Intel Atom N550 Notebooks

Intel has launched the latest version of their successful Atom processor, the N550. While the latest Intel Pineview Atom processors run at very low wattages, and allow very small form factor notebooks to be packaged around them, there has always been a fundamental issue: performance. The new N550 looks to correct this, with the biggest change being a move to dual cores.

The N550 carries over the same architectural benefits of the very popular, if sluggish, Pineview N450 including Hyper-Threading and 64-bit support. However, it adds on to that a second core, double the L2 Cache (1MB) and DDR3 RAM support. The core speed has dropped from 1.66GHz to 1.5GHz, presumably to keep the TDP down. The N550 is not the first dual-core Atom CPU Intel has made. They currently make a couple dual-core Atom processors, and in essence, this is the power binned netbook version of the D510.

So the nettop market has had the D510—and newer D525 with DDR3 support—for a while, and even when Atom first launched there was the Atom 330. While these CPUs are similar to the single-core Atom variants there are a few key changes. The reason these CPUs weren't used in netbooks—excepting a few ASUS models like the 1201N and the upcoming 1215PN—is the TDP and lack of power saving features. At 13W the 330 and D510 run too hot and consume too much power for practical implementation compared to the 5.5W N450. Add on to that the lack of SpeedStep, so the CPU runs at a constant 1.6GHz/1.66GHz, and as we measured on the 1201N battery life takes a serious dive. The new N550 fits somewhere between the N450 and D525 at 8.5W, but Intel claims battery life will be unaffected over the N450 thanks to power savings elsewhere—i.e. the use of more power friendly DDR3 RAM compared to DDR2 RAM.

It looks like RAM support is limited to just 2GB, which makes the 64-bit architecture a little less useful. Though bearing in mind these netbooks will probably ship with Windows 7 Starter, and the general type of work performed on netbooks, perhaps greater amounts of RAM aren’t required. The processor is also produced with a 45nm lithography process, again a little strange as the Arrandale Core i3/5/7 processors that have been available from the start of the year brought 32nm to the notebook market. The other strange one is that the integrated graphics looks unchanged from the anemic GMA 3150, clocked at a rather miserly 200MHz. Again, this is probably not a big deal for the use of netbooks, but it does mean HD video content (i.e. HD YouTube) will continue to need something more than just the Intel IGP. So NVIDIA's Next Generation ION and Broadcom's CrystalHD should still be of use in Atom netbooks.

Some early benchmarks show that there is certainly a performance benefit from the dual-core upgrade. Intel claims the new CPU will perform much better with Flash and with multimedia websites like YouTube and Hulu. Our own testing of various mini-ITX systems on the other hand suggests even dual-core Atom gets beat by the old dual-core CULV chips. While we aren't keen on the use of CULV in mini-ITX, considering the Clarkdale options available, for laptops and netbooks it still seems like CULV + 9400M (a.k.a. ION) could have made for an interesting combination—one that could very easily surpass even this new N550. But such a system doesn't seem likely, given Intel's move from the FSB architecture and EOL for Core 2 chips.

The netbook manufacturers are in the process of updating their netbooks to feature the latest processor. ASUS, who kicked off the netbook drive with their first Eee PC, has the Eee PC 1015n coming out, with a 10.1” (presumably 1366x768 given the presence of ION) display. It couples the Intel Atom N550 CPU with its integrated graphics core to a next generation NVIDIA ION GPU and uses NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology to switch between them providing vastly improved graphics performance while still maintaining good battery life. Rumors indicate it will include 1GB DDR3 RAM, 250GB HDD, HDMI out port, 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, a 6-cell battery rated to last 8 hours and Windows 7 Starter Edition. Estimated arrival is in September for around $399 if the Internet scuttlebutt is anything to go by.

Acer will also be launching the Aspire One D255, or AOD255 for short. It will be very similar to the outgoing AOD260 but will use the new N550 CPU. Outwardly, it remains largely untouched apart from some more color options. It has the same 10.1” screen at 1024x600, 1GB RAM, 250GB HDD, WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth and a 6-cell battery as before. Pricing and availability are unknown as yet, but we'd like it to be under $350 given the feature set. The only place we can find any N550 equipped netbooks right now is HSN, where the AO255 is priced at $400, which seems a bit too much for a 1GB netbook. We'll have to wait and see if other vendors are able to do better.

Lenovo will be updating their S10-3 netbook to feature the new processor too. Basic specifications are unlikely to deviate from the netbooks by ASUS and Acer with a 10.1” 1024x600 display, 1GB RAM, 250GB HDD, 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth and Windows 7 Starter. While it is already available for pre-order from some stores in Australia for a 7th September release, US pricing and availability are unknown as yet. Intel states that Fujitsu, LG, Samsung, MSI and Toshiba will have products using the latest Atom processor available, though no information on these has surfaced yet.

