Intel Atom D510: Pine Trail Boosts Performance, Cuts Powerby Anand Lal Shimpi on December 21, 2009 12:01 AM EST
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There’s a lot to talk about so let’s take it piece by piece.
First, new vs. old Atom. With a real world performance improvement approaching 10% on the desktop, I’m happy with the performance of Pine Trail. Short of Intel introducing a brand new architecture, Atom isn’t going to get much better, so the fact that we’re getting anything is worth being happy about.
The impact of the on-die memory controller is noticeable on overall system performance. As I said earlier, my Pine Trail testbed was snappier and more responsive than my older Atom machines. It’s by no means fast, but it’s noticeably faster than before.
Power consumption is also much improved thanks to Intel ditching the archaic 945 chipset. Although the impact on battery life in netbooks is going to be more exciting than drawing less power at the wall. Pine Trail is worth waiting for.
Intel's Atom D510 board (left), Intel's Atom 330 board (right)
Atom continues to deliver good enough performance but not for a primary system. As our results have shown, even very low end dual core Pentium processors are multiple times faster than Atom. If you’re building a primary PC for yourself, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
Where Atom shines is in its ability to drive a low cost, low power machine. The Intel motherboard we featured here is going to retail for around $75 new - that includes the CPU, integrated graphics and heatsink. All you need is storage, a PSU and memory and you’ve got a complete system. Anyone who has been through a couple of upgrades should have most of the necessary components.
What Pine Trail doesn’t do is address the HTPC applications for Atom at all. While it’s true that you can play most 720p x264 content on a dual-core Atom without hardware acceleration, you don’t get the sort of problem-free play-everything experience that you do with Atom + Ion. You can set up a very functional, very capable HTPC that can play high definition content based on Ion - you can’t do the same with Pine Trail.
It’s even worse now that Flash finally has DXVA support. It’s not just a matter of making high definition content playable, it’s about making sites like Hulu and Youtube more usable. Full H.264 decode acceleration would make Pine Trail much more appealing.
If you can live without the HTPC features and Flash acceleration, Pine Trail is better than Ion. If you can't, then the decision becomes a tradeoff. Do you take better video playback performance in exchange for worse application/system performance? Or vice versa?
Our Pine Trail system (left), Zotac's Ion-based Mag (right)
Perhaps we’ll see more vendors choose to bundle 3rd party H.264 decoders and hopefully they’ll work as seamlessly as the GPU based solutions, but without them I believe NVIDIA’s Ion platform has a purpose.
I haven’t been NVIDIA’s biggest supporter in its lawsuit against Intel. For the most part I don’t see any value in NVIDIA’s chipsets anymore. In fact since NVIDIA’s departure from the market we’ve finally achieved the holy grail: vendor agnostic multi-GPU support on many motherboards (CF/SLI are well supported on X58/P55). The one exception is Ion. Without Ion there would be nothing to pressure Intel to enable H.264 acceleration on its Atom chipsets. I’m sure Intel will eventually enable it, but it sure is taking a long time - who knows how much longer it would be had NVIDIA not been such a pest. The temptation of more profit on an already low margin platform tends to trump innovation, even at the most engineering heavy companies.
If NVIDIA had a DMI/QPI license I’m not sure we’d have SLI on Intel chipsets, and the past few enthusiast NVIDIA chipsets weren’t without their issues. On the other hand, without a third party chipset vendor we don’t have someone to keep Intel in check. It’s not a problem in areas where AMD is competitive, but what about areas in which they’re not? Even worse, what happens if AMD’s fortunes take another turn for the worse? I’m not a fortune teller and I don’t know which one is technically the lesser of two evils, it’s just food for thought.