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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. 

 

May 6, 2012 | 11:37 PM - Posted by James Smith (not verified)

Just going to leap to the defence of the EeePC for a second here, then I'll return you to your scheduled bashing of equipment for not being able to do something it wasn't really designed to do!

My dad bought an Eee 701 4G a few years back. I've tried various Linux distros on it over the years along with a hacked-up WinXP install on a memory card, trying to find something that let it run with any kind of usable speed. Android-x86 was the answer in the end - sure, it'll never play HD video content smoothly but it's only got a 800x480 screen so what would be the point in trying? But it boots quickly, doesn't take up much of the meagre 4GB SSD, and doesn't consume the battery inside of six minutes.

Next project is dismantling the thing to squeeze a touch screen overlay in, which looks fairly straightforward with the kit that's winging it's way to us. Then the little machine should be good to go for another few years.

May 8, 2012 | 07:15 PM - Posted by intel_fanboy (not verified)

Wow, my head is spinning! Pure ARM based hyperbole. I really do hope you like your Windows 8 for ARM. You won't have a problem finding a machine for sale, on closeout in a year or two. You are banking on an operating system that is going to make Windows ME look respectable. Download the beta and try using it as your only computer for a week. You can't, it sucks so badly! The business model is a rip off of the iTunes store with 95% less apps. And you're cheering for it?

I enjoy my netbook, still to this day. No I don't watch Youtube on it, but when I meet with clients it's small and unobtrusive, and excellent for taking notes. Sure the Ultrabook will replace it someday, but it certainly won't be an ARM based product.

Apple brought ARM to the forefront of the market. They associated ARM with tablets and smartphones. Now, TSMC is stumbling to make enough 28nm GPUs for Nvidia, which is a very small market. What does Apple do? They run the third generation of their original A4 processor still at 40nm, throw some extra graphic onto the the A5 and sell this retread as the new iPad.

Pay close attention to Apple Matt. They are under the impression that their logo on top makes all the difference in the world and their devices are greater than the sum of their parts. The ARM foundries don't have enough capacity to supply 28nm to Apple well into next year. This means the largest fish in the pond will be working with Samsung 32nm processors instead of TSMC's 28nm processors that some of their competitors have. And while all of this happens Intel will be offering 22nm x86 low voltage processors. While ARM is sorting all of this out Intel will be moving into 14nm.

Some say its about engineering, but I disagree. It's all about what shows up to the market. Intel is about to spank ARMH hard on low power computing on a fabrication basis. They won't be able to keep up with Intel's manufacturing. iPad at 40nm in 2012 is just the writing on the wall. But go ahead an praise your 700mhz ARM based Roku2. If the world is based on ability to play back videos it's superior!

May 8, 2012 | 07:15 PM - Posted by intel_fanboy (not verified)

Wow, my head is spinning! Pure ARM based hyperbole. I really do hope you like your Windows 8 for ARM. You won't have a problem finding a machine for sale, on closeout in a year or two. You are banking on an operating system that is going to make Windows ME look respectable. Download the beta and try using it as your only computer for a week. You can't, it sucks so badly! The business model is a rip off of the iTunes store with 95% less apps. And you're cheering for it?

I enjoy my netbook, still to this day. No I don't watch Youtube on it, but when I meet with clients it's small and unobtrusive, and excellent for taking notes. Sure the Ultrabook will replace it someday, but it certainly won't be an ARM based product.

Apple brought ARM to the forefront of the market. They associated ARM with tablets and smartphones. Now, TSMC is stumbling to make enough 28nm GPUs for Nvidia, which is a very small market. What does Apple do? They run the third generation of their original A4 processor still at 40nm, throw some extra graphic onto the the A5 and sell this retread as the new iPad.

Pay close attention to Apple Matt. They are under the impression that their logo on top makes all the difference in the world and their devices are greater than the sum of their parts. The ARM foundries don't have enough capacity to supply 28nm to Apple well into next year. This means the largest fish in the pond will be working with Samsung 32nm processors instead of TSMC's 28nm processors that some of their competitors have. And while all of this happens Intel will be offering 22nm x86 low voltage processors. While ARM is sorting all of this out Intel will be moving into 14nm.

Some say its about engineering, but I disagree. It's all about what shows up to the market. Intel is about to spank ARMH hard on low power computing on a fabrication basis. They won't be able to keep up with Intel's manufacturing. iPad at 40nm in 2012 is just the writing on the wall. But go ahead an praise your 700mhz ARM based Roku2. If the world is based on ability to play back videos it's superior!

May 10, 2012 | 01:03 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Just bought a low power x86 ..i5 2400s Quad core :)

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