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Dying Atoms: The Failure Of Low-Power x86 Processors

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Introduction, Low-Power Computing Was Never Enjoyable

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It was nearly five years ago that ASUS announced the first Eee PC model at Computex. That October the first production version of what would to be called a netbook, the ASUS Eee PC 4G, was released. The press latched on to the little Eee PC, making it the new darling of the computer industry. It was small, it was inexpensive, and it was unlike anything on the market.

Even so, the original Eee PC was a bit of a dead end. It used an Intel Celeron processor that was not suited for the application. It consumed too much power and took up a significant portion of the netbook’s production cost. If Intel’s Celeron had remained the only option for netbooks they probably would not have made the leap from press darling to mainstream consumer device.

It turned out that Intel (perhaps unintentionally) had the solution – Atom. Originally built with hopes that it might power “mobile Internet devices” it proved to be the netbook’s savior. It allowed vendors to squeeze out cheap netbooks with Windows and a proper hard drive.

At the time, Atom and the netbook seemed promising. Sales were great – consumers loved the cute, pint-sized, affordable computers. In 2009 netbook sales jumped by over 160% quarter-over-quarter while laptops staggered along with single-digit growth. The buzz quickly jumped to other products, spawning nettops, media centers and low-power all-in-one-PCs. There seemed to be nothing an Atom powered computer could not do.

Fast forward. Earlier this year, PC World ran an article asking if netbooks are dead. U.S. sales peaked in the first quarter of 2010 and have been nose-diving since then, and while some interest remains in the other markets, only central Europe and Latin America have held steady. It appears the star that burned brightest has indeed burned the quickest. 

But why?

Continue reading our editorial on the problems with low power x86 processors...

Low-Power Computing Was Never Enjoyable

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Netbooks didn’t have to work hard to become press darlings. Laptop Magazine declared there was “no way” they’d take a standard $400 laptop over the $399 ASUS Eee PC 701. Notebook Review gave the same product an editor’s choice, saying that the little computer rivaled systems costing thousands more. This parade of praise only became bolder as Atom-powered netbooks hit the market. PC Magazine published a netbook buying guide with a sub-title claiming that netbooks are “powerful.”

I was a recent college grad, which made me the perfect customer. My wallet was light but I needed something portable. In 2008 I purchased what was, at the time, the best netbooks on the market – Samsung’s NC10. Small, long-lasting and pleasurable to use, it was the perfect replacement to a bulky, expensive conventional laptop.

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Or so I thought when I bought it. I didn’t have to use the little NC-10 long to realize something was amiss. Article after loving article had convinced me that I wouldn’t see much difference between the netbook and a bigger system. But I did - instantly. This supposed web wonder choked the moment it saw Adobe Flash and took ages to load OpenOffice. Games? Forget about it. I didn’t expect it to handle 3D, but I was surprised to find that even some 2D online games written in JavaScript and Flash lagged hopelessly. YouTube stuttered along – and this was long before widespread availability of HD content. 

My disappointment eventually went critical. I packed the NC-10 up, put it for sale on Amazon and listed it at the lowest used price. Out the door it went two days later. With no money to spend I had little choice but to dig out my old Lenovo ThinkPad. While its battery was pathetic, the three year old laptop was in all other respects better to use than the NC-10 I’d bought to replace it.

I wasn’t alone in my skepticism. Stuart Pann, who at the time was Intel’s vice president of sales and marketing, prophetically stated in late 2008 that “We view the netbook as mostly incremental to our total available market.” He was right. Netbooks started to lose their luster in 2009 as promised improvements to performance never appeared. By 2010, sales were in retreat. 

Consumers, like me, had bought netbooks – and found them to be lacking not just because they were small but also because Atom itself was slow. The promises of adequate performance had not been delivered. 

 

April 27, 2012 | 06:47 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I have to defend the NC10 a bit here; I've used one for around 3.5 years as my only portable with a desktop to handle more CPU hungry tasks when needed.
I knew it wasn't going to game or play HD video overly well when I bought it so I wasn't disappointed - SD video works ok and there’s plenty of audio only content that is still interesting to listen to. Basic tasks still complete quick enough - writing / coding, web browsing and listening to music to name a few and to be honest that’s more or less all I want from a portable.
If you're going to get at most 4 years out of a laptop before you replace it and if you can make a netbook work for you then what’s the point in spending double or triple as much for a device that you're going to get the same amount of use out of?

