Netbook platforms: VIA Nano v. Intel Atom

Netbook platforms: VIA Nano v. Intel Atom

Summary: Today's netbooks are mostly Intel Atom-powered, but that could change with the advent of VIA's Nano processor, which outperforms Intel's CPU in several areas.

TOPICS: Hardware, Reviews

Despite the rapidly cooling economic climate, netbooks sold like hot cakes last year. The boom in small, affordable, notebooks looks likely to continue this year. Most netbook manufacturers use Intel's Atom processor along with the somewhat dated G945 graphics chipset.

The main criticisms levelled at netbooks centre on poor performance. AMD chief Dirk Meyer predicts the netbook's demise, while Nvidia president Jen Hsun Huang has criticised the weak performance of the Atom platform and announced a graphics chipset that's designed to address the Atom's deficiencies. This Nvidia chipset, called Ion, could give a significant boost to Atom-based netbooks. Ion has a clear edge over any graphics option than Intel can currently muster. On top of that, Ion can use Nvidia's CUDA parallel computing interface to perform calculations for certain non-graphics applications. The arithmetic performance of the graphics chip far exceeds that of the main processor.

Some manufacturers view the VIA Nano processor as a viable alternative for netbooks. Samsung has just released the NC20, which is equipped with a particularly energy-efficient variant of the Nano chip. The benchmark tests presented here examine the VIA and Intel chips. Nvidia's Ion is not yet available, but is due to appear in April.

Topics: Hardware, Reviews

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  • This review is incompetent

    How can you measure desktop parts and clock speeds and call this a Netbook evaluation? This is gross incompetence in a benchmark!

    You should be testing a 1.3 GHz Nano against a 1.6 GHz Atom using netbooks with batteries removed to test the true performance and power consumption. It would also be fair to test Atom clocked to 1.9 GHz on many Netbooks.

    You should also do more multi-threaded testing because the Atom does so well with Hyperthreading.
  • For reference...

    "For reference, we compared the netbook results with a conventional desktop machine based on a 2.5GHz dual-core Pentium E5200."

    Where's the 'gross incompetence' in having a reference point for the netbook benchmarks? Surely this is useful additional information that helps to put the Nano and Atom results into context?
    Charles McLellan
  • Certainly Not Incompetent

    As far as I am concerned, in order to be interesting and useful these tests have to give some indication of "real world" performance, and there is no better way of doing that than to include equivalent tests on a known reference processor. I don't care how much faster of slower the Atom and VIA are compared to each other, if I don't know how they are going to compare to something I already know. Thus, including the desktop processor in the tests was an excellent idea.

    As for testing the Atom over-clocked, why on earth would they want to do that? First, how many netbook buyers are going to know how to over-clock a CPU, or even know that it can be done? Second, what is the "expected use" of a netbook - is it likely to be used for something that is so CPU intensive that over-clocking will be worthwhile? Third, and perhaps most importantly, in my experience one of the largest problems with netbooks is the amount of heat that they generate, so why on earth would one want to over-clock the CPU and thus produce even more heat?

    jw 11/2/2009
  • The incompetence is that you used 1.8 Nano results to represent a Netbook

    The incompetence is that you used 1.8 Via Nano results to represent a Netbook. That represents a 38.5% inflation in the Via results for a Via Nano Netbook which operates at 1.3 GHz and most people don't understand the difference so they're mislead by this article.

    Furthermore, you didn't even run an adequate suite of multi-threaded benchmarks nor did you test Atom at 1.9 GHz which is a valid clock speed for some atom based Netbooks.
  • The realworld performance is 1.3 GHz for the Nano Netbooks

    The realworld performance is 1.3 GHz for the Nano Netbooks, and for your information, 1.9 GHz is not some sort of a hack but actual clock speeds of many Netbook products opertating in turbo mode. That is a valid comparison because an Atom at 1.9 GHz still runs lower power than a Via Nano 1.3.

    So yes, the article is misleading and incompetent.
  • Look up the MSI Wind, it officially operates at 1.9 GHz

    Look up the MSI Wind, it officially operates at 1.9 GHz. This is a sanctioned setting and not an end-user hack.
  • More details needed

    The article is incomplete. The testing platforms lack information about used hardware such as hard drives, graphics (desktop).
    The power consumption figures are surprisingly high 48W Atom 68 Nano. I am writing this from dual core 1.9GHz Athlon notebook which maximum consumption is 66W (from AC power adapter). This is Dell Latitude D531.
    Everest 4.60:
    FPU Julia 1545
    SinJulia 819
    Mandel 879
    CPU AES 4739
    Zlib 19946
    PhotoWorxx 4761
    Queen 6409
    copy 4022
    read 4481
    write 4393
    Since I get better performance and lower power consumption What the netbook platforms that you tested have to offer?
  • The article is clear about what it's testing, processor-wise

    ..and it certainly reflects real-world considerations. If you decide that it doesn't reflect things that you personally find important, then it's not for you. Stuff like multithreading benchmarks, which would favour Atom more, only reflect multithreading usage patterns and I'm still not convinced that they're particularly mainstream. Interesting? Certainly. Important? That's debatable. Important for Intel, because that's a key differentiator for them, but there's no rule that what Intel does is as important as they'd like.

    If we could, I'd like to run benchmarks over a much wider range of operating conditions - virtualised systems, ones biassed towards graphics, ones biassed towards video editing, ones at extremes of power, memory, processor or networking configurations. The really interesting things come out when you push the limits. But there's so much else to do aside from benchmarking, that it's just not possible.

