Redefining The Netbook – How gaming and productivity tasks smashed the Atom.

Ever since the October 2007 release of the original Eee PC the world of portable personal computing has been a very different place, it has been a roller-coaster of ups and down as a huge variety of innovative netbook designs were unleashed on the markets, followed by a gradual recognition of all the things they can’t do well, and finally buried by the rise of the (truly) smart-phone. Well now are about to reach another inflection point with the mass arrival of products sporting AMD’s new Fusion APU, and to a much lesser degree the new Atom D510 / Ion2 products.

Perhaps it is time to reinvent the netbook?

How do you define the format, and what should encompass its capability?

We have had ultra-lite notebooks for well over a decade with Toshiba and Sony leading the charge, but these products were not netbooks primarily due to price.

A netbook was something:

1. with a screen size less than twelve inches, which was the lower limit of the portable notebook.

2. a price less than £400, at a time when portable notebooks went for £600 plus, and larger notebooks for £500 plus at the cheap end.

All this was well and fine, but it was the other characteristics that typified the early netbook that have proved its undoing, for the definition of computing reads thus:

“In a general way, we can define computing to mean any goal-oriented activity requiring, benefiting from, or creating computers. Thus, computing includes designing and building hardware and software systems for a wide range of purposes; processing, structuring, and managing various kinds of information; doing scientific studies using computers; making computer systems behave intelligently; creating and using communications and entertainment media; finding and gathering information relevant to any particular purpose, and so on. The list is virtually endless, and the possibilities are vast.”

A netbook with an early Intel Atom CPU was incapable of meeting the demands of much that would be typically described as productivity computing; video-editing was out of bounds, as was any other CPU intensive program, and multi-tasking a no-no. For all its sophisticated engineering, its design was no more elegant than the original pentium processor with whom it shares closest ancestry.

A netbook with an Intel GMA integrated GPU was incapable of providing performance sufficient even to run older AAA PC games from years previous, and much as some people still play frogger today they do not represent any useful market segment. Not only was it unable to process vertex shaders, and generally anaemic to boot, the 3D compatibility was execrable thanks to its drivers.

A netbook with a 10” screen sporting a resolution of 1024×600 is a ‘challenging’ environment within which to manage a spreadsheet, and many applications and games cannot physically display within such a limited amount of screen real-estate. Most games/apps of the Eee PC era demanded a minimum resolution of 1024×768, and even those that permitted 800×600 were frustrated by manufacturers who used 1024×576 resolution screens.

What they were in fact was a combination of a Personal Information Manager and a Portable Media Player; limited to checking ones Gmail calender, a bit of light emailing, the odd document, and a bit of video, music and web consumption. In short, they were awkward and cumbersome examples of consumer electronics rather than an elegant reinvention of the personal computer. They came with no optical drive with which to install apps and games, and there was no apple store like ecosystem within which to develop and distribute tailored apps. The possibilities certainly were not endless!

All of this might have been very well, consumers might have been willing to put up with these fundamental limitations in exchange for cheap media-enabled portability……….. were it not for the arrival of the iphone and its smartphone siblings.

Want to do some mobile gaming; why limit yourself to 90’s era emulators when there are 10,000 shiny new pixel-shaded master-pieces on the apple/android store?

Want to check your train connections; why hunt down a web cafe and crank up the netbook when you can open a browser for national rail enquiries on your phone?

Want to listen to some music or watch a video; do you really want to lug around a netbook with its bulky power-adapter on the off chance you desire entertainment?

Want to check over that policy document your insurance company emailed through while your on your way to work; do you really need to lug your netbook around?

And this is to ignore the Web 2.0 information fusion that works at its best on a smartphone; the combination of a internet data, GPS, camera, and compass that allows you to navigate, communicate and inform all in one. So you can’t run Half-Life 2, or use Reason to create music, or Quicken to manage you finances, so what, that is the realm of the personal computer.

So where does this leave the netbook?

It requires that the netbook refocus on what it supposed to be; a personal computing device capable of goal-oriented activity, processing, structuring, and managing various kinds of information, of virtually endless possibilities. The lack of an optical drive is no longer an obstacle, games and apps are always available to download these days.

How does it do this?

First it needs a screen that is conducive to games and productivity applications, with a minimum vertical resolution of at least 768 pixels, in widescreen due to our media driven lives, and of a size sufficient to pick out text at default font sizes. The answer is already here, and has been for over a year, it is an 11.6” screen with a resolution of of 1366×768. Isn’t this too big to be called a netbook? This bloggers response is; “tough!” There is a limit to how small you can make a PC capable of acting as a general purpose computer, and this is about it.