Obviously there’s no comparing the Atom to the 2500 in my desktop. It’s much faster and that should go without saying. What should also go without saying though is that I use them for completely different things. Sure, if I ever need to do any large amounts of audio editing or spin up a server 2k8 VM when I'm on the road the NC10 will fail me and I'll be stuck. How many times have I wanted to do this in the past 3.5 years? 0.
While you're all spending £700/800+ on a computer which some of you will replace in 2 years, I'll be happy with my £320 NC10 which I'll be able to repurpose / sell once I need to replace it.

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April 27, 2012 | 08:06 AM - Posted by Searching4Sasquatch (not verified)

Intel and AMD have had decades to make x86 viable for ultra low power markets. ARM is behind the iOS and Android push for better consumer devices, not x86. Give them the blank check ability of Microsoft and we just might see WinRT be the kick in the pants the industry needs.

April 27, 2012 | 08:14 AM - Posted by dragosmp (not verified)

Don't wanna pick straws, I think this article is correct in more ways than one, but to say this about E-series "it’s still inadequate for modern games and 1080p is not smooth through some sources" - I mean 1080p on a 1024x600 screen - why on earth would you want that? Even on 1366x768 1080p is overkill.

The portability of the 10"-11" form factor is important and while the Air can provide better performance and weight, ultrabooks cost @1000$. The Brazos and Atoms of the world will survive on this niche: 300$ & 8hour & 2 pound with "enough" performance. 1080p and HD Flash are a reasonable sacrifices imho when the alternative - the ultrabooks - they cost twice as much.

April 27, 2012 | 08:48 AM - Posted by Matt Smith

You're right. That's a mistake I've made before.

There may be some survival of Atom & Brazos in a niche...but I suspect options are going to be extremely limited. Now that volume is down, companies are starting to turn their nose up to these low margin machines.

April 27, 2012 | 10:44 AM - Posted by JF (not verified)

I have to agree with the author, the netbook just can't make it.
Many people say that a netbook is good for simple tasks like writing, web browsing, reading, etc, but I spent a year using the acer aspire one and it just can't handle daily tasks. I still haven't found a way to hit just one key at once, the trackpad is just terrible and the web browsing, well, it works when it comes to a simple google search, but it fails when it comes to more complex websites. I wonder how terrible it will be with webgl/html5 websites. Also, on the reading, netbooks just can't handle PDF. Sure, 3 or 4 pages PDF without images, it will do, but 100+ pages PDFs, forget it.

April 27, 2012 | 11:27 AM - Posted by NJC2 (not verified)

It's called a NETbook for a reason. If you want to watch 1080p HD video, the the netbook obviously isn't for you. If you bought a Toyota Prius, would you complain and declare hybrid cars dead because they can't keep up with Ferraris and Porches at the race track?

When it came time to upgrade my notebook, the key features I wanted was better portability and better battery than what I had (14" 1024x768 screen and ~3ish hours). I bought a 13" Dell notebook, but the 13" widescreen platform was hardly smaller than the older 14" non-widescreen notebook it replaced. The battery life was better, but it didn't matter since it was too big and bulky to haul around and it wound up staying in the hotel plugged in all the time.

I bought the EeePC 4G when it came out and ended up ditching the Dell. The Eee did everything I needed and was hardly noticeable carrying it around. A year later I bought the EeePC 901, upgraded it to a 32GB SSD, and I still use it today. I will be upgrading when the newer Atom processors come out later this year.

April 27, 2012 | 12:41 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

If I bought a Prius, I would be unhappy if I found it guzzling gas.

The NETbook is not good for viewing things on the net. The processor can be baffled by flash or javascript in any form, be them ads, video or games. There's also not enough power to handle more than few tabs without causing noticeable performance degradation.

It's great that you like your Eee PC, but if it does everything you need it to, you must not need it to do much.

April 27, 2012 | 01:25 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

And there are some who *don't* need to do much.

