Efficiency: Core 2 Nukes Atom On The Desktop

Atom Just Isn’t For Desktops

The time when the processor and platform markets were simply divided into desktop, server, and mobile hardware segments is long gone. Mobile products and related technologies have entered the enterprise and home markets to increase efficiency. Server technology increasingly meets the demand of enthusiasts. And OEMs are adding desktop components to mobile computers to reduce costs. In short, the same platforms and technologies are adopted for multiple different applications rather than specialized market segments.

However, a new generation of hardware has emerged. Geared toward the mobile and low-cost audiences, these new solutions address the needs of shrinking system dimensions, cost pressures, and ultra-mobile system requirements. VIA’s C7 and Nano processors have been around for a while, but it’s Intel’s Atom that is widely being adopted for low-cost solutions and netbook-type devices, along with nettops. However, while Atom certainly is great for mobile devices with limited performance requirements, we found that its system power consumption can be matched by a mainstream Core 2 Duo system–-which also offers a significant performance boost.

Core 2 Doesn’t Do It All

We don’t want to give you the wrong impression with this article, so it’s important to clearly define the purpose and difference between the Atom and Core 2 processors. Core 2 is Intel’s mainstream flagship product for PCs and notebooks. It is a processor that has to be installed in a socket. Models are available with two or four processing cores with large, medium, or small cache capacities and varying system speeds.

Currently, Core 2 processors cover the full spectrum, from maximum performance to maximum mobility and power efficiency for PC systems. However, Core 2 processors are complex and somewhat power-hungry. Although they are efficient, Extreme models require up to 130 W, which means that substantial cooling is required.

What Atom Is All About

Atom was developed to be cost-effective from the beginning (for Intel and its customers), to deliver a certain minimum performance, and to serve as a low-power part. While Atom is Intel’s smallest processor, the chip giant also touts its very low power specs: the desktop single cores are rated at 4 W, while the mobile versions are rated at only 2 W. The Atom 330 dual core is even rated at only 8 W. All Atom processors have to be soldered onto a motherboard by the manufacturer, which means that they are incapable of supporting any future upgrades.

On the other hand, Atom retails for only $20-$70, which is a quarter to half of the cost of an entry-level Core 2 processor. Unfortunately, Atom isn’t really fast, which makes it clear that it should not be used for systems that have to deal with anything that is more demanding than YouTube video playback, checking email, or browsing Web sites.

Atom Vs. Core 2: The Efficiency Shootout

We thought about this comparison when we looked at two G31 motherboards using a Core 2 Duo E7200 processor, as one of the platforms was capable of consuming only 31 W of power at the plug with the use of an efficient power supply unit. After we saw the 28 W idle power level of the Atom system that we used in the comparison between Atom and VIA’s Nano, we became curious about which CPU was really more efficient.

Efficiency is not measured by the lowest power level a CPU can maintain, but it is instead determined by its performance–per-power consumption ratio. We wanted to know if we could match the Atom’s system idle power consumption to that of a Core 2 Duo system and find out the real efficiency champion.