Efficiency Analysis: Core i3 Trumps Atom On The Desktop

Atom was designed to be a low-cost, low-power solution, but its value in the desktop space is debatable if you consider performance. We pit the cheapest Core i3 against Intel's Atom on a performance-per-dollar and a per-watt basis to see which is better.

This is no apples to apples comparison here. The two products we're pitting against each other belong in different market segments, with Intel’s latest Pinetrail-based Atom platform going up against Core i3. Atom solutions are meant to be cheap and small, while Core i3 is a fully featured and far more powerful processor for desktops.

Still, because both are aimed at the value segment of the market, it's understandably easy to confuse their roles and capabilities. This review should make it clear just how dissimilar these two chips really are.

Plenty of PC buyers are looking for versatile, low-cost PC solutions. Such systems have to deliver adequate performance and should not require more power than necessary. It's also important to point out that we’re not focusing on performance or power consumption alone, but on balancing performance, power, and cost together.

Atom vs. Core

With Atom-based nettops and netbooks available for only a few hundred dollars, Atom is clearly cost-effective and power-conscious. Both attributes are great, and they enable Intel to address new markets sensitive to even lower price points, such as emerging countries. But then, Atom was never meant to be a strong performer. Consequently, it's not a great choice for anyone who does more on his or her PC than write emails and surf the Web. Frankly, Atom can't even beat an old Pentium 4 on performance.

Intel’s desktop processor lineup also requires a critical view. Although today's Core offerings deliver higher performance, lower power consumption, and thus, much improved efficiency over their Core 2 predecessors (as well as the AMD competition), Intel's mainstream chips carry higher overall costs. Whether we're talking about the processor, chipset, or platform, the full range of products, from Core i3 to Core i7, is consistently more expensive than AMD’s portfolio.

Atomic Fission

Our 2008 article Core 2 Nukes Atom on the Desktop compared an Atom 230 against a very basic Core 2 Duo E7200. We found that the system idle power of a mainstream Core 2 Duo system was quite similar to an Atom system’s power requirements. However, power consumption has to relate to performance, because a slow, low-power system might require much more power to complete intensive workloads if it needs more time to finish the job, too. Only a few months later, we updated our comparison and put the dual-core Atom 330 against the same Core 2 Duo platform. It did better, but even the dual-core Atom still trailed in the distance.

Why is This Shootout Important?

Style is a great persuader, and the attractive cost of many Atom solutions might lure the uninformed. Many Atom systems can't even play HD content without stuttering or responsively multitask while decompressing a ZIP file. Users who care about cost, power, and performance should read on.

Create a new thread in the UK Article comments forum about this subject
This thread is closed for comments
Comment from the forums
    Your comment
  • silverblue
    Just before I read this article, I just thought I'd say that if a Core 2 Duo can beat Atom in terms of efficiency, i3 surely can too. :)
  • mi1ez
    Newer Atom platform though
  • Stupido
    ... Pinetrail turns into Paintrail
    :D that was a good one
  • aje21
    I wonder what where AMD would place if you picked something appropriate for the comparison.
  • hollett
    This is fine, but given most Atom based computers are going to be web browsers / light office work. I don't see where the results are at all relivant. On this benchmark possibly a i5 could sneek in a win over the i3.
  • bv90andy
    I don't know about other ppl but I had the opportunity to browse the net on Atom and it's a pain. Most flash have low frame rates and sites like youtube and hulu are slow to load. I wouldn't buy get an atom, even if it was free.
  • Dandalf
    My netbook uses an atom 230. On it's 1024x600 display web browsing (exceot HD youtube) is fine. I can see though how it'd be inadequate if plugged into a higher resolution desktop display.
  • Anonymous
    Did you really use a 750W PSU in the efficiency test for this ?
    If that's true, could you re-run the test with the Fortron FSP220-60L PSU that was used in the i5 efficiency test ?
    It'll be interesting to see not only the results with a PSU that aligns better with the expected power consumption but also how the two PSUs match up at the low power draw.
  • czo
    I'd be interested what happens if you underclock the i3. Does it every reach a point at lower clock speeds where energy consumption is low enough to passively cool but performance is still better that the atom option?
  • czo
    I'd be interested what happens if you underclock the i3. Does it every reach a point at lower clock speeds where energy consumption is low enough to passively cool but performance is still better that the atom option?
  • Anonymous
    I've been looking for some form of lower power desktop machine to run along side my main desktop. The reason? At idle my desktop is sucking up 120W and 3-4 times that when I am playing games etc. However most of the work on it is done for internet and watching films (some HD). This looks like the i3 is an idea solution. A compromise between performance and power. I am wondering though, can the board run two monitors at the same time? And how good is it a 1080 playback?
  • kozaki
    @smartroad: Any i3 will have not the slightest issue at playing 1080p HD video, even with an IGP chip.

    Interesting test. Now on the practical side: Considering netbooks/nettops main use is browsing and light office + occasional video/chat/photo display, the test miss the opportunity to benchmark those applications, power consumption incl. Firefox, video play, Office (preferabily OOo3 and Abiword) and diapo are strongly missing in the first place. I've yet to see someone buying a netbook to play with 3D image creation, video encoding or