The question, I think, is whether there's anyone who only needs what an Atom can do, but who would also not be better suited with something else.

I *believe* that was the takeaway message from your article?

-----

Though personally I believe that there will be a segment of people who need no more than what the Atom could provide... but cannot be serviced by an ARM alternative.

We'll find out more after Windows 8 stirs the pot, I guess.

April 27, 2012 | 09:19 PM - Posted by NJC2 (not verified)

A Prius is designed to get good gas mileage, and you would be justified in complaining if it guzzled gas. A a netbook is designed for light net based tasks, yet you are complaining because it doesn't do something it wasn't designed to do in the first place. It's like buying a Prius and expecting it to keep up with sports cars at the race track and complaining when it doesn't.

The biggest problem with netbooks is people expecting them to do more than they are designed to do. I bought my netbook fully knowing that it couldn't do HD video and play games, but I was actually surprised that it can do more than browse the internet. It plays SD video's on YouTube and other video services just fine, runs LibreOffice just fine, plays SD recordings copied from my HTPC (which is an Atom 330/NVIDIA ION that plays 1080p HDTV and blu-ray disks while consuming a measly 15 watts of power). Even at my desktop I have my netbook sitting beside me so I can use it to do things while playing games without having to alt-tab out or quit the game. Right now I have Firefox open with 5 tab groups, and a total of 21 tabs open. I even have Steam loaded on it with a few games to keep me busy when I have nothing else to do. I didn't expect it to be able to handle that, but it does.

The only thing I don't like is the 1024x600 screen resolution. I wish the 10" models would have at least been upped to 1280x800 by now, or at least 1366x768. That's the only reason I haven't upgraded to a newer netbook by now. The new ones might be slightly faster and get better battery, but it's not enough to justify an upgrade. That is probably the reason for declining sales. People who already have netbooks and use them for what they're designed for have no reason to upgrade to newer models.

April 27, 2012 | 11:28 AM - Posted by collie (not verified)

There is still a point to the low powered cpu, but it is a niche group. Going fan-less and cheap on a windows system, there just isn't much choice other than an atom due to it's low thermal envelope. When intel releases the "pentium" and "celeron" versions of ivy bridge though, we might see that change. Guess we just have to wait and see.

April 27, 2012 | 11:54 AM - Posted by matt (not verified)

Netbooks needed to die when they first came out. I used to be shirt and tie at a particular big box retailer (there are some of us who actually knew what the hell we were doing) and I can't tell you how many of those things were returned on a constant basis. Returns were about 50% on those things. We did our best to steer most people away from them, but some just needed to try the under-powered little pieces of crap.

They are good at nothing but have a long battery life. Well, I guess you'll need it since every task takes eons longer on a netbook.

April 27, 2012 | 11:54 AM - Posted by matt (not verified)

Netbooks needed to die when they first came out. I used to be shirt and tie at a particular big box retailer (there are some of us who actually knew what the hell we were doing) and I can't tell you how many of those things were returned on a constant basis. Returns were about 50% on those things. We did our best to steer most people away from them, but some just needed to try the under-powered little pieces of crap.

They are good at nothing but have a long battery life. Well, I guess you'll need it since every task takes eons longer on a netbook.

April 27, 2012 | 12:04 PM - Posted by Annoyingmouse (not verified)

I had a first generation MSI Wind, and I used it quite regularly. It ran pretty well and did fine with common tasks. I think it's the trends of second generation netbooks that really killed them: glossy screens, and Windows 7 which paired with an Atom and a 5400RPM HD will bog down to a standstill if you have the audacity to double click anything at all, ever.

I agree that the Atom is hopelessly out of date, and I won't miss it one bit.

April 27, 2012 | 12:38 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

It also helps if you can look after your computer. Out of the box the NC10 was terrible. Reinstall Windows, upgrade to 2GB of ram and it gets much better, plus you can use a few tweaks to cut down on hardly noticeable animations in Windows which makes it seem much snappier.

