written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 5/27/2011
The processor is the heart of every netbook. It is the part which is most responsible for the netbook's overall performance and power consumption. The processor you choose can mean the difference between a netbook which meets your needs and one that doesn't.
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Netbook Processors Compared
While netbooks don't require a lot of performance, the processor in them still has an effect on a netbook's capabilities. There are several different processors commonly found in netbooks today, and these processors offer varying levels of performance and battery life. In some cases manufacturers make the exact same netbook in multiple models which have different processors available. In these cases the processor you pick will have an impact on how happy you are with the netbook.
So which netbook processor should you choose? That depends on want you what. There are three options available today from Intel, AMD and VIA. This article covers the strengths and weaknesses of each.
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The Intel Atom is the processor which allowed the netbook party to get started. It was this affordable, low-power processor which gave netbooks their amazing battery life and low price while maintaining a level of performance adequacy for web browsing and productivity applications.
The Atom remains the most popular netbook processor today and will likely retain that crowd for many years. The Atom processor's key is its power efficiency. Netbooks using the original Atom were capable of up to nine hours of battery life. Atom has since had an update, called Pinetrail, which allows the best Atom based netbooks to achieve up to fourteen hours of battery life. That is far more than any other netbook processor can achieve. The Atom processor is also inexpensive for netbook manufacturers to purchase, which is why Atom netbooks are typically the least expensive netbooks available.
Performance is a bit of a weakness for the Atom, although it is only terrible when positioned next to a modern mainstream laptop. While the Atom is clocked at 1.6Ghz, its performance is actually more in line with a 1Ghz Pentium III. In today's terms this means that an Atom processor is many times slower at processor-intensive applications than, say, a Core 2 mobile processor. When compared to its competition in the netbook space the Atom is the slowest in most benchmarks.
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The Nano is one of VIA's most compelling processors. It was built to be a competitor to the Atom. Although VIA simply doesn't have the resources to produce the number of processors Intel is capable of and also lacks the same marketing muscle, the VIA can be found in numerous netbooks from Samsung and Lenovo.
When considering the performance benchmarks it is easy to see why. The VIA Nano is yet again a poor performer when compared to a modern Core 2 mobile system, but the VIA is often 20% faster than the Atom in performance benchmarks. The Nano can handle videos which will cause the Atom to choke and is also noticeably quicker in tasks such as unzipping or compressing files.
The downside to this is that the VIA Nano is not able to keep up with the Atom when it comes to battery life. Most Nano based netbooks are capable of six to eight hours, which is nothing to scoff at. But when compared to the fourteen hours of battery life available on some Atom netbooks it is clear that the Nano is at a disadvantage when it comes to mobility. The pricing is competitive, however. The Nano is usually not found in netbooks below $350 dollars, but in those netbooks which do use it the Nano model is often slightly less expensive than the Atom model.
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The AMD Neo made its debut in the HP dv2 and was rumored to be exclusive to HP products. It proved to be a solid processor, but the dv2 was a bit of a flop, probably because its build quality had some issues and its price was too high. The Neo is now showing up in products from ASUS, Lenovo and Toshiba.
On the performance front the AMD Neo absolutely beats the snot out of both the Nano and the Atom. It is anywhere from 50% to 100% faster than the Atom in virtually all benchmarks. In fact, the performance gap is sometimes even wider. This is not only because the Neo itself is a scaled down Athlon - a much faster processor per clock than either an Atom or a Nano - but also because the Neo platform always includes some form of AMD's Radeon graphics. This accelerates videos and 3D graphics far better than the integrated solutions the other two use.
But as with the Nano, there is a price to pay for that performance. And it seems the price to pay is equal to the performance gained. Systems based off the AMD Neo are lucky to reach six hours of battery life, and some systems only manage to squeeze out four. That is pretty dismal when compared to the Atom's fourteen hours and the Nano's maximum of eight. When it comes to price-for-performance, however, the Neo again does well. The least expensive Neo based netbooks hover around the $400 dollar mark and will trounce the Atom based netbooks with Nvidia Ion graphics which also hover around that price.
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The processor which you choose ultimately depends on your needs.
The Intel Atom is clearly the victor when it comes to inexpensive netbooks and netbooks with amazing battery life. If you want a netbook for under $350 dollars Atom is really your only option. Atom is also your only option if you want a netbook which can reliably obtain over eight hours of battery life. The performance isn't stellar, but it's adequate. This article was created on a netbook using Atom, and for this sort of basic work it performs well.
If you want a little extra performance and don't mind a little less mobility the Nano is a viable contender. The additional spend is noticeable in some usage situations and the price is often the same or lower than similarly equipped Atom netbooks. Those who are looking for a "premium" netbook - something with a larger screen and a price over $400 dollars - should look at Nano powered options.
Finally we have the Neo. The Neo performs so well and has such poor battery life that it is arguable that it is not really a netbook processor at all. That's an argument that has some merit, since many do buy netbooks for their battery life. But there are also many who buy a netbook for its small size and low price. The Neo's performance is incredible compared to the other two, and there are some great Neo powered options. The Lenovo X100e, for example, starts at $449.99, and ASUS now offers an Eee PC with the Neo which is available for under $400 dollars at Newegg.