Home > gadgets > ARM Cortex A9 vs Intel Atom N450 Pine Trail

ARM Cortex A9 vs Intel Atom N450 Pine Trail


While I am eagerly waiting for the smartbook product introductions at 2010 CES, I am wondering what kind of performance we can expect from those upcoming ARM based tablets and netbooks. Although some of the smartbooks will be based on Cortex A8 technology, I believe only the more performant, dual-core Cortex A9 system-on-chip (SOC) designs will be really successful (see this about the A8).

Since newer Pine Trail Atom netbooks are already getting fairly good battery runtimes, the question is unavoidable for the smartbooks: will we get at least similar performance to the Atom based netbooks? New Intel based netbooks will mostly use the netbook-oriented Atom N450 chip (Pine View), so I will try to draw a comparison between this chip and the known characteristics of A9 SOCs.

Since it is extremely hard to come by good comparative data between ARM and Atom, partly because Cortex A9 based systems are not yet available for the public, this post is highly speculative and by no means should serve as the basis for purchasing your next smartbook/netbook.

By ARM’s specifications, the Cortex A9 core has an approximate raw performance of 2.5 DMIPS/MHz. It can run at 2Ghz when produced on the 28nm GlobalFoundries process. This is 5000 DMIPS/core with an expected 10000 DMIPS for a dual core setup (MP CORE version).

Since it is more likely that the first A9 SOCs will be manufactured with a 40nm process, we only calculate with a 1.5 Ghz top frequency which would yield about 7500 DMIPS.

Now, performance wise. the new N450 is only marginally better that the earlier Atom chips (5-10%, see this Anandtech article) and several discussions report that the older Atoms get 2.5 DMIPS/Mhz, a 1.6 Ghz Atom yields about  4000 DMIPS (one of the discussions). Pine View Atoms for netbooks (N450 descendants) are not planned to be made dual-core in the near future so we calculate with only one core.

I am aware that this is not a perfect comparison since DMIPS values between different architectures are not 100% comparable, but these results would mean an 80% advantage in raw power for the dual-A9.

Some more considerations:

All recent ARM chips include hardware decoders for H264 video while the N450/NM10 has no such capability. This means either choppy HD video from Youtube or an external H264 decoder chip (like the Broadcomm one or an Nvidia Ion like extension). Certain Cortex A9 SOCs promise multiple 1080p stream decoding in parallel (like the Tegra 2) without loading the general purpose ARM core. Moreover, in the case of the N450, the maximum output on hdmi is restricted to 1366×768 (1440×1050 for the analog vga out). So you can forget about viewing HD videos with your Atom netbook even if you have an external, HD monitor or TV.

Flash hardware acceleration is coming (with Flash 10.1)  to all ARM machines with H264 decoders but in case of the N450 alone, there is nothing to accelerate with. So you better check whether your Atom netbook has the external video decoder or you will never watch streamed hd videos with decent speed. It is fully possible that Nvidia won’t produce a new ION chipset for the new Atoms since Intel denied access to the relevant hw interfaces. Instead, Nvidia will work even harder on Tegra 2.

Architecture wise: the new Pine View Atom remains in-order architecture, produced on 45nm while the Cortex A9 is out-of-order core (more modern, inherently more powerful than the Atom) with easy implementation on the TSMC 40nm process and the GlobalFoundries 28nm process.

The n450 SOC and the NM10 companion chip(set) still works in a 6.5w TDP while the dual-A9 SOCs are expected to work in a 2W TDP. This is massive difference and makes it likely that the same battery will last much longer with an A9 smartbook than with an N450 netbook. The N450 doesn’t need active cooling anymore (this is good news) so the new machines will not have fans but the TDP values above indicate that Atom netbooks will likely be hotter than A9 based smartbooks especially in continued use.

The third generation Atoms – which could improve the situation – will come only in 2012, seriously late compared to A9 based chips (1Q 2010).

Conclusion:

It very much seems that dual core Cortex A9 SOCs will be at-least on-par with the Pine View N450 Atom, performance wise, and possibly overpower them by 50-80% in raw processing power. Graphics performance, end-user price and battery runtimes are also expected to be much better for the A9 based machines.

Unless, Intel comes out with much more powerful Atom designs for netbooks, ARM Cortex A9 based smartbook products may severely cut into Atom netbook sales. X86 compatibility is less of a factor in this segment, so consumers may decide based on perceived performance, battery runtime in which A9 smartbooks seem to have the advantage.

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Categories: gadgets
  1. abhifx
    January 19, 2010 at 09:59

    very nice article. although i agree with the article, on the paper it seems a9 cortex at clock to clock should be more powerful. but the result can only be verified after a true benchmark. although, i am very sure that that tegra 2 is severely more powerful than an atom and interesting too at the power envelop in which they perform. (less than 1 watt)

  2. February 1, 2010 at 05:07

    After doing some reading I agree.
    But not to the same extent.
    Atom is not a good tech, its basically a detuned Celeron (which wasnt great).
    The new N450’s have more power (10%) AND more battery life (5.5 TDP) than N270’s (6.5TDP).
    The new A9’s have more power but same battery life (2TDP) than A8’s.
    So Intel is on the right track, but Nvidia is going to win the race.