Part of the reason why I still stand by my netbook is that in the UK at least, all of the sub £500 laptops have 15.6 displays. Seriously. I don't want a 15.6 display! If its a fat laptop then it's even worse.
If there was something that was more or less the same form factor as a netbook but gave me much more power for an extra £100 or so then yes, that would change things quite a bit. As it stands, the only hope you have of getting something like this is if you go used which I'd really rather not do.

April 27, 2012 | 03:02 PM - Posted by aussiebear (not verified)

I only see Atom useful in specific markets.
(1) Smartphones.
(2) Tablets.
(3) Dumb terminals.
(4) Embedded systems.

...I don't see it working well as a mainstream consumer desktop product. Netbooks/Nettops should be scrapped. (Better to have low voltage versions of Sandy/Ivy Bridge.)

April 27, 2012 | 04:18 PM - Posted by cyow

Friends,

We are gathered here today, as you are all aware, to pay our last tributes and respects to the memory of our departed friend, the Atoms CPU

The passing of our friend as an individual is a matter more of interest and regret than usually associated with the passing away of an ordinary individual . . .
It means not only the passing away by death of our late friend, but the passing away of a race of CPU'S.
It is, therefore, a unique and historic occasion, and one that seldom arises in the history of CPU kind.
The deceased was the last surviving of Slow full blood CPU'S. A race of CPU's who were the original inhabitants of these eeePC Like most CPU'S who possess something uncommon, he had come to be regarded by us as something unusual, and we prided ourselves on the fact.

Now. . . around this open grave . . . we are conscious that something has happened, and . . . we realise the loss sustained by his death. This large gathering amply suggests the esteem in which he was not held by.
We all remember his genial expression and love of being slow and always received the result whether he won or lost with the same broad slow pace . . . He attracted notice wherever he went, and the press made the most of his periodic visits to the mainland to announce his presence there. Now he is gone, and the race, as a race, is extinct.”

"ashes to ashes dust to dust"

April 27, 2012 | 05:21 PM - Posted by Boz (not verified)

I've got desktops, laptops, an adroid-based tablet but if I'm travelling I always pack the basic NetBook first.Often that's all I take. It's a basic eMachine em350 albeit with 2G RAM, cost $220 incl RAM upgrade.

Why? It does everything I need.

- It will (just) play 720p mkv files so I've got video. It easily plays XVID etc.
- It can take an SD card immediately from my camera.
- It will charge my phone via USB, it browses the web fine
- It weighs a tiny amount
- It has a keyboard
- I'm happy with the trackpad, I don't need a mouse.
- It runs real programs fine e.g. Office and basic photo edit suites e.g. just to crop photos etc
- I can hook it to a presentation device via VGA
- It seems to take all kings of abouse, albeit I keep in it a neoprene case, $3 from eBay. NO external facing screen to damage.

Plus, it's so cheap if I do break it etc, or it gets stolen, it's not a big deal....

April 27, 2012 | 06:22 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I've used the King Kong of netbooks, the Lenovo S12, for several years. The S12 has a 12" 1024x800 pixel screen, an ION graphic processor, and 2 Gigs of RAM. Although the S10 is sluggish compared to heavier more power hungry laptops, it is funcitonal for nongaming activities. The iPad is my first choice for the lazy consumption of content around the house, but the 1 GHz Atom powered S12 is the real computer that prefer I take with me when I travel.

The Atom may be obsolete, but the netbook concept is still valid. The industry should be able to combine the display and processing power of an iPad with a keyboard and a couple of USB ports to make a $600 netbook that kicks ass.

April 27, 2012 | 06:52 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

This article should have been titled differently. It's actually about a dying form-factor, not the processors.

The Atom was and still is absolutely great in a limited-purpose machine like an HTPC. The NetBook was not the correct place for the processor and has no future but the processors themselves are just fine if used for a task that is appropriately bounded.

April 27, 2012 | 06:52 PM - Posted by Mark Harry (not verified)

I went to Wal-Mart to buy my wife a netbook and the guy helping me asked if my wife played games on Facebook? Well of course she does, he stopped dead in his tracks and said "This thing isn't even capable of that", saved by a lowly Wal-Mart employee. Thanked him profusely for saving me the grief.

April 27, 2012 | 07:05 PM - Posted by Tijok

I've never been more confused about an article and its comments in my life.

