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Dual-core Atom Netbooks: Worth an upgrade?

New dual-core Atom N550 Netbooks add a new wrinkle to the staid Netbook market, but how do they perform? We compare Asus' single- and dual-core Eee PC 1015P series.

Now playing: Watch this: Asus Eee PC 1015PEM

The Netbook world really hasn't changed much at all over the past 18 months. Most 10-inchers on the market feature single-core Atom processors, meager amounts of RAM, and few ports, offering universally good battery life and cheap prices. Same story, different year.

One new development has been the quiet release of dual-core Atom processors. The Atom N550 has been showing up in a bunch of 10-inch Netbooks as of late, and at first glance they seem like a good value. In the case of the Asus Eee PC 1015PEM-PU17, the dual-core Atom configuration costs only $40 more than the single-core Atom N455 version of the same device, the Asus Eee PC 1015PED-MU17. At about $370, it doesn't cost the premium that fancier dual-core "premium Netbooks" such as the Dell Inspiron M101z do.

We decided to find out for ourselves and pit a single- and dual-core Asus Netbook against each other. It turns out there's a good reason why dual-core Atom Netbooks are so affordable: they really don't offer a speed bump for most everyday single-task functions. Rather, the dual-core N550 gives a boost only to multitasking. In head-to-head benchmark tests, we found both Asus Eee PCs to be otherwise quite similar. Both of our reviewed Eee PCs were virtually identical in every respect except for the processor. Both also lacked higher-end features such as higher-resolution displays or HD-accelerated video.

On the dual-core 1015PEM, streaming full-screen video was still as choppy as it was on the 1015PED. The N550 wasn't enough to get this Netbook over the hump to being a better media-playing device.

The upgrade price is so small (and even smaller--just $20--if you're considering the slightly faster single-core N475 version, the 1015PED-PU17), that it could seem like a no-brainer. Then again, at prices this low, $40 represents a significant percentage of the purchase price.

Bottom line? Thus far, dual-core Atom Netbooks don't seem to be much more than a small evolutionary bump in the road.

Read our reviews of the dual-core Asus Eee PC 1015PEM-PU17 and the single-core Asus Eee PC 1015PED-MU17.