Contemporary Netbook Platforms Comparison

The market is flooded with all types of netbooks based on Intel Atom as well as AMD C- and E-series processors. They may be built on different platforms, such as AMD Brazos, Intel Pine Trail or Nvidia ION. We tried to study this versatility and with the help of Asus Eee PC we were able to compare four popular hardware configurations.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
10/25/2011 | 02:15 PM

Small and inexpensive mobile computers, which are now known as netbooks, have become extremely popular. And even though we often hear that this market is being cannibalized by tablet computers, netbooks still remain very widely spread. In the end those users who need compatibility with x86 architecture and a fully functional keyboard are not yet ready to trade in notebooks and netbooks for tablets. So, it is definitely too early to retire the compact and lightweight netbooks: they still have a promising future ahead of them. Even the upcoming arrival of ultrabooks, which should combine the advantages of tablet with those of netbooks, doesn’t seem to be too much of a threat to the growing netbooks popularity, which have once very strong card in their deck: low price.

 

It is pretty funny that netbooks owe their strong positions in our today’s world to only one company – Intel. It is due to the development and launch of Atom processor family, which combines extremely simple microarchitecture with low power consumption and very affordable price, netbooks managed to strengthen their positions in the market and win over numerous users. In other words, Intel was in the right place at the right time with their Atom processors that is why for many computer users today the term “netbook” has become a synonym to a mobile computer with Intel Atom processor inside.

This point of view had every right to exist until recently. Namely, in the beginning of this year AMD entered the market of netbook processors with their products. They introduced Zacate and Ontario processors built on simpler and cheaper Bobcat microarchitecture. Of course, they were late for the distribution of the primary market share, but nevertheless, they could hope to get what was left over. Therefore, the major netbook vendors didn’t want to pass on the new AMD processors and began offering netbooks built on them.

As a result, netbooks became even more diverse. They differed not only by their looks, connectivity ports and battery life, but also by their performance parameters. While previously the only choice you had was between a single- or dual-core CPU and an all-Intel or Nvidia ION platform, then now there were much more options to consider.  When we compared Intel Atom and AMD Zacate in the desktop field, we arrived at the conclusion that AMD’s platform was just as good. But would it also be the case in the netbook segment?

This question inspired us to carry out a comparative test session of different hardware configurations in the form of real netbooks. We selected four typical mobile computer models based on Atom, Zacate, and Ontario processors and compared their performance levels as well as battery lives.

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.

Testing Participants

In order to carry out proper practical testing and performance comparison of the existing netbook platforms, we took four popular Eee PC models from Asus, which is currently one of the distinct leaders in this particular market.

Intel Pine Trail platform will be represented by Eee PC 1015PX netbook with a 10-inch screen and Atom processor. It uses the graphics fro the processor’s integrated graphics core:

It is based on Atom N570 processor, which is the top CPU model today. It is designed specifically for products like that and features 8.5 W TDP. The processor works at 1.67 GHz frequency, has two cores and supports Hyper-Threading technology, which allows each core to execute two computational threads at the same time

Eee PC 1015PX uses standard integrated graphics – Intel GMA 3150. This netbook is targeted primarily for web-surfing and office applications.

The next netbook, Eee PC 1215N represented Nvidia ION platform. Since the graphics performance in netbooks based on Nvidia platform is significantly higher, the manufacturers feel that it makes sense to capitalize on it and increase the matrix size, too. In this case the screen has a 12-inch diagonal and supports 1366x768 resolution.

This one is based on a faster but also much more energy-hungry Atom D525 processor, which is specifically designed for nettops and therefore boasts 13 W TDP. Compared with Intel Atom N570 processor discussed above, the D525 one works at much higher clock frequency of 1.8 GHz.

Eee PC 1215N has about two graphics accelerators at the same time. The first one is Intel’s standard GMA 3150, which in this case will be used only during work with the OS and those applications that do not require fast graphics.

