Intel Atom processors are Intel’s ultra-low powered processors which initially became popular for their use in netbooks. Not very long ago, this popularity grew when these super-affordable platforms started showing up in budget SFF (Small Form Factor) desktop PCs, commonly known as nettops. Since they consume very little power and are capable of running basic applications, they prove to be an ideal solution for basic computing in offices, for students and for daily computing chores. Casual Internet surfing, emails, cloud computing, VoIP, chat, office application and presentations are some of the examples where Atom-powered portables fit it.
While Intel Atom processors began with single-core variants belonging to the Z500 and N200 series of processors, such as the Z520, Z530, Z540, N270 and N280, dual-core variants are increasingly being used to keep up with the demands of the current Windows operating systems.
Customizing a machine
Atom processors are different from standard laptop and desktop processors that are bought separately to be used with a compatible motherboard. They come in embedded systems which means, they are integrated with the motherboard. For people who want to customize their PC using an Atom platform, manufacturers provide Atom-based motherboards for HTPCs and SFF desktop solutions. So you can buy such a motherboard and other core components separately, such as RAM and hard drive, to put them together and make your custom PC.
How to choose
If you choose to buy an Atom-powered netbook or nettop, then the best way to compare the performance of machines is to go by their hardware. There are various factors that determine whether one given Atom processor is better at number crunching than the other.
When comparing processors, you usually compare factors like number of cores, L2 (Level 2) cache, sometimes even L3 cache (for high-end machines), clock speed and so on. Let’s take a look at how crucial each of these factors is.
Number of cores
When you want a machine as powerful as an ultra-portable laptop, but in the form-factor of a netbook, choose a netbook powered by a dual-core Atom processor. The number of cores is perhaps the most important thing to consider when you want more processing power. If the product specification sheet says Intel Atom N330 or Intel Atom D510, you’re looking at a dual-core processor machine. On the other hand, single-core processors are more common; such as the N270, N280, Z530 and so on, but there’s a significant difference in their performance.
Although, the rule of the higher the clock speed the better the performance, applies, the number of cores plays a very vital role too. A dual-core processor running at a certain clock speed would perform twice as well than a single-core one running at the same speed. In any case, the difference in clock speeds of Atom processors is not too much, hence there’s very little difference in performance too.
Since netbooks are still far from using processors with L3 cache, let’s talk about what they currently offer. While 512 KB L2 cache is common to single-core variants, dual-core variants offer double the amount, for obvious reasons, and the rule higher the better applies here too.
When powerful hardware is used in ultra-portables like netbooks, the battery life suffers, which is why manufacturers sometimes use larger battery packs. But, this in turn makes the gadget heavier, which defeats the purpose of ultra-portability. So here’s how you can decide – if you want a better battery life, choose a netbook with an Atom Z500 series or N200 series processor. If you want more processing power, choose a dual-core processor such as the N330 or the D510, but be ready for a slight compromise on the battery life.
Though this story revolves mainly around Intel’s Atom processors, it’s worth mentioning that currently there are netbooks built around Nvidia’s Ion Platform. This is where a netbook is capable of performing GPU-intensive tasks, thanks to the presence of a discrete graphics card integrated into the system. Netbooks based on the Ion platform can even play HD movies and light gaming becomes one of their assets too, and, this is something that netbooks weren’t capable of earlier. So, if you want a super-portable, affordable and tiny laptop that plays HD movies and offers stupendous battery life, opt for a netbook built around Nvidia’s Ion platform and that features a dual-core processor.