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VIA Nano L2100 vs. Intel Atom 230: Head to Head
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Date: Jul 29, 2008
Section:Processors
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Related Information



VIA caused quite a stir a few months ago when the company first revealed initial details regarding their low-power Nano processor. At the time, the product was referred to by its internal codename of Isaiah.  In addition, the President of VIA's design center that was tasked with making the processor, was decidedly outspoken, which made for some exciting reporting.

When news of the Isaiah core first broke, we hopped on the phone with Glenn Henry, VIA's Centaur design center president, and got many questions answered regarding the processor's architecture, features, expected performance, and the company's plans for the CPU. We strongly suggest
checking that article out because we won't be rehashing much of the data here--Glenn Henry's exact works are available for download at the end of the piece, as is VIA's Isaiah Architecture FAQ.  We have also covered the official announcement of the VIA Nano processor and detailed the exact models that would be available at launch. In this piece, we were also able to disclose more architectural details, which may interest many of you who are interested in the intricate details of the chip's inner workings.

One thing we hadn't been able to give you all, however, was a direct performance comparison of the VIA Nano processor versus Intel's recently released Atom, which is target at the same market segment. Thankfully, we were recently given the opportunity to take a VIA Nano reference platform for a spin to see what it could do and will be presenting our results for you here today.

First up, just to reiterate some of the information we have covered in previous articles, here is an outline of the main features of the VIA Nano processor and a short comparison between the Nano and Atom.

    • 64-bit Superscalar Speculative Out-Of-Order MicroArchitecture: Supports a full 64-bit instruction set and provides for macro-fusion and micro-fusion functionality, and sophisticated branch prediction for greater processor efficiency and performance.
       
    • High-Performance Computation and Media Processing: The high-speed, low power VIA V4 Front Side Bus starting at 800MHz, plus a high speed floating point unit, support for new SSE instructions, and two 64KB L1 caches and 1MB exclusive L2 cache with 16-way associativity gives a big boost to multimedia performance.
       
    • Advanced Power and Thermal Management: Aggressive management of active power includes support for the new “C6” power state, Adaptive PowerSaver Technology, new circuit techniques and mechanisms for managing the die temperature, reducing power draw and improving thermal management.
       
    • Scalable Upgrade to VIA C7 Processor: Pin-to-pin compatibility with current VIA C7 processors enables a smooth transition for OEMs and mainboard vendors, enabling them to offer a wider range of products for different markets with a single board or system design.
    • Greener Technology: In addition to full compliance with RoHS and WEEE regulations, product manufacturing will be halogen-free and lead-free at launch, helping to promote a cleaner environment and more sustainable computing.
       
    • Enhanced VIA PadLock Security Engine: Industry-leading on-die hardware cryptographic acceleration and security features, including dual quantum random number generators, an AES Encryption Engine, NX execute protection, and SHA-1 and SHA-256 hashing.



To test the VIA Nano processor, we received a mini-ITX reference platform, that was originally designed for the C7 core. But because the Nano is pin-compatible with the C7, VIA was able to solder a Nano right onto the existing board.

  

  
VIA Nano Reference Platform with 1.8GHz Nano L2100 Processor


We should note, however, what you see pictured above will not be made available to consumers. This platform was put together strictly for testing purposes and won't be put up for sale. With that said, we're hoping something similar comes to market because it has some interesting features. Obviously the mini-ITX form factor is desirable for assembling ultra small systems. But we also like the integrated mini-PC slot, PCI Express slot, and Compact Flash adapter. Slap a 32GB compact flash card in this puppy, along with a wireless adapter, and you've got a great foundation for durable, low power car-computer.

Powering this platform was a VIA Nano L2100 processor clocked at 1.8GHz, with a VIA CN896 North Bridge and VT8251 South Bridge, and integrated Chrome9 HC graphics. Unfortunately, this beta platform stopped working for us after a couple of days and we couldn't experiment with it as much as we would have liked in time for this article. Hopefully we'll have a replacement soon and can plug in some more details for you all later.
 


  

 
Intel BOXD945GCLF with 1.6GHz Atom 230 Processor


For comparison purposes, we also got out hands on Intel's BOXD945GCLF which comes complete with a 1.6GHz Atom 230 processor. The BOXD945GCLF features an Intel 945GC Northbridge with an ICH7 Southbridge and integrated GMA950 graphics. For more details regarding the Atom processor architecture and the chipset powering this platform, please refer to our coverage of the Atom launch and the 945 chipset introduction available here.
 

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The Comparison and PCMark Vantage

Before we jump right into the benchmark comparisons, we'd like to explain a few things about the test setup.  We used the same PSU, optical drive, and WD Raptor hard drive on all platforms, but there were some unavoidable differences in the Nano and Atom configurations.  For one, the frequencies for each CPU were different; the Nano was clocked at 1.8GHz, the Atom at 1.6GHz.  The Nano and Atom each used a different GPU as well, and we couldn't get around this difference because each platform had a different expansion slot configuration.  Please keep this in mind as you look through our results.

For our next round of benchmarks, we ran all of the modules built into Futuremark's PCMark Vantage test suite.  Vantage is a new benchmarking tool that we've incorporated into our arsenal of tests here at HotHardware.  The individual workloads for each of the tests we ran are outlined above each graph...


 Futuremark PCMark Vantage
 Synthetic Benchmarks


"The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics and HDD test sets with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Vista Consumer scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes CPU, Graphics, Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and a subset of Consumer Suite tests."

