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What Intel's next-gen Atom CPU for Netbooks means for you

Intel this morning officially announced the next generation of its popular Atom CPUs for Netbooks, the Atom N450, weeks before the upcoming CES trade show.

The first Netbook we've seen with the Atom N450 is the Asus Eee PC 1005PE.

Intel has officially announced the next generation of its popular Atom CPUs for Netbooks. While probably the worst-kept secret in personal computing, unveiling the Atom N450 (previously codenamed "Pinetrail") weeks before the upcoming CES trade show means Intel doesn't want this key announcement to get lost amid the thousands of new products set to debut in January.

One of the brightest spots in the consumer electronics industry over the past two years has been the growth of Netbooks. These small, low-power, low-cost laptops are popular with almost every segment of the computer-buying public, from students, to business travelers, to seniors.

But, these machines had became largely commodity products, with identical components and features, driving prices down to $299 (or less, with subsidized deals from mobile phone providers). More recently, PC makers have attempted to create new tiers in the Netbook market with high-def displays and improved Nvidia Ion graphics, or even competing CPUs from AMD and Via.

The development everyone has been waiting for is the next generation of the Intel Atom CPUs that power nearly every Netbook. The current N270 and N280 versions are fine for basic Web surfing and e-mail or office tasks, but painfully slow at just about everything else (and the Z530 alternative, found in a handful of systems, is even weaker).

The new Atom N450 promises both lower power consumption and enhanced performance. In part, that's because the platform has been simplified, by moving the graphics and memory controller onto the processor itself and pairing it with a new NM10 chipset. The Atom N450 runs at 1.66GHz (the same clock speed as the previous N280 version), and has a 5.5W TDP (which is higher than the N270 or N280, but that includes the on-CPU graphics).

In our tests of a new version of the popular Asus Eee PC 1005 with the 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450 CPU, we found the overall performance to be slightly improved, but not in a radical way. However, the battery life was fantastic, passing the 8-hour mark on our very tough video playback battery drain test.

For the consumer, this means better battery life and smaller, cooler-running systems. But at the same time, the performance divide between Netbooks and ULV-powered ultrathin laptops remains. A Netbook, even one with the new Atom N450 CPU, is unlikely be the single system to fulfill all your computing needs.

At the same time, we've started to see larger 11 and 12-inch Netbooks with the previous generation's dual-core Atom 330 (previously found only in small form factor desktops, due to heat issues), or with AMD's dual-core L310 processor, providing better performance in some tests in exchange for shorter battery life and higher prices. Increased competition is also expected from so-called "smartbook" devices with Nvidia's Tegra platform.

Intel has also announced new versions of the Atom for small-form-factor desktops. The Atom D410 is a single-core 1.66GHz chip with a 10W TDP, and the Atom D510 is a dual-core 1.66GHz chip with a 13W TDP. A faster Netbook version, the 1.8GHz N470, is also rumored to be in the works.

Systems with the new Atom N450 CPU should be available starting January 3, 2010.

Related: Read more about the new Intel Atom platform from Brooke Crothers here.

Asus Eee PC 1005PE