Dying Atoms: The Failure Of Low-Power x86 Processors
Introduction, Low-Power Computing Was Never Enjoyable
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.
Low-Power Computing Was Never Enjoyable
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.
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.