Putting the low power computing puzzle together

I’ve been fascinated by this new trend in computing. Every hardware manufacturer seems to be introducing low power components aimed at simple ‘internet PCs’. Not everyone needs their PC to be able to run Crysis at 60 fps. I think it’s great that manufacturers are recognizing this, but it really is a shame that most of these products don’t quite fit together just yet.

Intel’s Atom

Take the Intel Atom CPU. The single core version uses only a maximum of 2.5 watts of electricity. A mid range desktop CPU uses fifteen times that, if not thirty. The Atom N270 in my netbook really is fast enough for surfing the web and office work. But the Atom is usually bundled with an Intel chipset that is far less efficient. As a result, the combo has a hard time when compared against a Core2 Duo chip on an Intel G31 chipset based motherboard. The latter is far more powerful and uses only slightly more energy (at least when idle).

Intel apparently has a chipset planned (codenamed ‘Poulsbo’) that will use less power, but at a cost. It will not support graphics resolutions over ‘HD ready’ and use PATA over the newer SATA standard. Hmmm, I think I’ll pass.

nVidia’s Tegra

Then there’s the Tegra. This is an all-in-one chipset that’s aimed at MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices). It uses only 2.5 watts yet can decode 1080p video at 30 fps. The platform also sports a very nifty 3d interface. Too bad it uses a non-standard chip design that won’t let you run any of your familiar software. But at least Tegra shows us what’s possible and sets a benchmark when it comes to energy efficiency.

Via’s Nano

Via has long been a pioneer in low power computing. Whilst not the fastest solutions available, their processors have always been very energy efficient. I’ve actually felt very bad for them when their latest offerings were reviewed on enthusiast sites using FPS games when they really weren’t designed for that. They were Atom’s predecessors.

The Nano has been tested by HardOCP and found to be quite a good competitor to the Atom. It uses slightly more power but is also a lot quicker. But since then very little has been heard about the platform, and it looks like it’s in trouble.

SSD drives

Another test by Tom’s hardware showed that SSD harddrives don’t actually use less power than conventional magnetic ones do. I guess SSD technology needs to mature before it can make a difference in low power computing. Then again, SSD drives are smaller and run less hot, so for now the benefit might be in cooling. One of the ironies in all of this is that most of the power consumed by computers is dissipated as heat. To get rid of that heat you’ll need fans that use even more power.

nVidia + Atom = 10W multimedia computer?

nVidia announced this week that they’re readying a chipset for Intel’s Atom processor. Could it be that some of this Tegra magic will make its way to Atom-based netbooks and nettops? I sure hope so. Computers are using an awful lot of energy these days, and considering some of these innovative new product it seems they really don’t need to.