When I was younger, I was taught to make a list of pros and cons whenever there was an important decision to be made. That’d be overdramatizing the choice at hand here today, but there are still two sides to the compromise between performance and energy efficiency.
Let’s start with the good. The new Atom D510 on Intel’s D510MO motherboard uses less power than the platform that preceded it. As a result, it doesn’t require active cooling. The board itself is mini-ITX, but its thermal characteristics allow it to fit in one of the smallest enclosures I’ve ever had sitting on my test bench.
I didn’t spend much time in Moblin, but I tooled around for an evening to get to know the operating system better, finding it to be both stable and responsive. Would I switch over permanently? Decidedly not (at least not until Adam Overa finishes his Definitive Linux Software Roundup). Fortunately, I was impressed with how snappy the platform felt in Windows 7 versus previous experiments with Atom and beta/release candidates of the operating system. Insofar as Web browsing and word processing are concerned, you’ll actually get very reasonable performance.
But it’s hard to limit folks buying technology—whether they’re gamers or grandparents—so severely. Basic usage beyond simply turning your machine on and off, from an iTunes conversion to using WinRAR for file compression, hits Atom a lot harder than Intel’s more power-hungry desktop designs. In the process of conserving energy, you wait a lot longer for tasks to finish. To compound the conundrum, while you could at least play a bit of Left 4 Dead or World of Warcraft on an Atom/Ion machine, Intel’s GMA 3150 comes up short on features and performance, leaving the integrated graphics almost worthless in 3D.
So, while Pine Trail does a solid job of showcasing some of the architectural elements that Atom needs in order to be more successful in netbooks, mobile Internet devices, and the ARM-dominated consumer electronics market, it’s probably not the platform you’re going to want in a capable desktop PC...unless, of course, you're among the legion of recently connected to the Web. In that case, the $75 price tag Intel plans to ask for its D510MO motherboard and Atom D510 processor is going to look a lot more attractive than the Ion- or 730i-based platforms priced twice as high.
This isn’t where Intel intends to leave Atom. The integration, the move from a three-chip to two-chip platform, the development of WiFi/WiMAX networking controllers—they’re all part of a grander scheme that culminates in Moorsetown: the Lincroft CPU, Langwell chipset, and Evans Peak wireless technology. That’s where we’re really looking forward to seeing the design decisions Intel’s engineers made in Pine Trail make the most sense.