If you haven't jumped on the netbook bandwagon already, these new N550 offerings may be tempting. AMD's Bobcat is around four or five months away, but Intel's next Atom update isn't due out until sometime around the middle of 2011. That update goes by the codename Cedar Trail, and it will definitely improve on the current Atom designs. The CPU and GPU will become a single die, manufactured on a 32nm process, and Cedar Trail should finally get an IGP that can handle up to 1080p HD video decoding. It's not clear precisely what the IGP will be, and Atom has never been about raw performance, but a downsized Intel HD Graphics solution to replace the archaic GMA 3150 could do wonders. With both AMD and Intel coming out with new netbook-oriented designs, 2011 is shaping up to be quite interesting.

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  • JarredWalton - Monday, August 30, 2010 - link

    Sorry... my bad on that one. Updated text to reflect the correct name for the CPU as opposed to the "smartphone-esque" platform.
  • IntelUser2000 - Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - link

    Thanks Jarred.

    One thing about the Atom not being on 32nm. The Core i3/i5/i7 32nm chips are really on bleeding edge tech. On a more risky change like with a new architecture, or a more flexible chip like with the Atom, they simply don't bring the latest process technologies as fast as possible.

    They even have some SoC variants using the special 45nm process with extra low leakage, and that required longer development time.

    Intel really only has timeframe advantage with their common products like laptop/desktop. All other segment the only advantage is really "peace of mind" that they'll execute.

    It would be cool to have all the Xeons, the Core ix's, the Atoms and even the chipsets to move to 32nm simultaneously, but business and execution realities simply don't allow that to happen.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - link

    Well, that and they still have all those 45nm fabs that they can put to use making less complex chips like Atom. I mean, even at 45nm the new N550 is still only 87mm^2. It would be about half that on 32nm, which is likely why that's when HD Graphics capability will come on board. GMA 3150 still blows chunks, though, any way you slice it! ;-)
  • ET - Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - link

    I skipped the netbook craze because I own a Fujitsu P1510D, and while its 512MB makes it a pain to use, I didn't want to "move up" to a notebook with a slightly slower CPU, same size display, no tablet mode and slightly more weight. A dual core Atom with an Ion for $400 doesn't sound bad, but with Bobcat around the corner, I don't want to rush into buying something I'll later regret.
  • Roland00 - Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - link

    Intel like all Fabs has limited capacity. I rather them use 32nm for their core dual cores, their xeons, the upcoming sandybridge dual and quad cores.

    The atom in no way needs 45nm, there is an opportunity cost for every chip intel builds on 32nm and the atom by no way meets the value of putting it on 32nm instead of another more complicated chip on 45nm.

    Furthermore Intel is also outsourcing the atom on 45nm to TSMC, so it can have expanded capacity of the atom and hopefully get the atom in more "non computers" such as phone, gps, setup boxes, nas, etc.
  • ProDigit - Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - link

    We don't want a small increase of performance,
    It seems the N550 does not have the capacity to throttle both cores individually at a different speed setting, the graphics core is the same as the one before (why o why did they not integrate it with the CPU like on the newer Core i processors?
    And why did they not switch to 32nm too?
    And why did they not implement turbo boost on this?
    (granted, some users would run games on them with turbo boost enabled all the time).

    And why does the graphics processor not auto overclock?
    All new technologies that could lead to improved performance, and decrease of power consumption.
    But I guess we'll have to wait for another 3 years before Intel can make it right!

    It's funny but everytime they finally bring the product in public, they already are considered 'old', because they just did not keep track of the online community already being ahead of them!
    If I where intel, I would not even release this product until above requirements are met!
    That's the kind of processor the community is waiting for!
    Not a slightly modified D550 (or something) with slightly better power consumption!

    No wonder their processorline is cheered with many boos all over the world!
    Intel should surprise us, not discourage us by delivering an old product that not necessarily is faster than the previous one!
  • IntelUser2000 - Wednesday, September 1, 2010 - link


    Err, Pineview already integrates the GPU on the same die as the CPU, didn't you hear?
  • Kamen75 - Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - link

    It boggles my mind that as Intel releases new Atom processors they keep getting slower at single threaded applications. nearly all programs get more "bang for the buck" from a single core, you don't come close to doubling performance by adding a second core. Very many programs are still single threaded and can't utilize multiple cores. These are the kinds of light weight pieces of software that you want to use on netbooks. The N550 is slower than the N450 and the N450 is slower than the N280. Intel doesn't care about giving consumers more usable power because until AMD releases its' Ontario platform based on Bobcat architecture they will have no competition. All upcoming AMD IGP's based on Bobcat and Bulldozer architectures are to have DX 11 graphics so that means at least HD5xxx level graphics.
  • IntelUser2000 - Tuesday, August 31, 2010 - link

    I think some of you are confused. The Intel-TSMC deal fizzled remember? I'm sure they might have one in future Atom products, but at the moment TSMC only exists on the MP20 southbridge for Moorestown. None of the CPUs use it.
  • LoneWolf15 - Wednesday, September 1, 2010 - link

    What disappoints me isn't the second core --but that Intel:

    a) Didn't update their graphics platform, but added insult to injury by
    b) Using the Pine Trail platform as an opportunity to limit others from improving on the graphics as well, by intentionally crippling nVidia's (and other third-party vendors) ability to offer solutions to link their graphics other than through a slow PCIe x1 bus.

    Intel's doing a great job of looking out for themselves on this one. For their customers? Not so much.

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