by Ilya Gavrichenkov
01/14/2010 | 08:29 AM
One of the key tendencies that was dominating the computer market in the past year 2009 was wide spreading of low-power inexpensive computer systems. The netbook and nettop concept introduced by Intel back in 2008 proved extremely successful and came in very handy in the light of the global economic meltdown. As a result, we see steady growth in the market for these inexpensive computer systems. Netbooks and nettops became so popular partially due to the fact that Intel launched their special Atom processor that became the basis for a very successful hardware platform for these systems. Although this CPU based on independent CISC microarchitecture doesn’t set any performance records, it is not only very affordable, but also consumes extremely little power and dissipates very little heat. As a result, this CPU can be used in compact system cases and work with passive cooling solutions.
Until recently, netbooks and nettops only used first-generation Atom codenamed Diamondville. I have to admit that even though the platforms built around this processor received a pretty warm welcome from the market, they were not absolutely issue-free. There were two major drawbacks: extremely low performance and absence of adequate chipsets. The systems based on the first-generation Atom processors are barely powerful enough for the simplest applications and primitive Internet activity. Slightly more complex tasks such as HD video playback or fully-fledged use of Adobe Flash technology turn out beyond the capacity of most contemporary netbooks and nettops. The i945GC and i945GSE chipsets from Intel designed for Atom processors feature very high heat dissipation, which has a negative effect on the overall platform parameters. Nvidia tried to partially fix the issue by introducing their vision of inexpensive compact systems – the ION platform. By using Intel Atom processor together with their GeForce 9300 chipset, which could accelerate HD video playback and help during more complex computational tasks thanks to CUDA technology support, Nvidia managed to significantly increase the possible application fields for netbook sand nettops. However, power consumption and heat dissipation also are not the strongholds of Nvidia chipsets. ION based nettops are even less energy-efficient than their counterparts built using Intel components. And netbooks on GeForce 9300 have never really become widely spread, because they require high-capacity and pretty expensive batteries.
In other words, the circumstances have long required a refresh of the netbook and nettop platform. Especially, since the launch that took place in 2008 Diamondville processor family hasn’t really changed: so far it has only included single-and dual-core processors operating at 1.6-1.66 GHz frequencies. That is why we are very excited about the recent launch of the new Atom processors from the next generation called Pineview. Moreover, at the same time they also introduced a new Pine Trail platform including Intel NM10 Express chipset. However, did this platform refresh help Intel eliminate all the nettops and netbook issues? Let’s try to answer this question today, especially, since we managed to get our hands on the new Intel D510MO mainboard representing the real implementation of the new Pine Trail platform.
During the enhancement of mobile and desktop processors, Intel sticks to the so-called “tick-tock” strategy. The idea of this strategy is that when a new CPU generation comes to replace the existing one, they either change the manufacturing process for processor dies, or introduce new microarchitectural improvements. However, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to Pineview processors that are the heart of the Pine Trail platform: Intel took a totally different approach here. They gave up their “tick-tock” principle, and to our great regret we have to admit that Pineview remained very similar to the old Diamondville in many aspects.
Namely, there were no microarchitectural improvements of any kind in the new Atom processors. It remained the same CPU with CISC computational cores supporting serial commands processing, Hyper-Threading technology and x86 instructions. Pineview didn’t even get any new SSE instructions, just like the Diamondville: the new CPUs only have the latest SSE3 instructions set. The manufacturing process also remained the same. Although Intel already has 32 nm production process in place, they will still manufacture new-generation Atom processors using 45 nm technology.
However, it would still be incorrect to believe that the new Atom processor is an exact copy of the old one. When Intel engineers designed Pine Trail platform they focused on its overall restructuring making sure that it would be modified according to the current tendencies. In other words, the developers decided to give up the sinking into oblivion FSB bus and combined the processor and chipset North Bridge in a single chip. As a result, the new Atom processor turned out somewhat similar to the new Clarkdale, which we have just reviewed in our latest article: from now on netbook and nettop processors will contain not only computational cores but also a memory controller and a graphics core.
Single-core Pineview die
At the same time, Pineview processors can even boast higher level of integration than Clarkdale CPUs: all their components are located within a single processor die. Moreover, Intel is going to use a special individual die for the dual-core new-generation Atom processors instead of combining two single-core processors within the same packaging as they used to do before.