The second graphics accelerator is, actually, the ION in the form of the Nvidia GT218 chip. This is a pretty fully-functional external graphics accelerator with its own dedicated 512 MB of video memory with 64 bit interface. Nvidia Optimus technology will enable it in 3D mode and in all other cases when high graphics performance is required. The driver is responsible for switching between the graphics accelerators, which can be done automatically as well as manually.

The third netbook in our today’s test session is Asus Eee PC 1015B, which may be considered some kind of an analogue of the 1015X but built with hardware components from AMD. In other words, it is a system with a 10-inch matrix based on the junior Brazos modification.

The CPU in this particular netbook is Ontario. This is a dual-core processor with Bobcat microarchitecture working at a relatively low clock speed of only 1.0 GHz, but at the same time boasting very low TDP of 9 W.

Note that even though memory in Brazos based netbooks is single-channel one, it boasts higher bandwidth than the memory in similar Intel systems. AMD platform supports DDR3-1067, so the frequency difference is 266 MHz and it matters a lot for the integrated graphics core, which shares the memory capacity as well as bandwidth with the processor cores.

As for the graphics, Asus Eee PC 1015B uses the Radeon HD 6250 graphics accelerator integrated into the Ontario processor. The functionality of this graphics core is incomparably better than that of Intel’s GMA 3150. For example, Eee PC 1015B can easily play HD video in any popular formats, and its 80 shader pipelines working at 277 MHz frequency can even deliver decent 3D speed.

However, Ontario processor may be not powerful enough for the highest-performance netbooks out there. That is why there is another Brazos modification equipped with Zacate processor. This platform is used, for example, in Asus Eee PC 1215B. Just like its ION-based counterpart, this system features a 12-inch matrix. Moreover, its other characteristics are actually just as competitive.

Zacate processor is actually a dual-core Ontario but with higher clock frequency of 1.6 GHz and therefore, with increased TDP of 18 W. All other basic characteristics of these two processors are very similar.

 I have to admit that the default graphics core in Zacate is also faster. Its frequency has been increased to 492 MHz, which makes it the fastest netbook graphics solutions out there, which on top of that supports contemporary DirectX 11 interface.

All other parameters of the netbooks selected for our today’s test session are the same. They all come with 2 GB of memory and use SATA-300 HDDs with 5400 RPM spindle rotation speed.

However, the most important thing for us in the light of the upcoming comparison of the systems’ consumer qualities is the fact that all of them use the same 56 W*h battery.

In conclusion to our description of the tested netbooks, we would like to offer you a summary specification table:

During our test session we installed identical operating system onto all netbooks – Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 x86. Here is the list of additional drivers that we used:

Performance Tests

General Performance: PCMark 7

To get a general idea about the complex netbooks performance we used Futuremark PCMark 7 benchmark. This test generates two integral performance scores. The first one is the general score that describes the system performance in typical applications. While the second one is the Lightweight score that estimates system performance in more netbook-relevant tasks that do not require complex calculations.

If we compare two top netbooks, namely Atom with ION and Zacate with Brazos, the AMD solution will be the winner with a slight advantage over the competitors. This is a pretty logical outcome and we have already faced similar situation when we tested corresponding desktop platforms. Contemporary Atom processors outperform Zacate in applications that can be well-paralleled, where Hyper-Threading technology can really shine. Zacate, however, delivers higher specific performance if we recalculate it in the per-thread manner. Therefore, AMD system wins in PCMark 7 suite, which uses both: single-threaded as well as multi-threaded applications.

However, Zacates success only partially applies to Ontario. The junior netbook processor from AMD has significantly lower clock frequency that is why in one test out of two – in the “easy” one – Atom N570 manages to surpass AMD C-50.

Internet Performance

Contemporary web-sites using AJAX and HTML5 can load the processors’ computational resources quite heavily. Therefore, we paid special attention to web-page rendering tasks. ???We used three tests to get the numeric scores for the performance of the tested platforms in browsers. They are SunSpider Benchmark dealing primarily with JavaScript performance, Stimulant WebVizBench HTML5-benchmark and a new version of the complex Futuremark Peacekeeper test. We used Mozilla Firefox 7 as our default browser.

