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Atom, Athlon, or Nano? Energy-Savers Compared

Atom, Athlon, or Nano? Energy-Savers Compared
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Once AMD and Intel realized that pure clock speed isn’t the only way to improve performance, they started focusing on multi-core processors. They’ve been refining this concept by improving efficiency. The level of per-watt performance is what matters the most today, which is one of the main reasons for Intel’s success with its Core 2 processor family. But there are more than enough applications that do not require a lot of performance, and this is where AMD, Intel and VIA aim their low-power platforms. We compared an Athlon 64 2000+, Atom 230, Nano L2100 with the goal of figuring out which solutions serve up enough speed.

Low-Power Applications

While typical PC applications perform best mated to a full-featured processor—which today is a fast dual-core device—there are numerous applications that only need limited processing capabilities. Networking systems such as routers and firewalls operate well with limited CPU power as long as the number of users and features like QoS (quality of service) or encrypted VPN connections are low.

Thin clients in enterprise environments are another example. If users don’t have to handle massive applications then they won’t need powerful systems. Systems that control industrial devices in assembly lines, check-out registers, and kiosks work well with these low-power processors in many cases. Finally, an increasing number of low-cost PCs and nettop desktops (as opposed to net books) are powered by low-cost and low-power processors.

Where Low Power Becomes A Drawback

It is important to draw a clear line and separate low-power systems from high-efficiency systems, as these are two different things. A low-power system consumes as little power as possible to conserve energy, to reduce the need for cooling, or to reduce operating cost by saving energy for systems and air conditioning as well as by using simpler architectures. However, such a low-power system may not necessarily be efficient as well, just like a high-efficiency system does not have to be a low-power machine.

Your choice depends on your requirements. If the workload is predictable and controllable at all times, then it is safe and reasonable to purchase low-power solutions to keep costs down. This is the market segment that AMD, Intel, and VIA target with the products we review in this article. But if the workload could change and may even increase, a higher-power system that not only delivers more performance, but also offers greater efficiency (measured in performance per watt) is typically the better choice.

Low-Power Processor Vendors

VIA is the only processor firm that has catered to the low-power market for many years. However, we want to make it clear that our focus is on the traditional computing market and there are many other suppliers that cater to specific niche applications. While VIA lacks the size and clout to compete directly against AMD and Intel in all the markets on which the two chip giants focus, VIA has a significant presence in the low-power market segment. VIA started with the C3 and C7 processors. The Nano family is pin-compatible with the C7 and provides much increased performance within the existing VIA power envelopes, mostly on VIA’s Mini-ITX or Nano-ITX platforms.

Intel has discovered the same market with its Atom family, which has been available as a single-core devices, while dual-core versions of the architecture are beginning to show up. Atom has a new pin-out, and it also utilizes Intel’s well-known front-side bus and mature chipsets. The Atom dual core will be the first low-power dual-core processor and it is the smallest low-power product available today thanks to Intel’s 45-nm manufacturing.

The selection of a low-power product is more difficult with AMD—the Geode LX is a low-power device, but its performance is not sufficient for PC applications. Geode NX is based on the Athlon XP, which requires an outdated platform. However, we received a low-power Athlon 64 2000+ processor for Socket AM2 some months ago, and this processor is rated at a TDP of only 8 W. Although this is not a commercial product (yet), it does a good job of showing what a low-power version of the device would offer for mainstream PC applications.

Display all 46 comments.
  • 0 Hide
    jawshoeaw , October 3, 2008 7:19 AM
    I'd like to see how much electricity you would save in a year by having an efficient machine for basic home use - the one you could leave on 24/7 guilt free
  • 6 Hide
    alexander , October 3, 2008 7:53 AM
    There are some things with this test review that pussles me. Why did you use 3,5" drives? They draw about 10 watt instead of 2 watt for 2,5" drives. Also, I think you could have used a much more energy efficent power supply. That is probably why they all had the same idle watt; the psu was the bottleneck.

    I use a setup with the following:
    Jetway VIA C7 1.2 GHz
    picoPSU 60 watt power supply
    1 GB Kingston DDR2 667 Mhz RAM
    250 GB Samsung 2,5" drive

    This setup only draws about 20 watt when working and even less when idle (measured with a wall socket device, so I know it's accurate and total).

    http://www.mini-pc.de/catalog/il/420
    http://www.mini-pc.de/catalog/il/338

    /Alex
  • 4 Hide
    alexander , October 3, 2008 8:00 AM
    By the way, It would have been interesting also to see you review the dual core Atom.

    And maybe also compared to a more modest "normal" computer instead of a gaming rig, to see how low you can get with a normal PC.

    Otherwise an interesting article, as they most often are.

    /Alex
  • 0 Hide
    alexander , October 3, 2008 8:04 AM
    My last entry for today... ;) 

    http://www.mini-pc.de/catalog/il/941

    (And no, I don't work for the company...)

