Living with a netbook: The performance penalty

No one claims that netbooks can match the performance of laptops that cost hundreds or even thousands more. The real question is whether the performance of a netbook is good enough.

No one claims that netbooks can match the performance of laptops that cost hundreds or even thousands more. The real question is whether the performance of a netbook is good enough.

Over the past few weeks, I've been doing some testing on five netbooks with 10-inch displays: the Acer Aspire One, HP Mini 2140, Lenovo IdeaPad S10, and Samsung N110 and N120. These five netbooks have nearly identical specs--1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 1GB of memory, Windows XP--and consequently they turned in nearly identical performance scores.

It's no surprise that they can't match the performance of a premium thin-and-light such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X301. But I also wondered how they would stack up against more direct competitors such as the HP Pavilion dv6 series, a mainstream laptop, and especially the Pavilion dv3, a low-cost 13-inch thin-and-light. Though these both cost more than netbooks, they still come in well under $1,000 and offer significantly more features.

There are several reasons why netbooks don't perform like notebooks. First, the Atom chip has a single processing core and it runs at a slower frequency (1.6GHz) than most mobile processors. (The exception would be some of Intel's low-voltage and ultra low-voltage chips, such as the 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400, used in relatively-expensive ultraportables.) Atom is also based on a simpler microarchitecture--it has about the same number of transistors as the Pentium 4 circa 2001--so it lacks many of the enhancements in later designs such as the Core microarchitecure. Second, netbooks top out at 1GB of memory, while the average PC has around 2.3GB of memory, and even low-priced laptops often include 3GB.

Compare this typical netbook configuration to a mainstream notebook such as the Pavilion dv6. You can get the dv6 for as little as $580 with an AMD Athlon X2 dual-core processor, but the retail model I used for comparison, the Pavilion dv6-1030us, has a 16-inch (1366x768) display, 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6400, 4GB of memory, Intel GMA 4500MHD integrated graphics and a 320GB hard drive. At $750, it costs significantly more than a netbook, but it also offers a lot more. The Pavilion dv3z, a 13-inch thin-and-light, is closer to the netbooks in terms of portability, if not price. The $980 configuration used here included a 2.3GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 ZM-84, 4GB of memory, ATI Radeon HD3200 graphics and a 320GB hard drive. Recently HP seems to have shifted to an Intel-based configuration of the Pavilion dv3 which currently starts at $650 (after rebates) with a 2.0GHz Pentium T4200, 2GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive.

My first set of tests involved relatively large Excel 2007 spreadsheets performing tasks such as Monte Carlo simulations (used to determine pricing of stock options), pivot tables (for visualizing data), and other common arithmetic and statistical analysis functions. Some of them are custom tests and others were provided by Intel for use in benchmarking processors. On most tests, the netbooks took more than twice as long as the dv6-1030us and dv3z to complete the same calculations.

Multitasking is another area where the performance of netbooks pales next to notebooks. In this basic test, Word 2007 compares two versions of a large document in the background while PowerPoint 2007 saves a presentation as an XPS file, a Microsoft Office 2007 file format similar to Adobe's PDF. I've also run this test with other tasks, such as image editing and audio encoding, going on in the background, but in this case, it's unnecessary. The difference is already pretty clear. This lends some support to Microsoft's assertion that Windows 7 Starter Edition will only run three concurrent apps because netbooks don't have the muscle for heavy multitasking.

Finally I compared the audio encoding performance of netbooks to a premium ultraportable, the ThinkPad X301. The simple test measures the time it takes for iTunes to convert 20 audio files (a total of 527MB) from MP3 to AAC format. Despite its relatively high price ($2,000 and up), the ThinkPad X301 isn't an especially powerful laptop because of its low-voltage processor, the 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo SU9400 and integrated graphics, but it still handily beats netbooks on this test. (By the way, the fastest system I've tested, a $999 Dell Studio XPS desktop with a Core i7 processor, was able to encode all 20 files in less than 10 minutes, compared with more than an hour for a netbook.)

In the past, I've also run some tests using Adobe Photoshop CS3 to auto-correct a batch of high-resolution images and convert them for use on the Web, as well as benchmarks such as CINEBENCH and POV-Ray that take advantage of multi-core processors and discrete GPUs. Netbooks aren't designed for these applications, of course, and I didn't even attempt to run these tests, but this gives you an idea of some of the limitations. Then again, you may be able to find workarounds for some tasks. For example, you can run Adobe Photoshop Elements on a netbook, or use an online photo editing package such as Picasa, Picnik or Photoshop Express, and these probably meet the needs of most users. But anything involving real 3D graphics or gaming is pretty much out.

Granted, these are all fairly intensive tasks, but they illustrate the real performance difference. More anecdotal testing is probably closer to typical netbook usage. I'm sure that all of these netbooks are a bit slower to boot up, shut down, and open and close applications, but not to the extent that I really noticed it during weeks of regular usage. I did, however, notice that it took netbooks longer to open large spreadsheets or Word documents. Aside from that, all of these netbooks felt sufficiently responsive on basic productivity tasks using Office 2007, as well as e-mail and Web browsing. They also handled standard-definition video using both Adobe Flash (YouTube, Hulu.com) and Microsoft Silverlight (CBS Sports, NBC Olympics) just fine, but immediately choked on high-definition video. As far as editing video, technically netbooks can run entry-level editing packages such as Windows Movie Maker (included in Windows XP), Corel VideoStudio and Pinnacle Studio, but I wouldn't recommend it.

If you've already decided on a netbook, performance is a non-issue. Since nearly all netbooks use the same Intel platform, there is virtually no difference in performance. But if you are choosing between a netbook and a laptop--even a budget laptop--you should know there's a significant performance penalty. That's on top of all the other differences such as display size and other features.

Having said that, it's overstating the case to argue--as Intel does--that netbooks are for viewing and sharing content, while notebooks are for creating content. The reality is that the performance of netbooks is "good enough" for the documents, spreadsheets, blog posts and even standard YouTube clips that most users need to create or upload. That's one big reason for their surprising popularity.

Go back to intro: Living with a netbook: Toy or tiny notebook?

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