Dual-core Pineview processor die
As a result, semiconductor dies for new netbook and nettop processors turned out pretty complex: for instance, dual-core Pineview contains 317 million transistors and is 87 mm2 big, which is comparable to the corresponding numbers for Wolfdale processor dies used in Core 2 Duo CPUs from E7000 series.
Dual-core Pineview processor
Nevertheless, the production cost of the new Atom processors is still low enough to ensure that the total price of the Pine Trail platform is lower than that of a platform based on an LGA775 Celeron processor.
In fact, being newly designed platform components, the memory controller and graphics core integrated into the Pineview processor can’t boast very impressive specifications, unfortunately. It looks like Intel engineers weren’t trying to increase the performance of their Atom processors. Otherwise, we are simply unable to explain why they integrated a single-channel memory controller into the new CPU modification. Nevertheless, this controller supports DDR2-667/800 SDRAM, that is why compared with the systems built around previous-generation Atom processors and i945GC and i945GSE chipsets it can still boast slightly better performance.
The same cosmetic changes have been made to the graphics core. Pineview features Intel Graphics media Accelerator 3150 graphics core that differs from the GMA950 integrated into i945GC and i945GSE chipsets only by higher clock frequency (which is not always the case). Other than that we see no improvements of any kind. This graphics core can’t provide acceptable 3D performance by today’s standards: it features only four pixel pipelines and is compatible only with DirectX 9.0c. Also, Intel didn’t care to provide their graphics core with means for hardware acceleration of high-definition video playback. GMA3150 only supports hardware MPEG-2 decoding, while just as popular VC-1 and H.264 formats again remained left out. It means that the base Pine Trail configuration can’t be considered an all-purpose multimedia platform.
But it is especially sad that Intel engineers have seriously restricted the maximum screen resolutions supported by GMA3150. In case of digital connection it supports only 1366x768, and as for high resolutions (up to 2048x1536), you will only be able to use it with analogue D-Sub interface, which is hardly a successful implementation.
All this suggests that third-party chipsets for Pineview with an external graphics core boasting richer functionality, such as the mythical ION 2, do make a lot of practical sense. Unfortunately, there is still a question as to whether they will in fact appear any time soon. The thing is that by moving the North Bridge into the CPU Intel gave up the FSB bus in their Pine Trail platform. As a result, they use DMI bus to connect the processor with the chipset in the new platform, just like they do in LGA1156 platforms. This bus used to connect the chipset North and South Bridges before. However, neither Nvidia, nor any other third-party developers have the license to manufacture chipsets supporting this interface.
Speaking of the new Atom processors, we have to state that they do not really differ from their predecessors in terms of their formal specifications. Their clock frequency is still at the same 1.66 GHz, they still have one or two computational cores, and the amount of L2 cache memory per core still remained at 512 KB. As a result, Pineview launch added two new processor models to the low-end desktop Atom lineup:
As for the netbook space, Intel can only offer one new Pineview Atom CPU at this time. There will be no dual-core Atom processors for netbooks.
As you can see from the tables above, new Atom processors became considerably more complex than their predecessors due to new functional units integrated into them. And it has certainly increased their power consumption rates. But on the other hand, increased CPU complexity allowed to make the chipset design much simpler: it now has only one chip instead of two – the South Bridge.
The new chipset, which now consists just of the South Bridge, is called Intel Nm10 Express. It is nothing special and offers the required minimum of external interfaces that should make Pine Trail a pretty fully-functional platform. It supports two SATA-300 ports, eight USB 2.0 ports, Intel HD Audio, 100 Mbps LAN and four PCI Express x1 lanes, that can be combined into single PCI Express x4 interface if necessary.
Unlike ICH7 South Bridge included with i945GC and i945GSE chipsets, the new South Bridge has slightly more limited functionality when it comes to ATA devices support, but Mini-ITX mainboards for nettops and especially netbooks should do just fine with two SATA ports.
Intel NM10 Express chip
I have to say that they use a pretty old 130 nm process to manufacture NM10 chipset. However, even despite this fact, reducing the number of chipset components to one and eliminating the individual chipset North Bridge allowed lowering the total Pine Trail platform heat dissipation by about 50% compared with nettop platforms on Diamondville and by about 20% compared with Diamondville configurations for netbooks. This particular feature, and not the increased performance, is the primary advantage of the new Intel platform for compact computer systems.