    Here’s why!
    1GHz Snapdragon (A8) already matches the 1.4GHz N270’s perfomance.
    Tegra 2 is a 1.5GHz dual-core A9 with ability to actively switch on/off units on the chip. This concept would have the actual power used by the consumer. So Tegra 2 is much more powerful than (2.5-3.5 times) Snapdragon and uses roughly the same power outage (2-3.5TDP).

    This is my speculation, only theoretically!
    Tegra 2 will match a 2.3GHz N450 performance and have 162% better batter life (5.7hrs video on N450)
    OR
    Tegra 2 will match a 1.1GHz Dual-Core N450 performance and have 150% better battery life (6.2hrs video on N450)
    OR
    Tegra 2 will be match a 1.2GHz Core2Duo (P series) and have 210% better battery life (4.4hrs video on Core2D)
    OR
    Tegra 2 will be only 20-35% slower than SU7300 and have 137% better battery life (6.6hrs video on SU7300)

    Conclusion?
    Tegra 2 is slightly more effecient than the “super effecient SU7300” and comes in a much smaller package. Impressed?

    What will skyrocket Nvidia?
    If it Ubuntu Netbook Remix (Windows 7 will be a little sluggish) is developed for Tegra 2. Netbooks with Tegra 2 are ready for consumer release which competes directly with Atom but is offered with unimpressive Windows CE or Chrome/Android which defeats its purpose!

    What will make it the bleeding edge for next years?
    If it upgrades the Tegra 2, to run 2GHz, increases to 2Gb Ram and support PowerVR and make it small enough to fit into DSi sized devices.
    (SGX543MP8 is on par with ION/Ge9400M or ATi HD 3470 Hybrid X2= F.E.A.R. 55fps at medium or Crysis 33fps at low)

    I know I made it very technical, but now you can go
    “Oh, so that’s how powerful it is”
    or “So I could expect to use it for X days before charging”
    or “So this runs F.E.A.R. (2005) fairly good”

    The handheld full-functional personal computer fantasized in the 80’s is nearly here!

  3. February 20, 2010 at 18:50

    Nice blog, i like it, its informative,
    i will visit his blog more often.
    i like your article specially about
    ARM Cortex A9 vs Intel Atom N450 Pine Trail

    Cheers

    • klhlkh
      May 7, 2016 at 19:38

      most people can smell you are a robot

  4. GRevolution
    February 22, 2010 at 04:42

    Intel should run scared. Atom is only useful now because it allows them to shoehorn Windows on to smaller devices. Cortex-A9 can and will demolish Atom on smartbooks, we’re not even going to need netbooks by the end of the year.

    Think about it, why stick with Atom and its terrible performance on graphics when ARM can be paired with any graphics core we want? NVidia Tegra, PowerVR SGX, even ARM’s own Mali GPU? Time to ditch Intel’s disgusting graphics solution if you ask me. Besides, I’d much rather have a Cortex-A9MP over the single core Atom.

    • February 24, 2010 at 14:25

      I absolutely agree. I just hope Intel remains pigheaded and looses a lot of market share in the net/smartbook segment. It would be much nicer to have really strong competition in this field.

  5. Kangal
    March 23, 2010 at 13:56

    soltesza,

    Intel may lose the market but it wont be until another 1-2years. Why? Intel is a big corporation with many strings. They may know that there gonna lose the MID/netbook/tablet battle to ARM in the end, but that doesn’t mean Intel wont make good profit from it. So dev/competiton to destroy Atom platform wont be significant in near-time.
    For end-user that want to jump the gun, the options will be limited to small companies and backyard science.

    So we have the technology.
    Infact you can walk into ARM factory, specify your board, pay for it
    and recieve it fairly quickly.
    What type of options will you pair it with (graphics, gps, wifi etc)?
    Will you need to pay ARM royalties for drivers?
    But the question becomes, what of the software?

    For backyard science, is there a bunch of devs out there with determination to pair +1GHz Dual-A9 config & OS (linux!) & netbook form?
    Heres an example: OpenPandora Handheld.

    What you can look forward to in the meantime is MeeGo.
    Because they have hinted that their OS will serve that gap where WinCE has gained without earning it (ie WinCE is far outdated).

    Will Nokia/Moblin get it right?
    Can they build an OS that’s adaptable to many processors/devices?
    Will they stress to make multi-platform applications?
    Will they make it easy-to-port exisisting app’s, emulators, games?
    Will it be dev friendly and push to open App Library like iPhone?
    Can they make it good enough to ditch Win7 from your netbook??

  6. dhatch
    June 10, 2010 at 08:51

    If your concerned about the fragmentation of arm devices/instruction set, check out Linaro, a recently founded company to help solve this issue.

    http://lwn.net/SubscriberLink/391189/0de51f7e48212757/

  1. January 6, 2010 at 11:51
  2. February 13, 2010 at 21:57
  3. July 31, 2011 at 15:10

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