Future Intel Atom chip is a yawner--by design

Chipmaker is preparing to bring out a faster Netbook processor, according to reports, but don't expect the kind of performance improvements common in its mainstream processor line.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

That Eee PC Netbook too slow? Well, it probably won't get much faster in 2009, according to reports, proving that Intel is not keen on revving up Atom to compete with itself.

Both Digitimes and Engadget are reporting that the Atom N280--an update of the 1.6GHz N270--will appear by the third quarter of this year and run at 1.66GHz.

This is a whopping 0.06GHz jump in speed--very underwhelming and very different than the performance fast track that consumers are used to with higher-end Intel Core architecture chips. It highlights a theme that will be repeated often in 2009: As Atom gains in popularity, Intel will have to manage the Atom platform so it doesn't imperil more lucrative processor lines.

Another theme that's emerging in 2009 is the Netbook--typically priced below $500--as the computer for the sinking economy, tailor-made for shrinking household budgets. In fact, a recent report from Forrester Research exhorts Netbook vendors to discourage this, saying they should "avoid the temptation" to tap into this sentiment.

"This cannibalization is bad for industry pricing," according to a report by Forrester analyst J. P. Gownder, citing statistics that say 23 percent of consumers say they are interested in buying a Netbook in lieu of "a more expensive laptop." (See chart.)

23 percent of U.S. adults are interested in Netbooks as a replacement for a more expensive laptop
About 23 percent of U.S. adults say they are interested in Netbooks as a replacement for a more expensive laptop Forrester Research

To be clear, Intel has always been quick to say that Atom is not designed as a high-performance processor and ardently tries to dampen excessive expectations. CEO Paul Otellini and other executives have stated clearly in many forums (regularly in earnings conference calls, for example) that Netbooks are a "complementary" device to a notebook and meant for casual Internet usage only.

And Intel is going to take this a step further later this year by plugging the hole between cheap Netbooks and pricey ultraportables with a new processor for less-expensive ultraportables. More than anything, this chip is meant to send a message: Netbook performance will be capped. Want something more than a Netbook? You will need to buy an ultraportable with a chip from Intel's more mainstream Core architecture lineup.

So, what are Intel's plans for Atom in 2009? Aside from tiny frequency improvements to the processor, Intel will increase the front-side bus--a data path between the processor and other silicon--from 533MHz to 667MHz, which will boost performance more than the teeny uptick in processor clock speed.

(Let's not forget the Atom Z540, which is targeted at handheld-size mobile Internet devices. This has been around since April and runs at 1.86GHz, a faster clock speed than the upcoming N280.)

The biggest improvement, however, will come in graphics. The Atom upcoming GN40 chipset will offer improved graphics performance and will be HD playback compatible, though there will be no Blu-ray logo.

Will this ability to handle HD discourage Netbook vendors from going with Nvidia's Ion processor? That may also be a theme that repeats itself in 2009. Nvidia's Ion platform, aimed at Netbooks, can do Blu-ray. Whether this will provide enough incentive to Netbook makers to include Ion--which appears to offer better graphics performance overall than the GN40--won't be clear until at least summer.

It also isn't necessarily a slam-dunk that Netbooks will rule in 2009. Remember the UMPC? I didn't think so.