I was a big fan of netbooks when they released, and used a N270 based Acer Aspire One for years before trading up for a K125 based One, and am typing this now on an E-350 based HP DM1z. I have never once seen the issues described in this article and its comments.

Even with the original AAO, with completely horrible 945G graphics, I could watch online video fine, and even played Warcraft III all the time. It wasn't high computing requirements, but I was playing games on a netbook, so some slack had to be cut.

I also never even remotely saw nearly this much issue with web browsing and document editing. Seriously, what the hell documents are you guys opening? I never even had problems running Matlab or Solidworks on my netbooks, easily the most challenging parts of my mobile workload.

I fully understand that the platforms benchmark terribly and whatnot, but come on, my DM1z played Trine perfectly smoothly, while my partner's $1200 brand new Macbook Pro collapsed into a jittery mess.

All of this may be anecdotal, but that has to count for something.

April 27, 2012 | 08:12 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

OBVIOUSLY this idiot never had kids.

April 27, 2012 | 10:14 PM - Posted by cyow

I have a eeePC and it work hard and was good fro when I was out and a about and need to get my email and OK for some small web stuff and movies from time to time.

but the Atom CPU was just to slow for me do anything real useful If the speed was faster it would have kept it going for a year or two more.

But my kids did love use it.

April 27, 2012 | 10:41 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I was SO happy when a friend on mine asked me to help him with this new "tiny" laptop he bought. I laughed when he showed it to me and cried when I tried to do ANYTHING on it. I have no idea what make/model netbook it was but it was TERRIBLE... for EVERYTHING!
Web surfing? Prepare to wait.
YouTube? Prepare to wait.
Content creation? Forget it.
The most basic, 2d, ancient game? No chance in hell.

The reason I was happy? He saved me wasting my money on an already dead form factor. When I first read about netbooks, I was interested. When I first used a netbook, I was horrified!

Good riddance to a bad idea.

April 28, 2012 | 12:20 AM - Posted by Freddofrog42 (not verified)

It strikes me that this forum is populated by esoteric pillocks who think of dissing any product because it won't play 3D games, HD (1080p) video etc etc.

A NetBook is just a portable device which is massively more portable than a laptop and more useful than a tablet, be it Apple or Android, and it just works fine for 99% of real users who just want to browse the web, get email, listen to some music or just edit a few photos.

It's all I take on a trip, it's very useful niche product.

It's as simple as that, it weighs and costs next to nothing so what's your issue?

FF

April 30, 2012 | 01:19 AM - Posted by ET3D (not verified)

That's true for a netbook, but the article is not just about netbooks. Nettops have also been using Atoms, and they are often meant for media playback, so 1080p matters. Gaming? I agree, it's more of a niche market.

As for the 99% of users who want to browse the web, get email and listen to some music, tablets are usually better, which is why netbooks are dying. A keyboard isn't necessary much of the time for most people. Saving its weight is a boon for traveling. A touch screen with a suitable interface is also more comfortable than Windows with a touchpad. Tablets have been a bit pricey, but they're going down in price, and are already in netbook territory, which makes them an attractive alternative.

April 28, 2012 | 05:01 AM - Posted by Bryan (not verified)

If your needing to play 1080p video and 3d graphics while being small and light weight your going to have to pay for it through the ultrabook route.

The other niche the atom is used for is x86 micro servers.

April 29, 2012 | 07:43 AM - Posted by collie man (not verified)

Here it is, the 200th pc per podcast, "Episode 200, Atom, Dead Or alive, And who cares?"

May 1, 2012 | 09:00 PM - Posted by Ezra (not verified)

Atoms sucks, plain and simple. All my wife wanted to do was browse the web, pay bills online, and listen to music. Yeah, great purchase wife!
She didn't know any better though. I upgraded it to 2gb of ram with Win7, and it was still slower than dirt. Sure, the startup time wasn't bad, but that's it.
The battery performance was obviously great because the Atom did nothing useful. The longer you had it on the battery, the slower it would run when it got closer to emptying.
Office apps? No, a P4 with HT & DDR ram runs Office 2007 faster. Yeah, I said faster.

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