Toshiba NB305 used to sell for $399 only a few short months ago. Many N550-based systems today still command north of $350, yet cannot match the multimedia capabilities that Ontario has.


I expect to see a lot more C50-based netbooks appear. But while N550/570-based models may have the processing advantage over the C50, I have a feeling consumers will be attracted to the multimedia capabilities instead. Toshiba has already shown with models like the NB550D (available everywhere EXCEPT the US), what a 2011 netbook is truly capable of. Add a 1366x768 panel in there, and you have the perfect device!

True, Intel does deserve kudos for introducing the Atom in 2008 when no other viable netbook platform was around. But that was THREE YEARS ago - it's 2011 now! AMD is beginning to show some stiff competition, yet Intel remains placid with only marginal performance improvements. Intel has no other choice than to combat Ontario or risk losing the millions in unit-sales the netbook market now makes each year.

It's no longer a question if Nile gave Intel it's wake-up call. The question now is will OEM's rethink bowing to Intel's pressure given consumer demand for an alternative product, will Intel work on a Pinetrail successor to compete with AMD, and will Zacate and Ontario take a sizable chunk out of the netbook market? When you know the answer to all three is yes, it becomes evident that the Atom processor as we know it is doomed.

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