Overall, both netbook platforms from AMD work faster during web-surfing. Moreover, Ontario is in most cases even faster than Atom D525 working at 1.83 GHz and enhanced with the ION platform. The only exception is SunSpider test where Atom N570 with 1.67 GHz clock speed is just a little faster than 1-GHz AMD E-50.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the tests we run work in a single browser window. If you normally open a dozen of tabs and windows, then Atom processors with Hyper-Threading support may become a more optimal choice, as they will offer the OS four virtual cores.

Performance in Applications

To test the performance during data archiving we used popular WinRAR and 7-zip archiving utilities.

As we can see, even faster DDR3 memory doesn’t help AMD platform here. Both Intel Atom based platforms take the lead in WinRAR and 7-zip. This is one of those cases when Hyper-Threading technology comes in very handy.

We use Apple iTunes utility to test audio transcoding speed. It transcodes the contents of a CD disk into AAC format. Note that the typical peculiarity of this utility is its ability to utilize only a pair of processor cores.

Eee PC 1215B netbook with an AMD E-350 processor inside wins in this test with a great advantage. Now we see that Hyper-Threading technology can’t work its magic any more and processors on Bobcat microarchitecture offer higher individual core performance than Intel Atom CPUs. At the same time, Eee PC 1015B netbook with an AMD C-50 processor can’t boast the same brilliant results: its clock speed is only enough to help it catch up with Atom N570.

We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.

Here AMD E-350 processor can only outperform Atom N570, so Eee PC 1215N on Nvidia ION platform with Atom D525 processor inside becomes the fastest netbook for Photoshop. The Eee PC 1015B based on the junior Brazos modification turns into a total outsider here. Besides, Photoshop seems to be a too challenging application for netbooks anyway.

Excel performance is presented as the time it takes to complete calculations of an electronic table that uses Monte-Carlo algorithm for solving an economic problem.

Here Atom processors benefit a lot from Hyper-Threading support. Therefore, Eee PC 1215N and Eee PC 1015PE netbooks based on Intel processors get remarkable far ahead here.

We used Cyberlink Media Espresso 6.5 to test the video content transcoding speed. This utility is particularly fit for netbooks because it can employ the resources of different graphics cores, which makes up for the weak processors used in systems like that. We measured the time it took to transcode a short 2-minute H.264 1080p video clip into an iPhone 4 friendly format (H.264, 1280x720, 4 Mbps).

The ION based netbooks is an indisputable leader here. The thing is that only Nvidia GT218 graphics core supporting CUDA technology is capable of handling not only decoding, but also video stream encoding. Brazos based netbooks with Radeon HD graphics cores use their cores only for decoding, making computational cores take over the video stream encoding. That is why it takes them much more time to transcode the same video. Unfortunately, Eee PC 1015B netbook with an Ontario processor working at low clock frequency doesn’t do well here. It loses even to a Pine Trail based netbook, which can only use the computational resources of the Atom processor for encoding and decoding.

We also used Fritz chess benchmark to get a more complete picture of the platforms capabilities.

The two Atom based netbooks are ahead in this test, proving once again that Atom processors are faster than Zacate and especially Ontario in resource-demanding tasks that can be well-paralleled.

3D Gaming Performance

First of all let’s check out the performance of our netbooks’ graphics in synthetic Futuremark 3DMark suite.

The very first test, 3DMark06, immediately eliminates the traditional Pine Trail platform from the list of acceptable gaming choices. Intel GMA 3150 is failing miserably here. So, a netbook built exclusively from Intel components can never become an entertainment center. It can’t handle HD video playback and is unable to deliver any acceptable 3D performance.

