Dual-core Atom 330 benchmarked
The big arrival in the Labs yesterday was a barebones PC chassis from Shuttle, with something very special sitting inside: the very first dual-core Atom processor we've seen. The original Atom has been at the heart of the huge shake-up in the laptop industry over the past year, with the vast majority of the big guns opting for Intel in their netbooks. If the new dual-core model can live up to the hype it has the potential to trigger a whole new wave of more powerful netbooks.
Called the Intel Atom 330, it runs at the same 1.6GHz frequency as its single-core predecessors, with a 533MHz FSB. With two cores and support for Intel's Hyper-Threading technology, it appears to the system as four cores (as shown right). Being a desktop part, it comes soldered to an improved mini-ITX motherboard, now with a single DDR2-667 slot, Gigabit Ethernet and six-channel audio to go with the usual array of inputs and outputs.
We used a 7,200rpm SATA hard disk and 1GB of DDR2 to get our test rig set up, slapping on a fresh XP SP3 install to best compare the Atom 330 to the existing netbooks that will make up its primary competition. After installing all the drivers and running Windows update we installed our benchmark suite and set it to work overnight.
Now, to set the scene, the single-core Atom N270s we've seen in pretty much every netbook worth a review have scored anything from 0.3 to 0.44 in our benchmarks - our current A List choice, the brand new Samsung NC10, holds that top score, and we're pretty sure that's due to the extra time Samsung has had to apply some clever optimisation. The Atom 330 won't be running at its quickest just yet, but we still expect a score in excess of that, and our multitasking test should show the largest margin of improvement. As an added contrast, we'll also compare a VIA C7-D system, which recently scored 0.36.
The overall results are a little lower than we expected. (Note, all results are relative to our baseline Pentium D system, which scored 1.0). Yes, the Atom 330 is quicker than its predecessor - no surprise there - but we expected it to be by more than 16%. The individual tests make for more interesting reading, though, and explain where the Atom really excels.
In our combination of Office 2003 tests it actually failed to match either the old Atom or the VIA - this is clearly the result that's bringing the overall average down, but despite repeated retests it consistently occurred. We could put it down to the Samsung NC10's tweaked internals, as if we look at the first few Atom N270 devices they were closer to the 0.4 mark, lower than the 330's result. More likely, it's just the fact that Office 2003 is not a particularly processor-intensive benchmark, and doesn't make efficient use of multiple threads.
By contrast, our 2D graphics tests comprise a variety of tasks in CorelDRAW, Photoshop and 3ds Max - tests which are ideally suited to multiple cores and Hyper-Threading. The Atom 330 dutifully comes into its own on this test, beating the N270 by 41% and the VIA by a whopping 71%.
For encoding we use dbPowerAmp and Canopus ProCoder to encode a variety of audio and video files simultaneously - a particularly intensive task. As you can see, here the Atom 330 merely edged it, by 18% over the N720 and 39% over the VIA.
Finally, our multitasking test runs all of the previous tests at once, a test of brute strength which low-power netbooks are simply not designed for. The fact that the Atom 330 scored 0.62, compared to the 1.0 of our baseline Pentium D system, demonstrates just how close today's tiny netbooks may soon be getting to what was considered immensely powerful - and ran hotter than molten lava - just a few years ago.
All in all it's a broadly impressive start for the Atom 330, performing best in the most processor-intensive tasks as you would expect. But the real question - and one we can't answer until the netbook parts appear - is how that second core will impact on battery life. The quoted TDP of the Atom 330 is 8W, twice that of the old N270. It's all well and good boosting the productivity of your netbook, particular with regard to running more than one application at once, but if the Eee PC's fantastic battery falls from seven hours to three or four as a result, the 330 might not quite make it to the must-have level of its single-core predecessor.
Will netbooks move even closer to laptops with this CPU? Or will manufacturers keep it reserved for dearer models or desktop systems only? Time will tell, and we'll bring you the results as soon as we get hold of one.