  • 0 Hide
    faithful , October 3, 2008 8:07 AM
    Here is a very nice review including the dual core Atom 330. I also has many more benchmarks.

    http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/cpu/display/intelatom-vianano.html
  • 0 Hide
    faithful , October 3, 2008 8:09 AM
    This review could be seen by some as using very selective benchmarks.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 3, 2008 8:20 AM
    my underclocked ADO5400IAA5DO consumes ~5W more than athlon in ths reaview, but I have 2x1000Mhz :D  as a bonus I can always relax minimum power requirement and take performance route a step or two :D 

    I sugest to try "AMD NPT Family 0Fh Desktop Processor Power and Thermal Data Sheet" document on the www.amd.com - interesting read

    by the way, my geode lx800 (500MHz) board on the full load fits into 6W :D 
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 3, 2008 8:21 AM
    It would be nice to build Core2 Duo (or even Solo) and under-clock it to similar power envelope (not very much unlike AMD system)... I wonder how It would compare with the rest of the bunch.
  • 0 Hide
    alexander , October 3, 2008 8:26 AM
    n/a, what power supply do you use?
  • 2 Hide
    randomizer , October 3, 2008 8:27 AM
    The WinRAR graph is wrong, or the comment about it is wrong. There's a typo in the Winzip comment.

    WinRAR: "Still, VIA’s Nano still is more powerful."
    Well, it looks to me like Atom won.

    Winzip: "Hence VIA’s Atom does well again."
    Oops :kaola: 
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , October 3, 2008 8:56 AM
    Really stupid test setup ...
    Using slowest AMD clocked 1Ghz vs 1.6Ghz Atom and 1.8Ghz via ... You should use faster x2 losing only few more watts but gaining fastest and best platform in test.

    Atom is including old platform slow crap, but this "test" is obviously aimed to show that AMD is bad, buy intel. Choosing BEST cpu from intel and VIA and testing it against SLOWEST AMD ... what is the point???

    This AMD 1Ghz/8W will have aprox 12W on 1.5Ghz ... and then including excellent 780G chipset will be total winner of all test including price, performance per watt etc.
  • 1 Hide
    randomizer , October 3, 2008 9:00 AM
    pifChoosing BEST cpu from intel...

    If Atom is the best, Intel is screwed.
  • 1 Hide
    faithful , October 3, 2008 9:33 AM
    Does CPU manufacturers sometimes pay reviewers for reviews? I was just wondering because I have it on other websites but fortunately not here.
  • 0 Hide
    cangelini , October 3, 2008 10:16 AM
    faithfulDoes CPU manufacturers sometimes pay reviewers for reviews? I was just wondering because I have it on other websites but fortunately not here.

    Have what, Faithful?
  • 0 Hide
    cangelini , October 3, 2008 10:18 AM
    randomizerThe WinRAR graph is wrong, or the comment about it is wrong. There's a typo in the Winzip comment.WinRAR: "Still, VIA’s Nano still is more powerful."Well, it looks to me like Atom won.Winzip: "Hence VIA’s Atom does well again."Oops

    Nice catch Random, fixed.
  • 1 Hide
    eugenparaschiv , October 3, 2008 10:50 AM
    The AMD processor is clocked at 1000MHz. One ideea for the next article would be to take a real 2000+ Lima (or even an X2) and underclock it until it reaches 10-15 W (not 8). This would be a much more fair comparasion with VIA, because that particular solution needs 18W, so you could argue that the bast comparison would be a VIA at 18W and a AMD also at 18W (probably a Lima at 1600Mhz, or a X2 at 1000Mhz). Any chance at this article being done?
  • 1 Hide
    faithful , October 3, 2008 10:59 AM
    Quote:
    Have what, Faithful?

    ..because I have seen it.."
  • -1 Hide
    zodiacfml , October 3, 2008 11:31 AM
    the atom processor would always win in this segment.
    the price. the design and manufacturing technology for the atom will allow intel and consumers on a win-win situation. profitable for intel and low prices for consumers while offering adequate performance for net use.
    i am sure the atom can still use less power.
    its as if, intel drove the atom to maximum clockspeed for the given die space and architecture so that it can achieve that adequate performance.
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , October 3, 2008 12:33 PM
    CPU-Z memory speed for Athlon X2 is right. K8 processors have minimum divider 1/5 from clock speed, so at 1000 MHz it just cant go above 200 MHz physical clock or 400 MT/s (DDR2-400). You can check it with C&C on any Athlon - drop to 800 MHz, and the memory goes DDR2-320 (160 MHz physical). So i wonder why you use horrible 6-6-6 timings for the memory? At DDR2-400 it should have no problems with 3-3-3.
  • 1 Hide
    coldmast , October 3, 2008 2:07 PM
    Quote:
    Some PSUs are most efficient for low loads, while others are better for high loads. However, if you use an 800 W PSU and only use 28-50 W, the efficiency will certainly not be in an ideal range. This is why we used the FSP220—it guarantees that the PSU runs within an efficient load corridor.


    I'm glad this was mentioned!
    I had problems with other reviewers that would insist on using 1000W power supplies for low power consumption hardware, the P/S efficiency is only around 50-65% on low power conversion.
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