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Intel needs to kill the Atom before cheap PCs sour users on all PCs

Computers have become absurdly cheap. The list of Amazon’s best-selling notebooks is dominated by inexpensive systems that sell for $500 or less, and several best-sellers are priced below $200. That’s absurdly affordable. For half the price of an iPad Mini 4, you can take home a fully functional Windows 10 PC.

Seems like a deal, right? That depends on your tolerance for frustration. These notebooks can win at pricing limbo only because they use low-cost Intel Atom processors, which are far less powerful then the mainstream Core line-up. They’re so slow, in fact, that they poison the well of PC usability, and send users fleeing.

Getting to the heart of the Atom

If you’re not well versed in processor technology, you may not understand what Atom is, or where it came from. This is by design. Intel’s brand name carries weight, but Atom does not, and those who know what it means stay away. Recently, systems we’ve received with it have ditched the brand, instead opting for a simple “Intel Inside” logo.

Atom was introduced in 2008 as the company’s new ultra-low-voltage chip. Its design targeted a now forgotten category of “mobile Internet devices.” The Samsung Q1, a 7-inch device with a joystick-like mouse controller, is a great example of the category.


Coaster J/Wikimedia

MIDs never took off, but the Atom did found a home in the netbook, which became a fad in 2009. These 10-inch computers were much more affordable and had better battery life than larger alternatives. They were cripplingly slow, and too cramped for most. The category collapsed, and was dead by 2012.

But Atom didn’t go away. Intel continued its development, simultaneously expanding it for notebooks and attempting to combat ARM in smartphones and tablets (with little success). Its most recent incarnation is code-named Braswell, and it will be succeeded by Cherry Trail around the end of 2015. The chips are now sold under the Pentium and Celeron brands, as well as Atom.

What’s the problem?

The issue with Atom, and its recent Pentium and Celeron branded cohorts, isn’t difficult to understand. All you have to do is look at this graph.


The Microsoft Surface 3, Intel Compute Stick and Acer Aspire Switch 10E are the three most recent systems we’ve reviewed with an Intel Atom processor. Dell’s XPS 15, meanwhile, is our gold standard of moderate mainstream notebook performance – which we received with a 5th-generation Intel Core i5.

As you can see, the gap is massive. The Surface 3 performs the best, but it’s still about 2,000 points behind the XPS 13 in multi-core testing, and less than half as quick in single-core. The Acer Aspire Switch 10E, the slowest notebook we’ve tested so far in 2015, barely clears a fifth of the Dell’s single-core performance.

If you believe we live in a world where CPU performance doesn’t matter, go pick up an Atom notebook and use it for a few weeks.

If you believe we live in a world where CPU performance no long matters, go pick up a Switch 10E and use it for a few weeks. I’m certain you’ll change your mind. The experience will test even the most relaxed owner’s patience. Apps take forever to load and, once loaded, often behave badly. It’s not unusual to see a window hang with half-rendered graphics for ten seconds or more – not because of a bug, but because the hardware just can’t keep up. And while any Atom processor can theoretically handle HD video, that capability is lost if you try to do anything else simultaneously. Anti-virus running in the background? You’re not watching YouTube.

Poisoning the well

Atom is a bug zapper that targets the uninformed. Users who don’t keep up on PC hardware are understandably attracted by the low price, then shocked by the terrible experience. In theory, a modern computer can last five years or more without much need for an upgrade. But an Atom-powered notebook is inadequate from the moment the box is opened.

That’s not just frustrating for users, but also damaging to the PC industry. Someone who has a slow, limping computer is not likely to blame Intel. Instead they may justifiably blame the manufacturer, who agreed to use an inadequate chip, or less justifiably blame Microsoft, because it’s Windows that appears slow. Or, more broadly, they’ll blame the PC as a category.


Jeffery Van Camp/Digital Trends

It’s not as if PCs lack competition. Smartphones and tablets are great alternatives for many uses, and the reveal of upcoming 2-in-1s running Android and iOS (the Google Pixel C and iPad Pro, respectively) may signal a second wave of assault against the traditional Wintel platform.

A recent Wired article warns that smartphones could become usable as PCs (with a dock) in as little as two years. While I think that’s optimistic, recent improvements in ARM processors have been impressive, and the resulting devices are already subjectively better to use than an entry-level, Atom-powered Windows notebook.

Atomize the atom, or else

There’s an easy solution to this, and that’s phasing out Atom for notebooks and 2-in-1s. The Core line-up is already competitive with Atom in thermal design power, and much quicker at any given TDP.

Intel continues to sell Atom for notebooks not because it’s required, but because it’s much cheaper than a Core processor. That difference is dictated by Intel. It charges hundreds of dollars for Core, but only tens of dollars for Atom. Why? Because it can. There’s no competitor that can directly challenge it.

Offering Atom only hurts users.

It may seem absurd, then, to suggest Intel should make Core readily available for budget computers, but that’s exactly what it needs to do if PCs are to remain relevant to the average person in the long run. Charging hundreds for a decent Core mobile processor can’t be sustained, and offering Atom as an alternative only hurts the user experience. It is true that Intel currently dominates the market for PC processors, but if it does nothing to counter current trends, it may find there’s not much of a market left to dominate.