Moreover, Pine Trail boasts a few other advantages that will be pretty significant for OEMs and system integrators. The use of simpler platform design made the mainboard production considerably cheaper, because it allowed using four-layer PCBs instead of six-layer ones. And the lowering in heat dissipation makes it possible to design nettops equipped only with passive cooling solutions. As for the netbook developers, they should value the fact that the new CPU + chipset combo takes way less space on the PCB, so that they could continue designing even smaller systems.
Coming back to the discussion of the system performance, we should mention that this time Intel considered the possibility of “official” upgrade of their Pine Trail platform to ensure that it could play HD video. In this case the company offers an external Broadcom BCM70015 decoder-chip connected to the NM10 chipset via PCI Express bus. Note that not only the system makers will be able to use this upgrade option, but also the end users. There will be similar solutions for end-users in Mini PCI-E expansion card format.
In other words, Pine Trail platform enhanced with a Broadcom chip will become a pretty worthy competitor to Nvidia ION, which became very popular specifically due to its ability to accelerate high-definition video playback on the hardware level.
Most leading mainboard makers will eventually offer a wide range of solutions built around Pine Trail platform. For our introduction to Pineview Intel offered us their solution, D510MO, which can be considered a reference product on one hand, but also a mass production solution already available in retail, on the other.
Just like most nettop mainboards built around previous-generation Atom processors, Intel D510MO is designed in miniature Mini-ITX form-factor and measures 170x170 mm. most of the board is covered with a pretty large black aluminum heatsink. This heatsink cools the primary chip on D510MO – dual-core Atom D510 processor.
Intel Nm10 chipset, however, works without any cooling at all, which is in fact not surprising at all, because in reality it is just a South Bridge.
Note that Atom D510 based system doesn’t need a 12 V processor power connector. Due to an energy-efficient CPU and chipset, all mainboard components receive sufficient power through a standard 24-pin ATX connector. Moreover, the processor cooling system is fanless, just as they have promised: one “naked” heatsink is definitely more than enough to dissipate the heat from a CPU with 13 W TDP.
So, Intel D510MO allows building completely noiseless systems. Nevertheless, it might be a good idea to install a small fan on top of the mainboard heatsink if you are using a very small system case. Anyway, there is a three-pin fan connector onboard and the BIOS offers all necessary options for fan rotation speed control.
Dual-chip design of the Pine Trail platform frees enough space for expansion slots even on a miniature Mini-ITX mainboard:
Besides the PCI slot that was already present on nettop mainboards built around previous-generation Atom processors, Intel engineers also found room for a minim PCI-E slot, which may be extremely handy for all sorts of additional devices. Among them can also be the Broadcom BCM70015 hardware HD video decoder mentioned above, or wireless WiFi or WiMAX network card, for instance.
Intel D510MO has two standard DDR2 DIMM slots for the memory. This is a pretty significant improvement compared with the previous-generation nettop mainboards, which normally have only one memory slot onboard. But don’t get overexcited just yet: both slots are connected to the only memory channel implemented in Pineview that is why the only practical advantage of having an extra DIMM slot is the opportunity to use up to 4 GB of memory.
As for storage devices, the board is equipped with two SATA-300 ports and one special USB 2.0 pin-port for Intel Z-U130 SSD or other compatible drives. Besides that, the board features six regular USB 2.0 ports, four of which are laid out on the mainboard connector panel. There you can also see three analogue audio-jacks, Fast Ethernet connector and PS.2 connectors for keyboard and mouse.
There is an analogue D-Sub out on Intel D510MO for the monitor. Unfortunately, there are no digital interfaces, like DVI or HDMI, on this platform. And that seems to be the most serious drawback of Intel D510MO mainboard. However, keeping in mind that this mainboard will be priced at $75 and is targeted for the cheapest desktop platforms, its functionality seems to be quite adequate for its target market.
