Intel launches next-generation Atom netbook processor

Intel's Atom N450 netbook is 60 percent smaller, and draws 20 percent less power than current Atom chips

Intel on Monday launched its next-generation Atom netbook processor, saying it will bring longer battery life and improved system performance to low-cost laptops.

The single-core Atom N450 chip is 60 percent smaller than existing Atom processors, and consumes close to 20 percent less power, said Anil Nanduri, director of netbook marketing at Intel. The chip draws about 5.5 watts of power, according to an Intel specification sheet.

The small footprint of the chip could also lead to new device designs, like thinner netbooks and tablets, Nanduri said. Netbooks with N450 chips will be shown by major vendors at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show to be held in Las Vegas Jan. 7-10.

The company has about 80 netbook design wins based on the latest processor, Nanduri said. The company did not immediately release pricing for the chip, but said new PCs will be available at existing netbook price points.

Netbooks are low-cost PCs characterized by small screens and keyboards, and are designed to surf the Internet and run basic applications like word processing. The category took off when Asus introduced the Eee PC in 2007, and today top vendors including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and Lenovo offer netbooks.

The Atom N450 will run at a clock speed of 1.66GHz, which is the same as an existing Atom N280 netbook chip. However, the improvements in the N450 come from the smaller chip size, achieved by integrating the graphics and memory controller into the CPU. The N450 will process multimedia faster and free up bandwidth for the processor to communicate with other components. Previously, the graphics and memory controller resided outside the CPU.

The graphics improvement will come as relief to netbook users who have criticized the chipset in current Atom netbooks for its limited graphics compared to Nvidia's Ion platform, which plugs a GeForce graphics core into an Atom chip to deliver full 1080p graphics.

The integrated graphics processor in N450 is capable of 720p high-definition graphics natively, but Nanduri insisted the N450 processor is meant to consume Internet content, not to play graphics-intensive games or view high-definition movies.

"These are not meant for hooking a Blu-ray player to it," Nanduri said. However, Intel is validating technology from companies like Broadcom that vendors can integrate into systems with the Atom processor to let users view full 1080p high-definition content.

Netbooks powered by Atom N450 will run Windows 7, Windows XP or the Linux operating systems, Nanduri said.

Netbook shipments totaled around 17 million in 2008, with the number expected to more than double by the end of this year, according to research firm DisplaySearch. Many netbook purchases were driven by the economic downturn late last year and earlier this year when consumers clamped down on spending.

"People thought this was a recession-oriented business, but we believe... this is a category here to stay," Nanduri said.

Nanduri acknowledged netbooks could be threatened by ultrathin laptops being offered at competitive price points. Ultrathin laptops are lightweight laptops that are as portable as netbooks, but provide performance to run most applications such as high-definition multimedia or casual gaming. Intel supplies chips under the Celeron, Pentium and Core brands for ultrathin laptops.

Intel also launched two Atom processors for low-cost, small form factor desktops. The single-core Atom D410 and dual-core D510 operate at clock speeds of 1.66GHz and include 512KB and 1MB of cache respectively. The D410 draws around 10 watts of power, while the D510 draws 13 watts. Intel has about 50 design wins for entry-level desktops, Nanduri said.

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