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Intel Debuts New Atom N280, GN40 Chipset


Intel launched its N280 processor and GN40 chipset simultaneously and, while the CPU has gotten most of the attention, it's the humble chipset that might be more interesting. HD decoding is one feature, but we should see others, including support for DDR3, in the future.

Intel's N280 is officially out the door and headed for market. Intel confirmed that it's shipping the single-core processor in volume to PC manufacturers; Asus's 1000HE netbook is already available for preorder if you just can't wait for the system to hit Newegg. The N280 is unlikely to offer any performance advantage over the N270—the chip is just 67MHz faster (1667MHz vs. 1600MHz). The CPU's bus speed has increased significantly, however, rising to 667MHz from the 533MHz FSB on the original Diamondville part, but Atom's in-order design is probably the most significant bottleneck.
The N280 improves significantly on N270's already excellent power consumption, with a rated TDP of 2W, down 20 percent from the N270's 2.5W. How much improvement this will make in real-world battery tests is still unknown; CPU power draw definitely accounts for a significant percentage of a netbook's power consumption, but it is far from the only factor. We'll see further improvements in this area once Intel launches an updated Atom on its 32nm process technology, but that's unlikely to occur before Intel updates the processor's platform(s) in 2010.

It has been speculated that Intel might shift Atom to 32nm production relatively quickly, given the CPU's simplicity, but Intel has issued no guidance on the topic. If netbooks continue to remain a bright spot in an otherwise depressed CPU market, it could spur the company to push new CPU introductions more quickly than it otherwise might.

The chipset's where the action is at

The N280, meanwhile, was just half of the day's announcement. Santa Clara also launched a new integrated graphics chipset today that may offer a number of improvements over the 945GSE solution that Intel paired with the N270. To date, the graphics chipsets Intel has chosen to pair with Atom (945GSE for netbooks, 945GC for desktops/nettops) have consumed significantly more power than the CPUs themselves. As we've previously discussed, the 945GC has a rated TDP of 22.2W, while even the netbook-friendlier 945GSE rates an 11.8W TDP. Both the 945GC and the 945GSE use Intel's GMA950 graphics technology, which offers a level of performance that's anemic, at best.

The Ion platform NVIDIA announced at CES last month is targeted squarely at Intel's graphics weakness, a fact that makes the latter's GN40 launch particularly timely. Unfortunately, it's currently impossible to compare the brand-new graphics hardware head-to-head with Ion. NVIDIA has shipped Ion reference platforms and the performance characteristics of that solution's GeForce 9400M are well known, but Intel has released very little technical information on GN40, save that it's capable of HD decoding in hardware.

Presumably, the GN40 is a streamlined version of the company's GL40 mobile chipset, which uses Intel's GMA X4500HD graphics solution. If true, this would explain the chipset's ability to decode 720p HD content in hardware (1080p support is apparently off the table). We may not know the thermal specifications for GN940, but published data on the GL940 indicates that the chip has a maximum TDP of just 12W. That's essentially equivalent to what the 945GSE already offers; any additional power consumption improvements Intel has made when moving from GMA 950 to X4500HD apparently improve the new chipset's performance-per-watt further. Personally, I'll be curious to see if this improves the objective quality of video output even in basic 2D work. I was never particularly pleased with the GMA 950's output quality on either the desktop motherboards of the day or incorporated into the Atom D945GCLF we reviewed last year.

An X4500-based chipset derived from the GL940 could offer a lot of nice additional features: like fully supporting Vista's Aero, allowing for the use of an external DVI port, increasing the maximum potential RAM loadout from 2GB (945GSE) to 8GB, it's DDR3-compatible, and includes support for both the C5 (Enhanced Deeper Sleep) and C6 (Deep Power Down) states. Atom is capable of taking advantage of either state, but the 945GSE only supported states C0-C4. The GL40's data sheet also lists an additional display state (D2) referred to as "Suspend," that doesn't appear within the 945GSE's specification sheets.

Intel faces off against Ion

There's no guarantee that all these features made it from GL40 to GN40, but even a handful of them would represent a very real update. It's possible that NVIDIA could find itself facing a worthy Ion competitor much earlier than the company thought. From Intel's perspective, meanwhile, it's holding most of the cards. If the GL40 fits within 945GSE's thermal and physical envelope, netbook manufacturers will have a much simpler time building devices that use the new CPU+chipset. With Ion, NVIDIA is starting from scratch and must persuade OEMs that its solution will be a better fit for their devices than either N270+945GSE or N280+GN40.

Past reviews of Intel's G45 integrated graphics solution have indicated that it lags competitive solutions from ATI and NVIDIA in terms of both its overall performance and its driver maturity; Ion would likely outperform an equivalent GN40 system unless Intel has really goosed its integrated GPU. The importance of this point, however, is debatable, as it's still unclear whether or not would-be buyers will value 3D capabilities in a netbook. Even if relatively strong 3D performance does turn out to be a selling point, it's one selling point in a virtual sea of options.

To date, we've seen manufacturers experimenting with screen size and resolution, weight, battery life, storage capacity, hard drives vs. solid state devices, and external outputs, all in an attempt to figure out what it is, exactly, customers want (and how much they'll pay for it). And everything they've learned may be irrelevant if the economy gets any worse.

Atom N280 may have grabbed headlines, but I'm betting it's the GN40 that will emerge as the more interesting of the two parts. If Santa Clara guessed right when trimming GL40's TDP and feature size, the next generation of high-end netbooks could offer improvements to a wide variety of customers. Properly done, GN40 could be Atom's first "real" chipset and the option of choice for anyone thinking about a Windows OS past Windows XP. Vista, I don't think, will ever have much of a place in the netbook market, but Windows 7 is, or at least could be, much more popular.

Don't expect these new systems to be all that cheap, but pricing should be reasonable. The Asus 1000HE is a $399 machine that includes a 10.2" screen (1024x600), Windows XP Home, 1GB of RAM, 160GB of storage, 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.0, and according to Asus, has a 9.5 hour battery life. That's a big step up from the original Asus EEE that debuted just 15 months ago at the same price. Which suggests that there's significant pressure to keep the price flat as features are added.