Since we had a mainboard with the new dual-core Atom D510 processor, which is a practical Pine Trail implementation, we decided to compare this platform against older systems built around dual-core Atom processors. This way we are going to have a combination of Atom D510 processor and Intel NM10 Express chipset compete against a combination of dual-core Atom 330 processor and Intel 945GC chipset, as well as Nvidia ION platform using the same dual-core Intel Atom 330 CPU. So, we managed to cover all major configurations with dual-core processors used in contemporary nettops.
Below is the list of hardware and software components used during this test session:
We rarely use purely synthetic benchmarks, but this time we decided to pay certain attention to benchmarks from SiSoftware Sandra 2010 suite. The thing is that they help estimate the performance of individual processor units separate from the performance of the platform as a whole. Therefore, the use of these tests confirms that Pineview processors do not have any microarchitectural improvements.
Atom D510 processor demonstrates very insignificant advantage over Atom 330. And this difference is obviously determined by only one factor: slightly higher clock frequency. In other words, obtained numbers clearly indicate that the microarchitecture of the new Atom (Pineview) processors is not any different from the microarchitecture of the previous generation Atom CPUs (Diamondville).
The second synthetic benchmark that we used for our investigation of Pine Trail platform performance is the memory sub-system test from the Lavalys Everest 5.30 diagnostic utility.
And here we see some progress. Atom D510 is significantly ahead of the previous generation platform in terms of memory sub-system performance. And that is still the case despite the fact that it uses a single-channel memory controller. However, the increased practical bandwidth of the memory sub-system and its lower latency in new generation nettop platform can easily be explained by the increase in the DDR2 SDRAM frequency from 533 to 800 MHz as well as the elimination of the FSB bus that used to serve as a connecting link between the processor and the memory controller in the old platform and no longer exists in the new one.
When we compare the results demonstrated by Atom D510 and Atom 330 processors with Intel chipsets of different generations, we have to admit that the new Pine Trail platform doesn’t offer any revolutionary changes. The performance increase is no more than 20%, which is obviously not enough to help the new Intel platform indisputably outperform ION with an old Atom 330. Although we should keep in mind that Nvidia ION only shows its real advantages when some of the operational load is taken over the graphics core. That is why in most cases new Pine Trail platform performs better.
We resorted to Futuremark peacekeeper test to compare the testing participants during most typical type of nettop usage (according to Intel): Internet surfing and web-sites browsing. This test measures the browser performance during web-page rendering. All tests were performed using two most popular Internet browsers: Internet Explorer 8 and Mozilla Firefox 3.6.
The results of the new Atom D510 processor look very decent against the background of the Atom 330. But objectively speaking, I have to say that any Atom processors are still not fast enough for Flash-applications. For example, we can clearly see that from the results in multi-user online 3D arcade game called TankiOnline:
Of course, Atom D510 is about 20% faster than its predecessor, but it is still insufficient for achieving acceptable fps rate even if we use a relatively low resolution.
As we very well know, archiving speed depends a lot on the memory sub-system performance. Therefore, it is not surprising that an Atom D510 based platform using faster DDR2-800 SDRAM performs better than a system with Atom 330, where the memory speed is limited by 533 MHz FSB bus.
Antivirus software also works faster on Pine Trail platform. Although we complained about the absence of any microarchitectural improvements that could increase the overall performance, simple transfer of the memory controller from the chipset into the processor die can often pay back real well.
The new platform demonstrates minimal performance advantage during image processing in Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.
Audio encoding is another typical computational task that doesn’t require any serious work with the memory sub-system. Therefore, the advantage of the new Atom D510 processor is only 4% in this case, as this is by how much its clock frequency is higher than that of the Atom 330.
Our utility of choice for audio transcoding can use the graphics processor to speed things up. Therefore, the results demonstrated by the ION platform are way better than those shown by Intel competitors, which can’t boast a high-performance and programmable graphics core like Nvidia. As for the results of the new Atom D510 processor, it managed to trasncode a video into an iPhone compatible format 10% faster than its predecessor – Atom 330.
As we have pointed out before, Atom based systems are not fast enough to serve even as low-end gaming systems. New Pine Trail platform doesn’t change anything here. The integrated GMA3150 graphics core has very weak 3D performance, and besides, the CPU is also not an acceptable solution for computer gaming. As a result, even old games run unbearably slow on Pine Trail.