Both netbooks with a 10-inch screen failed to pass 3DMark Vantage test. Eee PC 1015PX netbook based on Intel Pine Trail refused to work because of the missing DirectX 10 support. And Eee PC 1015B on AMD Brazos platform does support DirectX 10, but still fails the 3DMark Vantage test because of the too low supported screen resolution.

As for the comparison between Brazos and ION platforms, they seem to be more or less on the same page. However, this conclusion comes from the results of synthetic benchmarks. And what will we see in real games? Let’s find out. The tests were performed in netbooks native resolution with minimal image quality settings.

Overall Brazos platform with Zacate processor produces higher fps rate. However, even the Eee PC 1215B netbook based on it can hardly qualify even as an entry-level gaming system. Even with the previous-generation games and the lowest possible image quality settings, we still failed to reach acceptable fps rate. In other words, even netbooks with fastest graphics inside are unsuitable for gaming. Moreover, some games, such as Starcraft 2, for example, stumble upon insufficient computational resources rather than the slow graphics core.

So, the owners of Brazos or ION based netbooks can at best enjoy the graphically-simplest causal games, like The Sims 3, World of Goo, Portal 2 or popular 3D shooters from the previous century, such as Quake 3. And if this is your thing, then the best bet would be a netbook with Zacate processor inside.

Battery Life Tests

Since all participating netbooks used different hardware platforms, but were equipped with identical batteries, we thought it would be very interesting to compare their battery life. A comparison like that will reveal which of the platforms has the best mobile potential. Especially, since Asus claim that some of their netbooks boasts over 10 hours of battery life.

However, the manufacturer always chooses to disclose the best numbers obtained in idle mode with minimal brightness settings and after disabling everything that could possibly be disabled. Our tests were performed “in action”. We didn’t disable any wireless interfaces, set the screen brightness to its maximum, which is not excessively bright in netbooks, but on the contrary seems to be the optimal setting even in a dark room.

The first measurements were taken under maximum graphics and computational load created by Battery Eater Pro 2.70.

In this test mode our netbooks lasted between 2.5 to 3 hours. The first one to run out of power was a Brazos based computer with the most energy-hungry Zacate processor. ION netbook with the external graphics core eating up most of the power lasted 10 minutes longer. 10-inch netbooks turned out much more energy-efficient and finished almost at the same time.

The second test measures the battery life in read mode. Here we also used Battery Eater Pro 2.70 and the load was created by going through a text document. It is a very “mild” type of load, which is extremely close to idle mode, that is why obtained results may be regarded as the maximum possible battery life for our testing participants.

Here the situation is slightly different. The shortest battery life belongs to Eee PC 1215N, which didn’t make the 5-hour mark. Eee PC 1215B on the top Brazos platform modification, which lost in the previous test, stayed up and running much longer: 5.5 hours. 10-inch netbooks are again delivering very pleasing results: under this easy type of operational load they both can last over 6 hours on their batteries. By the way, it is pretty funny that Brazos platform with an Ontario processor and Intel’s Pine Trail demonstrate suspiciously similar power consumption. It looks like AMD selected this particular clock frequency for their top Ontario C-50 processor with intention to ensure that its power consumption would be identical to that of Intel Atom N570.

The next test measures the systems battery life during HD video playback in H.264 format. This time most of the operational load fall not onto the processor computational units, but on the graphics core, which provides hardware acceleration for the decoding process. We used Media Player Classic – Home Cinema 1.5.2.3456.

Pine Trail based netbook didn’t participate in this test, because it was not powerful enough to smoothly playback HD video without losing any frames. As for the remaining three models, Eee PC1015B with AMD C-50 processor and Radeon HD 6250 graphics core lasted longest of all. As for the 12-inch models with higher-performing platforms inside, Brazos based Eee PC1215B took the lead here. Its battery lasted 40 minutes longer than that of the platform with Nvidia ION.

The last test will show battery life during intense web-surfing experience.

The results here are surprisingly unanimous. Netbooks on the top Brazos and ION platforms as well as those on Pine Trail and Ontario show practically the same results. 12-inch netbooks lasted over four hours on battery, while their smaller brothers remained online for over five hours.

