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Minilaptop CPU showdown: Atom vs. Neo vs. Nano

When you're on top, everyone else wants a piece of your action. Two new potential Atom-killers have launched recently, each looking to steal some marketshare from Intel with variations on the Netbook theme.

For a long time, Intel's Atom CPU ruled the minilaptop universe, powering Netbooks from Asus, Dell, HP, Acer, Lenovo, and others. After all, who wouldn't want an inexpensive processor capable of powering an almost-pocket-size laptop? Especially one perfectly suited of handling basic coffee shop chores such as Web surfing, e-mailing, or blogging.

But when you're on top, everyone else wants a piece of your action. Two new potential Atom-killers have launched recently, each looking to steal some market share from Intel with variations on the Netbook theme. The contenders, in brief, are:

Intel Atom
The smallest processor currently made by Intel, the Atom is found in a majority of Netbook-style laptops. The most common versions are the Atom N270 (1.6GHz) and Atom N280 (1.66GHz), and popular Atom-powered systems include the Asus Eee PC 1000HE and Acer Aspire One AOD150.

AMD Athlon Neo
Intended as a step up from Atom-style Netbook processors, AMD's Athlon Neo will be seen in ultrathin laptops such as the new HP Pavilion dv2. That particular system has a 1.6GHz Athlon Neo MV-40 CPU and a 12-inch display.

Via Nano
Chipmaker Via has replaced its older low-power CPU, the C7-M, with the new Nano, specifically designed for Netbooks. The 1.3GHz Nano U2350 was first seen in the Samsung NC20 Netbook.

So, how did laptops with these CPUs fare when pitted against each other? To start with, it's important to note that these are different Netbook-style systems from different vendors, so this is not an exact comparison--many other factors besides the CPU affect performance--but it's similar to the choices you'll face when shopping for a low-cost, low-power laptop.

As one might expect, there's no clear winner. We sampled three laptops, one with each processor, and in this particular grouping, the system with the Intel Atom was fastest in our multitasking test (but none of these single-core systems were particular adept at this task), but the one with the Via Nano was the fastest in one of our single-application tests (in this case, our iTunes encoding test), while the Netbook with the AMD Neo was fastest in another single-application test using Jalbum, a photo program we sometimes use in place of Photoshop for low-power or Linux-based systems. The Neo is theoretically the fastest of these CPUs, but it's also running Windows Vista, which has historically been less suited for Netbook-style laptops than XP.

Note: Remember that this is a comparison of three example systems, using data from previously published reviews, and performance scores rely on more than just the CPU.

Note: lower scores are better

Intel Atom N280
(Asus Eee PC 1000HE)

Via Nano U2250 (Samsung NC20)

AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 (HP Pavilion dv2)

Multitasking test (seconds)




Apple iTunes encoding test (seconds)




Jalbum (seconds)




While each of the proceeding benchmark tests is affected by more than just the CPU, battery life is especially hard to judge (at least our three example systems all offered six-cell batteries). While we credit Asus' excellent reputation for power management more than the CPU itself, the Intel-Atom-powered Asus 1000HE ran for 381 minutes, the AMD-Neo-powered HP DV2 ran for 149 minutes, and the Via-Nano-powered Samsung NC20 ran for 275 minutes on our video playback battery drain test.

So, what does it all mean in the end? As unsatisfying a conclusion as this may be, there is no clear-cut winner in our match-up of Netbook CPUs, although the Intel Atom is by far the most popular, and each are a big improvement over the older Intel Celeron and Via C7-M chips used in the very first generation of Netbooks. Increased competition is always good for consumers, and having tested and reviewed dozens of Netbooks, you should feel comfortable going for the one that has the mix of design, features, and price you need,

Perhaps the most telling observation is that in spending hands-time with systems using all three processors, we didn't find any large difference in our anecdotal usage experience (although only the HP dv2, with more RAM and better graphics, dared to run Windows Vista). All were perfectly adequate at providing a good Netbook experience, which leads us to repeat our often-used mantra that Netbook nirvana requires one's expectations to be appropriately modest. They're great for Web surfing, sending e-mail, working on office documents, maybe some light multimedia playback, and not much else--but that's what most of us primarily use our laptops for anyway.