    We're lucky enough as it is to have Kai and ZDNet Germany with their emphasis on real-world testing, together with Charles and Toby in the UK who really understand the nuts and bolts.

    Stuff like this is both straightfoward and useful. It's not comprehensive, nor can it be.
  • The article CLAIMS it is testing Netbooks in the title

    The article CLAIMS it is testing Netbooks in the title. It is NOT testing ANY Netbook components and the results are completely misleading. If they wish to test desktop components, that's fine but do NOT claim that the results are representative of Netbook performance.
  • Wrong comparison

    I can agree to some extent to former complaints about this review. It states as a comparison of netbook components, but not a single tested component can be found in a netbook these days. The Via Nano 1.8Ghz simply consumes too much power, so they made a special netbook-version operating at 1.3Ghz. But using the 1.8Ghz version to show the netbook-performance is just plain...stupid...

    Same goes for the Atom 230. It's not used in any netbook (never has and never will), because it's Intels nettop-aimed processor. The Atoms for netbooks are either the Nxxx (most popular is the N270) or the Zxxx (most popular is the Z520 & Z530), of which the latter are a whole 0.5W "greener" (2.0W compared to 2.5W).

    The results of this review should be ignored if one is searching how these CPU's would compare in actual netbook products.
  • Bananas, Apples and Oranges

    Considering the fact that objects under discussion are netbooks I think tests related more to actual usage are more appropriate than hyperthread specs, floating point calculations per second etc. Comparing it to a desktop system only gives you a small hint as to how it will work in your daily grind.

    It would be more appropriate to look at battery life, AC power consumption, heat production etc. Time how fast a test webpage gets downloaded through the Wifi (or whatever) connection and then rendered. Those are the specifications that are more meaningful then mega-flops per second. You're not testing a "gamer" system guys. Now if its fast AND low-powered that might be something to talk about.

    The biggest specification that has the most impact on run-time on batteries is how fast the CPU can shutdown sub-sections of itself to prevent power consumption. Savings there directly impact usability of the system.

    One other missing specification is the power consumption of the RAM modules used. Nobody seems to talk about that at all. RAM is possibly the third ranking power hog in the computer. First and second are the screen and backlight and then the CPU and IO subsystem.

    On a netbook a more important specification is the user interface and nobody tests that quantitatively. How well does the keyboard, touchscreen (if it has one) mouse or mousepad if not and the screen perform? If the box is fast but a b-----h to use it doesn't matter what the specs say if the user isn't going to be able to type on it effectively.

    We're talking about devices that are going to be used and carried around all day and plugged back into a charger at night. None of the specifications being bandied about here directly relate to how the user is going to USE the netbook.
  • MSI Wind? Uses 1,9 GHz processor?

    Sorry, have never seen MSI Wind with 1.9 GHz processor. MSI Wind uses N270 processor with 1.6 GHz. BTW, the only Atom processor with 1.9 GHz is Z540 which costs 135$, that is about 3 times higher than 44$ of N270.
  • Official Capable

    Indeed, the official spec is 1.6Ghz. But every Atom N270 I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot of them!) comes with a special turbo mode that runs it at about 1.8-1.9Ghz without drawing more than 3W. So it actually is capable of those speeds.
  • It's a turbo button

    It's a turbo button that comes with the MSI Wind which boosts the clock to 1.9. This is NOT a customer hack; it is officially supported by MSI.
  • Biased or inept, you be the judge

    First, there are NO Atom netbooks using the desktop 945GC. The majority of Atom netbooks are using the more efficient 945GSE (which is based on the mobile 945G derivative), the rest use Poulsbo system chips. In Atom configurations, the desktop 945GC has TDP of 22.2W compared to 11.8W for 945GSE. That's another 10W in favor of Atom, with no performance difference between 945GC and 945GSE.

    The real problem for Nano is that, aside from power consumption owing to the core logic and devices, it has roughly THREE TIMES the power consumption of Atom but offers only 20% ~ 30% better performance, at the same clocks.

    Read it again: THREE TIMES the power consumption, 20% ~ 30% better performance. That is not an acceptable trade-off by any measure and shows just how inferior Nano truly is. Your tested configurations have Nano consuming nearly as much more over Atom as E5200 consumes over Nano; 20W v. 23W (keeping in mind that 945GSE adds 10W to this disparity in favor of Atom). And yet Nano fails to deliver anything near the performance increase that E5200 delivers with its 23 watts. Epic fail.

    The move from 65nm to 45nm only netted 10% ~ 12% decrease in power consumption for Intel Core 2 Duo with the same clocks and core configuration. Nano must overcome a HUGE disparity here and 45nm won't remotely be enough.

    Nano cannot compete with Atom WATT FOR WATT, and power consumption is all important in this class. The only exception to this is the AES benchmark, which of course Nano would run-away with because it is the only one of the three sporting a hardware encryption engine, a feature that is almost completely worthless to the netbook class.

    As soon as Intel finally ships an appropriate purpose-built chipset for Atom (which is on the way as we speak), Nano will be dead to OEMs unless VIA can slash the price enough to keep it attractive purely from a BOM standpoint. Sure, you might get Nano in some 800MHz variant that will be competitive with the best-performing Atom in power consumption, but won't be able to run Pong with tolerable performance.