Second it needs sufficient GPU and CPU power to be able to meet the needs of typical productivity apps and games. Does this mean you should be able to run CAD models of the next QE2 liner? No. Does it mean you should be able to play Crysis at max details and 16x anti-aliasing? No.

To use gaming as a choice example, have a look at the following list of bestselling games in the Steam store with prices ranging from £3.00 to £15.00, and see how many of them are capable of running on the Intel netbook platform based on comparative information from notebookcheck.com:

This list is not definitive, nor is it exact, it is merely an extrapolation of system requirements against a best guess of performance equivalence with netbook hardware.

The result is pretty damning, only 60% of £3.00 games will run, only 30% of £7.00 and £12.00 games will run, and a mere 20% of £15.00 games will run. These are the minimum specifications which are usually ‘optimistic’ to say the least, and this is notebook hardware which is usually lower performance than its desktop equivalent. Worst of all, even those games that can live within the Atom/GMA performance constraints might still be scuppered by the requirement for a minimum resolution of 1024×768.

It is at this point that AMD’s Ontario SoC product steps into the light, a low power Fusion product comprising the Bobcat CPU and a 5xxx series GPU that AMD like to term an “APU”. Liliputing have some excellent coverage here:

“Today AMD unveiled new details about its upcoming Bobcat platform for small, low power devices such as netbooks, nettops, and tablets. Bobcat is the processor core that will show up in the Ontario chips due out in early 2011.

AMD says Bobcat is capable of operating on less than a watt of energy, but it’s an x86 processor with out0of-order execution, which means it should be more than capable of powering Windows and other complex operating systems. According to AMD, the Bobcat core offers 90% of the power you expect from a mainstream chip today, while using less than half the silicon area.

Ontario chips will combine the Bobcat CPU with a graphics processor and high speed bus to offer a complete chipset. Of course, we won’t really know how the Ontario chipset compares with existing technology such as Intel’s Atom or ULV platforms or the AMD Neo chips available today until the new chips are released early next year. And by that time, Intel will likely have launched its next-generation Oak Trail platform for mobile devices. The march of progress never stops.”

And the CPU performance looks good, providing nearly double the performance of even the newer dual-core Atoms, and about ninety percent of a modern low-power dual-core desktop chip.

What is less well understood at this point is what GPU AMD will integrate next to the Bobcat CPU, all that is known is that it will be a DirectX 11 GPU derived from its current graphics line. Considering that ATI use a superscalar architecture which currently uses sixteen shader blocks each composed of five specialised shaders, for a cluster of eighty shader units, we can presume that the Ontario SoC contains at least one of these shader clusters. If GPU portion is indeed an eighty shader cluster then it will have performance equivalent to an ATI 5470 mobile product, which should be capable of playing all but one of the forty games listed above, with only six of the remainder being unable to be played at high settings.

To put this in perspective, this is more than twice the graphics performance of the original 13″ unibody Macbook Pro!

Intel are allegedly setting up a netbook app-store, but as far as games are concerned its a dead duck as once again smartphones have stolen a march on Gen1 netbooks and developers are rightly chasing the money of ARM based development. The future of netbook gaming lies in the low end of mainstream PC gaming, rather some mythical promised land of casual gaming.

If AMD pull this off then will have truly created a useful netbook capable or genuine computing tasks rather than mere media consumption.

As for Atom…….. Intel are determined to drive Atom lower into the tablet/smartphone arena, and it will be to the detriment of a chipsets/GPU designed to provide the full panoply of desktop connectivity such as PCIe/SATA/DirectX/OpenGL etc. For this reason Atom will become more important in the embedded market as well as the ODM market for mobile internet devices, as they have crippled the current generation by allowing it only a single PCIe 1x slot with which to connect a useful discrete graphics, unit as witnessed by the mediocre performance of the Nvidia Ion2 GPU. This combined with the limited 1.5GHz speed of the new dual-core Atoms and the 2GB memory limit make it a very undesirable platform. Intel clearly aren’t interested in netbook computing in the long-term, they will just move their CULV platform downwards and declare the netbook dead.

Roll on Q4 2010, if you’re in the market to buy a small but powerful notebook computer with a cheap price tag, this is something you should be looking at.

Update – 08/09/10 – Bright Side of the News are stating that Ontario will integrate an 80 shader DX11 GPU, so the performance estimates above should be accurate.

12 responses to “Redefining The Netbook – How gaming and productivity tasks smashed the Atom.