Nettops and netbooks were initially not intended for high-definition video playback: the potential of Intel Atom processors, even of dual-core ones, was not enough for smooth video playback in 1080p resolution. However, Nvidia decided to disagree with the designers of Atom processors and offered a GeForce 9300 chipset for this CPU that could provide the necessary hardware support for decoding of HD video in popular formats. This company turned netbooks and nettops into multimedia centers, that is why the users desire to watch HD video on compact and inexpensive solutions is no longer considered something out of the ordinary.
Unfortunately, Pine Trail platform can’t be considered a real response to Nvidia ION. GMA3150 graphics core integrated into the new generation Atom processors supports hardware video decoding only for MPEG-2 format. As we have just seen from our benchmark results, the actual Pineview processor is barely different from the previous generation Atom CPUs in computational power. Therefore, mainboards built around Pineview processor and NM10 Express chipset won’t be able to become a multimedia platform.
To get a better idea of the real state of things we tried to watch several different movies in 1080p resolution recorded in different formats. The diagrams below show the number of frames per second displayed by the media player during video playback. For our tests we used a movie in H.264 format (Dark Knight), VC-1 format (Iron Man) and MPEG-2 format (Resident Evil). For the software video player we used Media Player Classic Home Cinema.
The results speak for themselves. Only ION platforms could provide fully-fledged video playback without any frame losses in all three cases. Pine Trail based system could only playback MPEG-2 movie normally, because this format is supported on the hardware level. In all other cases we saw something like a slideshow. The old Intel nettop and netbook platform was unable to playback even the MPEG-2 format normally.
Another type of workload, which any contemporary multimedia platform should cope with, is quality playback of high-definition video posted on various online resources, such as YouTube.com. The diagram below shows the fps rate during playback of a 1080p video from this web-site.
Before, we couldn’t watch online video on Nvidia ION. However, when they launched new Adobe Flash Player 10.1 the problem was solved: the player was capable of using the functionality of the chipset for decoding acceleration. As a result, an ION based system can display high-definition video just fine even if it is stored not on a local hard drive but online. As for Intel platforms, they perform poorly under this type of load, too.
The only thing that may change the situation is the addition of an external HD video decoder from Broadcom - BCM70015. Like Nvidia ION, this chip can accelerate the decoding speed for all major video formats. Besides, it is also supported by the Flash Player. Without this decoder systems built around a combination of Intel chipsets and Atom processors can’t be utilized as hardware media players.
However, we still have to make one small comment. Everything we have just said refers to HD video playback in maximum quality – 1080p resolution. As for playback of 720p video, Pine Trail platform should do it just fine even without any help from the graphics core: the performance of dual-core Atom D510 is sufficient to cope with this task.
Moreover, even the previous generation platform can play an H.264 video stream in 720p resolution just fine. However, if you would like to watch movies online with relatively high quality, then Aton 330 won’t be able to satisfy you anymore. However, even with Pine Trail platform the CPU utilization in this case is about 80% on average, which means that background processes or flash banners disaplyed on the same page may affect comfortable video playback.
In Intel’s opinion, Atom processors may as well be used as the basis for inexpensive desktop platforms. The manufacturer positions Atom also as a lower-cost alternative to Celeron CPUs, which has lower performance but at the same time boasts other advantages: low power consumption and low price. It is hard to disagree with this positioning: a compact computer system built around an LGA775 platform will really cost a little more. Namely, while Intel D510MO mainboard with Atom D510 processor costs about $75, a mini-ITX mainboard on Intel G41 Express (for example, Intel DG41MJ) with the junior Celeron will cost you as much as $135, which is way more. However, you will be able to save some cash if you decide to go with an integrated microATX LGA775 mainboard instead of a mini-ITX one. In this case such platform using an LGA775 Celeron processor will cost about $105, which is only 40% more than what you would pay for an Intel D510MO with Atom D510.
But what performance advantage will the users get from a slightly more expensive Celeron compared to Atom? To answer this question we performed a short test session where we compared side by side Intel D510MO against a system built on an Intel G41 Express based board with an integrated GMA X4500 graphics core and the cheapest LGA775 processor available today – Celeron E3200.