Overall, AMD Brazos with Ontario processor turned out similar to Intel Pine Trail. As for the Brazos platform with Zacate, its power consumption is noticeably higher and is comparable to that of the ION platform. However, if most of the operational load falls onto the graphics core, Brazos becomes a little more energy-efficient (in terms of battery life) than a combination of Intel’s energy-efficient CPU and Nvidia graphics.

Conclusion

The netbook market is definitely moving forward. Just recently these computer systems were all based only on Intel Atom processors, but today they have become much more versatile due to the arrival of alternative solutions from AMD. Moreover, even though the manufacturers keep complaining about the upcoming cannibalization from tablets and ultrabooks, AMD and Intel have no intention to drop the production of their ultra-energy-efficient processors on Atom and Bobcat microarchitectures. Very soon Intel will refresh the Atom lineup by introducing 32 nm manufacturing process and releasing new Cedarview CPU generation, while AMD will roll out E-450 and C-60 processors supporting Turbo Core technology.

While netbooks on new processors haven’t arrived yet, you can make up your mind about your preferences basing on what is currently available in the market.

Intel’s Pine Trail platform with Atom processors and integrated GMA 3150 graphics no longer is up-to-date. The graphics core is way too weak. It can’t deliver acceptable performance even in the most primitive 3D applications and doesn’t have hardware video acceleration, which makes the application for Pine Trail based netbooks extremely limited. These computers may suit only for Internet browsing or for work in office applications, which will hardly satisfy most users. Therefore, we would recommend to pass on the Pine Trail based netbooks, even though they offer decent (for their class) pure computational performance of the Atom processors and attractive battery life.

AMD Brazos platform with C-series (Ontario) processors may become a very good alternative with just as good a battery life, but significantly better multimedia functionality. These processors are just as energy-efficient as Intel Atom, but boast a much more advanced graphics core. Of course, we can’t say that this core’s 3D performance is good enough, but at least it is capable of playing HD video. As a result, netbooks with AMD C-series processors inside will have a much broader potential application field than the ones on Intel Pine Trail platform. And don’t be discouraged by the lower pure performance of Ontario processors: they are still fast enough to guarantee comfortable user experience in typical netbook tasks.

However, if the computational performance of your netbook is so important to you and you are attracted to Intel Atom processors, which tend to be pretty efficient in multi-threaded tasks, then you should consider the ION platform. Contemporary implementation includes an Atom processor and an external Nvidia graphics accelerator, which together deliver good computational speed, acceptable 3D, CUDA support and fault-free HD video playback. There is only one drawback here: the additional graphics card has serious negative effect on the netbook’s battery life, so this configuration won’t be the longest-lasting in autonomous mode. The Nvidia Optimus technology that should help resolve this issue doesn’t do its job very well. Moreover, it often calls for additional actions on the user’s part, such as search for the necessary settings in the driver and applications.

So, we would like to encourage you once again to check out the competition – AMD Brazos platform with E-series (Zacate) processors. Although they can’t boast remarkable performance compared to top Atom models, E-series processors from AMD win the users’ hearts due to their more advanced graphics core. Fully-functional Radeon HD with 80 unified shader processors and DirectX 11 support not just plays back HD video. It is powerful enough for some 3D gaming, where its fps rate is noticeably higher than that of Nvidia ION. At the same time, Brazos is also more energy-efficient, because in our tests the corresponding netbook lasted on battery longer than its ION based competitor.

Summing up everything we have just said, we have to say that even though AMD was a little late to the netbook market, their products are more than competitive. And if you are currently looking for a new netbook, we strongly recommend taking into consideration various modifications of AMD Brazos platform, which may offer pretty good balance of computational and graphics performance, as well as multimedia functionality. Moreover, Ontario and Zacate based netbooks come at very appealing prices, which is, actually, typical of all AMD solutions.