Intel releases faster dual-core Atom netbook processor

Netbooks will get faster performance from the Atom N550

Intel on Monday released a dual-core Atom N550 processor, which the company says will bring improved application and graphics performance to netbooks while retaining long battery life.

The Atom N550 processor is a big upgrade from previous processors in an Atom lineup that primarily consisted of single-core chips. The processor will operate at a speed of 1.5GHz, and include 1MB of cache.

The chip will be more responsive than single-core Atom processors, which go into most netbooks today, Intel said. Users will be able to run applications faster and play back 720p video in netbooks that are as thin and light as existing models. Netbooks with the new chip will offer similar battery life as its single-core predecessors, the company said.

New netbooks will be offered by companies including Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba starting on Monday, the chip maker said. Details about the netbooks, including price and availability, were not be immediately available.

Netbooks are low-cost PCs characterized by small screens and small keyboards, and were designed primarily to surf the Internet and run basic applications like word processors. Though popular, netbooks have been heavily criticized for underperformance and poor graphics, due partly to the limited processing power of Atom chips.

The dual-core processor is an incremental improvement to previous Atoms, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. Intel had to move quickly to improve Atom performance as computing demands are consistently increasing.

"As the technology progresses ... you'll even see dual-core processors showing up in [mobile] handsets," McCarron said.

Netbook performance could catch up with that of laptops as a result, but may also temporarily create confusion among buyers, McCarron said. Intel has to improve the performance of its laptop chips to effectively separate the categories, he said, adding that that will ultimately happen.

Intel's Celeron processor will perhaps take the biggest hit from any confusion, McCarron said. Celeron chips are at the bottom of Intel's lineup of mainstream laptop processors, and are typically found in low-end laptops with screens up to 15.6 inches.

Intel also had to bump up Atom's performance to stay ahead of rival Advanced Micro Devices, which will soon start shipping processors for netbooks and ultramobile PCs, McCarron said.

AMD will ship a low-power chip code-named Ontario, which combines a CPU and graphics processor in one chip, starting in the fourth quarter. An AMD spokesman said that computers with the new chips are expected to hit shelves early next year.

The Atom N550 will be made using a 45-nanometer manufacturing process and support DDR3 memory.

This won't be the first dual-core Atom processor. Intel earlier released the Atom 330 which reached a few laptops. The chip was based on a desktop processor design.

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