The results are definitely not in Atom’s favor. Moreover, the performance of the tested LGA775 platform is higher not by tens of percents, but several times. In other words, even the least expensive Celeron can provide a completely different level of performance. As a result, an Atom based computer system will immediately eliminate the whole bunch of possible applications. A slightly more expensive LGA775 platform will be a much more universal solution in this case. Yes, Celeron is not a very fast CPU, but even if it is used in a system with a budget integrated mainboard, it will allow you to watch high-definition video in any format and even play some games with relatively simple graphics. And it means that you got to have a very good reason to decide on a Pine Trail with Atom. One of these reasons is going to be discussed in our next chapter.
Energy-efficiency expressed in power consumption is one of the primary advantages of nettops compared with regular computer systems. Although Atom processor designed specifically for systems like that is not as fast as its microarchitecturally more advanced counterparts, it is an excellent example of Intel’s concern with energy-efficiency. The new Atom modification promises further improvement of the platform energy-efficiency, because it allows to give up a pretty resource-hungry Intel 945GC North Bridge with 22 W TDP that is way higher than the thermal design power of the CPU itself.
Therefore, we couldn’t overlook the power consumption side of the story about the new processor. The following numbers show the total power consumption of the tested platforms (without the monitor). During our tests we used LinX 0.6.3 utility to load the systems.
The practical results confirm our theoretical assumptions. The launch of Intel Pine Trail lowered the power consumption of Intel’s nettop and netbook platforms quite significantly: the overall system power consumption under heavy load dropped by 20%! It is especially impressive considering that this result was achieved even without the use of finer 32 nm manufacturing process for Atom processors. As a result, we can regard the new Intel netbook and nettop platform as a reference point for ultimate energy efficiency. The “simplest” system built around the junior Celeron CPU model consumes 2.5 times more power, as you can see from the numbers above.
ION platform also loses in power consumption tests to the combination of Atom D510 and NM10 Express. It can partially be explained by the fact that Zotac IONITX-A-U mainboard we used for this test session featured an additional WiFi controller. But despite this fact, it is obvious that Pine Trail platform will be more energy-efficient anyway, even with an additional Broadcom HD video decoder. This way, multimedia centers based on Intel and Broadcom components have a very good chance of becoming a more attractive solution than Nvidia ION. However, let’s not rush the conclusions just yet and wait for systems like that to become reality first.
The launch of Intel Atom processors marked the beginning of a new revolution in the PC market. These processors encouraged the arrival of a new class of devices – netbooks and nettops – and quickly became very popular. However, it looks like the compact and low-performance systems market has become quite saturated lately, which inspired Intel to enhance their Atom platform. So, what have we ended up with as a result?
The major innovation introduced in the new Pine Trail platform was the change of its internal structure. Intel no longer uses an individual chip for the North Bridge and has transferred its functionality into the CPU. As a result, systems with new Atom processors are now based on two major chips instead of three: the CPU and the South Bridge. As a result, Pine Trail platform became much more energy-efficient and way “cooler” than its predecessor. Therefore, the new generation of netbooks based on this platform will be able to last longer on battery. Pine Trail based nettops in their turn, will become completely noiseless due to fully passive cooling inside.
In the meanwhile we have to admit that although Intel engineers changed the platform structure and gave up an individual North Bridge chip, they still didn’t pay due attention to increasing the platform performance and extending its functionality. In fact, Pineview processor and Intel NM10 chipset forming this platform consist of almost the same functional units as the previous platform built around Diamondville processor and Intel 945GC chipset. And it means not only that Pineview performance is not very much different from that of Diamondville, but also that GMA3150 graphics core has very low 3D speed and doesn’t support fully-fledged HD video decoding. The minor cosmetic improvements that deal with slight increase of the clock frequency and introduction of DDR2-800 SDRAM support (in single-channel mode) can only boost the performance by about 15% in real applications compared with the previous platform.
And although systems built around Pine Trail platform do work decently in Windows 7, allow comfortable web-surfing and cope with basic office tasks, many typical home applications, such as high-definition video playback can become a stumbling stone for them. As a result, it means only one single thing: the new Atom processors won’t be able to take over any new market niches compared with their predecessors. The computer systems based on Pine Trail platform will still fail to cope with the tasks that used to be out of reach for the older Atom based solutions. But if a system with Intel Atom and 945GC chipset used to be a good choice for you before, then Pine Trail will make you even happier, because this platform is undoubtedly better than the previous one.