Intel Atom N550 Notebooksby Balraj Sandhu on August 30, 2010 6:53 PM EST
Intel Atom N550 Notebooks
Intel has launched the latest version of their successful Atom processor, the N550. While the latest Intel Pineview Atom processors run at very low wattages, and allow very small form factor notebooks to be packaged around them, there has always been a fundamental issue: performance. The new N550 looks to correct this, with the biggest change being a move to dual cores.
The N550 carries over the same architectural benefits of the very popular, if sluggish, Pineview N450 including Hyper-Threading and 64-bit support. However, it adds on to that a second core, double the L2 Cache (1MB) and DDR3 RAM support. The core speed has dropped from 1.66GHz to 1.5GHz, presumably to keep the TDP down. The N550 is not the first dual-core Atom CPU Intel has made. They currently make a couple dual-core Atom processors, and in essence, this is the power binned netbook version of the D510.
So the nettop market has had the D510—and newer D525 with DDR3 support—for a while, and even when Atom first launched there was the Atom 330. While these CPUs are similar to the single-core Atom variants there are a few key changes. The reason these CPUs weren't used in netbooks—excepting a few ASUS models like the 1201N and the upcoming 1215PN—is the TDP and lack of power saving features. At 13W the 330 and D510 run too hot and consume too much power for practical implementation compared to the 5.5W N450. Add on to that the lack of SpeedStep, so the CPU runs at a constant 1.6GHz/1.66GHz, and as we measured on the 1201N battery life takes a serious dive. The new N550 fits somewhere between the N450 and D525 at 8.5W, but Intel claims battery life will be unaffected over the N450 thanks to power savings elsewhere—i.e. the use of more power friendly DDR3 RAM compared to DDR2 RAM.
It looks like RAM support is limited to just 2GB, which makes the 64-bit architecture a little less useful. Though bearing in mind these netbooks will probably ship with Windows 7 Starter, and the general type of work performed on netbooks, perhaps greater amounts of RAM aren’t required. The processor is also produced with a 45nm lithography process, again a little strange as the Arrandale Core i3/5/7 processors that have been available from the start of the year brought 32nm to the notebook market. The other strange one is that the integrated graphics looks unchanged from the anemic GMA 3150, clocked at a rather miserly 200MHz. Again, this is probably not a big deal for the use of netbooks, but it does mean HD video content (i.e. HD YouTube) will continue to need something more than just the Intel IGP. So NVIDIA's Next Generation ION and Broadcom's CrystalHD should still be of use in Atom netbooks.
Some early benchmarks show that there is certainly a performance benefit from the dual-core upgrade. Intel claims the new CPU will perform much better with Flash and with multimedia websites like YouTube and Hulu. Our own testing of various mini-ITX systems on the other hand suggests even dual-core Atom gets beat by the old dual-core CULV chips. While we aren't keen on the use of CULV in mini-ITX, considering the Clarkdale options available, for laptops and netbooks it still seems like CULV + 9400M (a.k.a. ION) could have made for an interesting combination—one that could very easily surpass even this new N550. But such a system doesn't seem likely, given Intel's move from the FSB architecture and EOL for Core 2 chips.
The netbook manufacturers are in the process of updating their netbooks to feature the latest processor. ASUS, who kicked off the netbook drive with their first Eee PC, has the Eee PC 1015n coming out, with a 10.1” (presumably 1366x768 given the presence of ION) display. It couples the Intel Atom N550 CPU with its integrated graphics core to a next generation NVIDIA ION GPU and uses NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology to switch between them providing vastly improved graphics performance while still maintaining good battery life. Rumors indicate it will include 1GB DDR3 RAM, 250GB HDD, HDMI out port, 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, a 6-cell battery rated to last 8 hours and Windows 7 Starter Edition. Estimated arrival is in September for around $399 if the Internet scuttlebutt is anything to go by.
Acer will also be launching the Aspire One D255, or AOD255 for short. It will be very similar to the outgoing AOD260 but will use the new N550 CPU. Outwardly, it remains largely untouched apart from some more color options. It has the same 10.1” screen at 1024x600, 1GB RAM, 250GB HDD, WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth and a 6-cell battery as before. Pricing and availability are unknown as yet, but we'd like it to be under $350 given the feature set. The only place we can find any N550 equipped netbooks right now is HSN, where the AO255 is priced at $400, which seems a bit too much for a 1GB netbook. We'll have to wait and see if other vendors are able to do better.
Lenovo will be updating their S10-3 netbook to feature the new processor too. Basic specifications are unlikely to deviate from the netbooks by ASUS and Acer with a 10.1” 1024x600 display, 1GB RAM, 250GB HDD, 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth and Windows 7 Starter. While it is already available for pre-order from some stores in Australia for a 7th September release, US pricing and availability are unknown as yet. Intel states that Fujitsu, LG, Samsung, MSI and Toshiba will have products using the latest Atom processor available, though no information on these has surfaced yet.
If you haven't jumped on the netbook bandwagon already, these new N550 offerings may be tempting. AMD's Bobcat is around four or five months away, but Intel's next Atom update isn't due out until sometime around the middle of 2011. That update goes by the codename Cedar Trail, and it will definitely improve on the current Atom designs. The CPU and GPU will become a single die, manufactured on a 32nm process, and Cedar Trail should finally get an IGP that can handle up to 1080p HD video decoding. It's not clear precisely what the IGP will be, and Atom has never been about raw performance, but a downsized Intel HD Graphics solution to replace the archaic GMA 3150 could do wonders. With both AMD and Intel coming out with new netbook-oriented designs, 2011 is shaping up to be quite interesting.