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Contemporary Netbook Platforms

The today’s current netbook platforms are Intel Pine Trail, Nvidia ION (second generation) and AMD Brazos. We have already reviewed all three of these platforms before with all the details, so if you are primarily interested in the specific architectural solutions rather than their consumer qualities, then you should check out the following corresponding articles on our site:

Overall, the most important thing you need to understand about netbook processors is that all of them use their own unique simplified microarchitecture and their performance is not even close to what the traditional processors for typical mobile and desktop computers are capable of. For example, even a single-core Celeron G440 processor based on Sandy Bridge microarchitecture and working at 1.6 GHz frequency is significantly faster than any netbook CPUs from AMD as well as Intel. At the same time, the specific products from AMD and Intel have different internal structure and characteristics, so we would like to briefly dwell on their key features and peculiarities.

The typical Intel platform for a netbook computer is known as Pine Trail. It consists of second-generation Atom processors with an integrated single-channel memory controller and an integrated graphics core, and an Intel NM10 South Bridge.

Contemporary Atom processors manufactured with 45 nm process and featuring one or two computational cores with Hyper-Threading support currently work at up 1.8 GHz frequency. The typical heat dissipation of the dual-core models is declared at 8.5 or 13 W. They use Intel GMA 3150 for the graphics core, which was inherited from Intel G965 series chipsets.

Atom processors are energy-efficient and inexpensive, but at the same time offer pretty moderate performance, according to today’s standards. However, contemporary operating systems, Internet- and office-applications are no problem for Atom processors, that is why netbooks based on them become great companions in various application fields.

Atom’s biggest bottleneck is not its computational performance or single-channel memory controller, but its integrated graphics. Intel GMA 3150 core only supports DirectX 9.0 and has very basic 3D functionality. Moreover, its hardware is unable to accelerate video if it has been compressed by anything other than MPEG-2 codec, and the processor itself is not powerful enough to encode HD-video content. As a result, Atom-based netbooks become not very well-suited for home users: you can’t play games on them or watch HD video in contemporary popular formats.

Second-generation Nvidia ION platform is expected to fix the issues with Intel Atom. In lamest terms, it is a regular external graphics card connected to an Atom based system via a PCI Express x1 bus. This graphics card features 16 CUDA cores and its own video memory, which allows it to deliver acceptable gaming performance in some (mostly casual) titles as well as to accelerate a number of computational processes, such as video transcoding, for example. Moreover, there is a fourth-generation PureVideo engine integrated into Nvidia ION, which takes over a lion’s share of work during HD video playback in MPEG-2, VC-1 or H.264 formats.

So, while standard Pine Trail platform makes netbooks fit only for office and internet use, ION platform breathes more life into them turning netbooks into entry-level entertainment systems. Although the price in this case will be higher price and higher power consumption.

Trying to solve the power consumption problem, Nvidia offered special Optimus technology, which allowed alternating usage of Intel GMA 3150 graphics accelerator built into the Atom processors and ION’s external graphics. The system uses the driver to switch between the graphics cores. So, in 2D mode it will use standard energy-efficient but weak graphics, while in 3D mode or during video content playback the higher-performance Nvidia graphics accelerator will take over.

I have to say that it is the “Atom + ION” combination that is currently the most demanded in the netbook segment. And that is not only because Intel Atom processors are so popular, but also since Nvidia graphics makes netbooks approach classical notebooks in terms of functionality. In other words, ION makes Atom-based netbooks look like not very fast inexpensive notebooks that are at the same time small and lightweight.

However, AMD platform is just as good. Taking into account the feedback from netbook users, AMD came up with their Brazos platform trying to ensure that it will offer sufficient graphics performance right from the start. So, this platform based on Zacate or Ontario processors and Hudson South Bridge doesn’t need any ION-like supports. The processors in this platform are equipped with integrated Radeon HD 6310/6250 graphics cores with 80 shader pipelines supporting DirectX 11 and featuring UVD3 engine that can successfully decode HD video content on the hardware level.

The actual Brazos processors are based on special energy-efficient Bobcat microarchitecture and are manufactured using 40 nm process. Most Zacate and Ontario CPUs have dual-core design and their clock frequency reaches 1.6 GHz. At the same time the CPU contains not only computational and graphics cores, but also a single-channel DDR3 memory controller.

Overall the performance of AMD’s netbook processors is comparable with that of Atom. However, they are much better-balanced: their computational and graphics features are better coordinated with each other. As a result, Brazos based notebooks seem like worthy alternatives to the dominating Atom and ION based systems.

The following table will better than words describe the netbooks formal specifications. To make it easier to read, we included only the information about the top processor models:

The table shows clearly that AMD’s netbook products are definitely “up to the mark”. Considering the TDP values a starting point and taking into account that by adding an external Nvidia ION graphics accelerator to Intel Atom the calculated TDP of the entire platform will inevitably increase by additional 12 W, we can regard Brazos platform with Ontario processors as an alternative to Pine Trail, while Brazos with Zacate will easily be able to compete against ION. This was our major reasoning for selecting products for our today’s test session, especially since battery life is one of the key features of all highly-mobile devices such as netbooks.

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