    • Thank you, my best guess is that by this time next year a netbook will be a device with:
      £400 pricetag
      AMD Fusion
      11.6″ – 12.1″ screen
      64GB flash drive
      4GB of LP DDR3

      Intel is determined to drive Atom lower into the tablet/smartphone arena, and it will be to the detriment of a chipsets/GPU’s designed to provide the full panoply of desktop connectivity such as PCIe/SATA/DirectX/OpenGL etc.

      For this reason Atom will become more important in the embedded market as well as the ODM market for mobile internet devices.

      Intel have crippled the current generation by allowing it only a single PCIe 1x slot with which to connect a useful discrete graphics unit.

      They clearly aren’t interested in netbook computing in the long-term, they will just move their CULV platform downwards and declare the netbook dead.

  1. “Intel clearly aren’t interested in netbook computing in the long-term”

    Its a while since I looked, but my understanding of Intels strategy was that Atom (or its replacement) would be the only game in town.

    Want to control a home appliance?
    Atom

    Want to control a smartphone phone?
    Atom x2

    Want to control an office PC
    Atom x3

    Want to control a gaming PC?
    Atom x16
    With awesome Graphics?
    Another Atom x16

    Want to break encrypted radio traffic?
    Atom x32768

    I suppose you could say they arent interested in platforms, as long as their chips power them.

    • nah, intel correctly predicted the rise of the ‘device’, a low-power internet connected thing in need of a modest level of CPU power, and rather than leave this enormous market to ARM they decided to bring x86 to this segment.

      however, Intels aim is to move into this ultra-mobile segment, not the portable segment occupied by netbooks/thin-n-lites which is why they created a highly stripped down in-order CPU.

      the design will never compete in the realm of real computing, and its not going to replace the Core series ever, its purpose is merely to fight ARM for the several billion smart devices that are going to be manufactured in the next decade.

  2. I have to take issue with some of the “no” entries in the Intel GPU Equivalent column. I have a Lenovo T410 with Core i5 cpu and Intel HD Graphics (3DMark06 ~1900). See where it stands on notebookcheck’s website. I can play Rocket Knight no trouble and I’m pretty sure the others listed wouldn’t be a problem either.

    While it is true that CULV parts are clocked lower (3Dmark06 ~1200), they are still competitive with current AMD integrated graphics in the 11-13 inch form factor – see http://www.hexus.net/content/item.php?item=26630 for new 11in Lenovo Edge and http://www.hexus.net/content/item.php?item=26281&page=2 for a head to head comparison between Arrandale vs Danube.

    It is true that Bobcat will be a step up in graphics performance, but so will Sandybridge ULV,

    • thanks for the reply.

      my list above doesn’t include the i3/i5 GPU’s largely because they exist well outside the netbook price category, and outside the size category too.

      sandybridge will bring performance parity with bobcat, but i doubt that it will be a netbook product, again on the grounds of cost and form-factor.

      netbook prices stop at £400.

      core i3 notebooks start at well over £500

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  5. One minor correction: Civilization III is not compatible with most Netbooks because it requires a 1024×768 display. (To be pedantic, yes there is the odd netbook out there with 1366×768, and, yes, most of today’s netbooks will do 1024×768 on an external monitor just fine, but neither of these allow Civ3 to be played on a long flight over the Pacific Ocean)

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  7. “A netbook with an early Intel Atom CPU was incapable of meeting the demands of much that would be typically described as productivity computing; video-editing was out of bounds, as was any other CPU intensive program, and multi-tasking a no-no.”

    Your extremely limited scope on what defines productivity does not reflect true productivity in the real business world. In fact, I would consider video-editing a fun hobby, and real productivity includes plugging in a test instrument, collecting data, and generating reports – something an average Atom processor-based netbook has no trouble with.

    “A netbook with a 10” screen sporting a resolution of 1024×600 is a ‘challenging’ environment within which to manage a spreadsheet, and many applications and games cannot physically display within such a limited amount of screen real-estate.”

    For many years, 800×600 was the standard resolution for spreadsheet users, who most certainly did not feel “Challenged.” 800×600 continues to be a standard resolution for many productivity apps and games today.

    “To use gaming as a choice example, have a look at the following list of bestselling games in the Steam store…”

    Many of those games that won’t run on a netbook also aren’t likely to run on any low-end PC with integrated graphics. Steam caters to gamers with gaming rigs equipped with the latest, most powerful video cards requiring power supplies in excess of 500 watts. That said, Atom-based netbooks are quite capable of playing a broad variety of games significantly better than Frogger. The original Half Life plays fine on my Aspire One D255.

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