Are Atom-Powered Computers Worth It?
Recently I was singing the praises of an Acer Revo with a dual-core Atom processor. It struggled from time to time (mainly when trying to playback media, whether it was Flash or Quicktime) but by and large it allowed me to check my email and surf the web perfectly well. The benefits of the Atom platform are that it's cheap and energy efficient. For that you sacrifice raw processing power. My question is, should you? Most people only own one computer (though I think that'll change) so don't have the luxury of using another machine if they start to struggle, with that in mind I thought I would look at the options.
My Revo cost about £190 (you can currently get them for about £180) as I bought the Linux version. There are a few other machines for that price, but they're mainly above £200. The Linux version is fine if you either have a copy of Windows lying around (a retail copy, OEM copies are tied to the hardware, technically) or are happy to run Linux (not necessarily the one installed) and competent enough to get hold of a copy (or use the supplied one). Most people, though, will want to run Windows. Now you can buy a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium (the most popular version) for about £75 (for OEM, retail will be £83). The only problem is then you can't install it as the Revo has no DVD drive, you'd need to buy an external one if you don't already have one, you're looking at £30-40. So now we're talking about a total cost of £285 (180+75+30).
You can of course buy a Windows version of the Revo. There are three versions: one with 2GB RAM and 250GB hard drive, which costs £240; one with 2GB RAM and a 320GB hard drive, which costs £285; and one with 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive, which costs £299. Personally, I think the smallest model is more than enough for most people (in terms of RAM and drive space). So now we're only looking at £240, but we still don't have a DVD drive, so if you want to install any software, rip music or movies or do any one of the other things a DVD drive is useful for, you'll still need to buy an external one. Assuming this is going to be the only machine in the house, most people need one I would say, so you're looking at £270-280.
For that money you can find alternative machines out there with a lot more CPU power (and therefore longevity), expandability and are all in one box (instead of having a DVD drive trailing off it). For example, Dell currently has its base model Inspiron desktop with either an Intel Dual Core 2.7Ghz processor or an AMD dual-core Athlon II 240 X2 processor available for £299 (£279 if you opt for a Celeron or Semperon chip, both quicker than an Atom). You still get 2GB of RAM, plus a 320GB hard drive, and the larger case provides a lot more potential for future upgrades and expansion should you need it. It's not all rosy, it doesn't come with WIFI like the Revo. I found an Acer Veriton with 1GB RAM (I'd recommend 2GB as a minimum but it's an easy upgrade for about £25), 160GB hard drive and Windows 7 Pro for £255.
If you're not fussed about the OS there's the Acer Aspire X1301 for £284 which comes with 4GB RAM, a 1TB hard drive and a dual-core Athlon 215 X2 processor. I found a 2.7Ghz Dual Core Pentium Lenovo with only 1GB RAM and a 250GB hard drive. eBuyer even have some 'Extra Value' machines with no OS that start at £228 for a 2.9Ghz Dual Core Pentium with 2GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive.
Now these are big box machines, the Revo is small (though not especially quiet I found) and probably don't use great quality parts, but I'd still bet they'll out last the Revo. If you want something smaller, there's a smaller Inspiron model from Dell for £50 more. The Advent Firefly with a 2.6Ghz processor Pentium Dual Core comes in at £320 and looks nice and small. There all likely to draw more power than the Revo, though most manufacturers are being very hot on this at the moment so I wouldn't expect them to draw a huge amount and most people don't leave them on all day so the extra cost will be negligible.
It's a similar situation with laptops as well. Using PC World as a pricing example, you can grab a netbook, which is typically powered by an atom processor, for £199. For that you get an eMachines device with a single-core processor, 1GB of RAM and 160GB hard drive. It also has four hours of battery life and weighs just 1.1Kg. You only get a 10.1â€ screen though and no optical drive, and it comes with Windows XP. There's plenty more in the £240-£300 bracket. They don't even stock a dual-core netbook.
Ignoring the refurbished laptops, they start at £300 for an EI Systems Sorrento, which has a 2.2 Ghz Celeron 900 processor and 2GB of RAM with a 15.6" screen. It weighs 2.4 Kg though and there's no mention of batter life. It does come with Windows 7 though. The Celerons are the lower end of Intel's processor range but are still much faster than any Atom (about twice looking at some benchmarks).
Not a brand I've heard of, so come up a bit further (£380) and you can get a Compaq Presario with an AMD Athlon II M320 processor which clocks in about four times faster. Comes with 2GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive and a 15.6" screen. Again, you sacrifice weight and no mention on battery life. It comes with Windows 7.
It looks like £400 is where you start getting the full dual-core processors, generally with 2-3 GB of RAM and 250-320GB hard drives. These are the more popular 15.6" size, smaller ones come in a bit more (13.3" Toshiba for £420).
Shop around though and you can get that Presario with the AMD Athlon for £360.
OK, so these machines are nearly twice as expensive, but computers are not just about the initial cost. The benefits of the other machines are that they come with an optical drive, making it easier to install software, bigger screens which make them easier to use and, more importantly, they'll be capable of running software happily for several years, which the Atom-powered netbooks won't. And that's before you consider they usually allow for upgrades to memory and hard drives that could keep them going even longer.
My original question was whether an Atom-powered PC is worth buying for the average user. The answer is no, it's not. For less and certainly not much more money there are a range of machines that offer vastly more processing power and future proofing than any computer that runs the Atom platform. Personally, I think it makes the Atom machines a false economy.
My advice would be to buy a more powerful machine rather than splash out on a netbook or nettop (as they're called). As a second machine an Atom-powered device may be suitable, for fairly light activities, but not as a general computer for most users. In that respect they have their uses, but a smartphone or a tablet would provide most of the functionality. A second-hand machine would be better in most cases. Don't be fooled by the hype.