The overall PCMark Vantage score is a weighted average of all of the modules in only the PCMark test suite calculated in total "PCMarks".  Here are the results:



We should point out that in addition to VIA Nano and Intel Atom benchmarks, we have included scores from a couple of more traditional desktop systems as well, strictly for reference purposes.  The Athlon 64 X2 and Core 2 Duo are much more expensive, more power hungry products, that are not in the same class as the Nano or Atom, but we watned to give you all an easy way to gauge performance versus other desktop processors, hence the results.

With that out of the way, we can focus on the Nano vs. Atom battle.  And in the PCMark test suite, the Nano holds a clear advantage.  The Nano was actually 21% faster than the Atom here, but remember that's with its 12.5% advantage in clock speed.


 


 


Vantage TV and Movies suite includes the following tests:

TV and Movies 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server archive, Video playback: HD DVD w/ additional lower bitrate HD content from HDD, as downloaded from the net
TV and Movies 2 - Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server archive, Video playback, HD MPEG-2: 19.39 Mbps terrestrial HDTV playback
TV and Movies 3 - HDD Media Center
TV and Movies 4 - Video transcoding: media server archive to portable device, Video playback, HD MPEG-2: 48 Mbps Blu-ray playback




 

There was about a 4% delta separating the VIA Nano and Intel Atom, in favor of the Nano, in Vantage's TV and Movies benchmark, which is actually a good sign for the Atom.  Had the processors been clocked at the same frequency, the Atom would likely have come out on top here.
 


 


Courtesy, Futuremark:  "Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment for all ages. Today’s games demand high performance graphics cards and CPUs to avoid delays and sluggish performance while playing. Loading screens in games are yesterday’s news. Streaming data from an HDD in games – such as Alan Wake™ – allows for massive worlds and riveting non-stop action. CPUs with many cores give a performance advantage to gamers in real-time strategy and massively multiplayer games. Gaming Suite includes the following tests: "

Gaming 1 - GPU game test
Gaming 2 - HDD: game HDD
Gaming 3 - Two simultaneous threads, CPU game test, Data decompression: level loading
Gaming 4 - Three simultaneous threads, GPU game test, CPU game test, HDD: game HDD


 

 

PCMark Vantage's Game benchmark had the VIA Nano finishing about 10% ahead of the Intel Atom.  This test is heavily influenced by GPU performance, however, and neither platform was equipped with a particularly powerful GPU.

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PCMark Vantage (Continued)


We continue our test coverage with a few more modules from the comprehensive PCMark Vantage suite of benchmarks.  

 Futuremark PCMark Vantage
 Synthetic Benchmarks

Vantage Music suite includes the following tests:

Music 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Web page rendering – w/ music shop content, Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player
Music 2 - Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless
Music 3 - Audio transcoding: MP3 -> WMA
Music 4 - Two simultaneous threads, Audio transcoding: WMA -> WMA, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player



The PCMark Vantage 'Music' test shows the VIA Nano processor finishing well ahead of the Intel Atom.  As we've noted the Nano has a clock speed advantage in this comparison, but the 17% delta by which the Nano wins this benchmark would be more than the Atom would be able to overcome had it also been clocked at 1.8GHz.
 


Vantage Communications suite includes the following tests:

Communications 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Data encryption: CNG AES CBC, Data compression, Web page rendering: graphics content, 1024x768, windowed
Communications 2 - Three simultaneous threads. Web page rendering: open various news pages from IE 7 Favorites in separate tabs, close them one by one, Data decryption: CNG AES CBC, HDD: Windows Defender
Communications 3 - Windows Mail: Search
Communications 4  - Two simultaneous threads, Data encryption: CNG AES CBC, Audio transcoding: WMA -> WMA - to simulate VOIP


The results from Vantage's 'Communications' test mirror those of the music test above--score another victory for the VIA Nano.



Vantage Productivity suite includes the following tests:

Productivity 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Text editing, HDD: application loading
Productivity 2 - Two simultaneous threads, Windows Contacts: search, HDD: Windows Defender
Productivity 3 - HDD: Windows Vista start-up
Productivity 4 - Three simultaneous threads, Windows Contacts: search, Windows Mail: Run Message Rules, Web page rendering: simultaneously open various pages from IE7 Favorites in separate tabs, close them one by one



 

PCMark Vantage's Productivity test also shows the VIA Nano in a very positive light.  In this test, the Nano finishes 521 points ahead of the Atom, which equates to about a 28% advantage for the Nano.

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Cinebench and Kribibench

Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D. Cinema 4D from Maxon is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others.  It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.


 Cinebench R10 Performance Tests
 3D Modeling & Rendering Tests


This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The score produced by each test system while rendering the entire scene is represented in the graph below.


Please note, the Intel Atom has HyperThreading enabled, which allows it to simultaneously process two threads, hence the result in the multi-threaded version of this test.  Regardless, whether single or multi-threaded, the Nano hold onto a significant lead over the Atom here.

Kribibench v1.1
Details: www.adeptdevelopment.com

For this next batch of tests, we ran Kribibench v1.1, a 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development.  Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer where a 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU and the average frame rate is reported.

We used two of the included models with this benchmark: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and the test suite's "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys.


Although their scores are expectedly low here, the Nano once again pulls well ahead of the Intel Atom in the Kribibench benchmark.  The Nano held onto significant leads in both the "sponge explode" and "ultra" tests.

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LAME MT and 3DMark06:CPU

In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content.  LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
 

 LAME MT MP3 Encoding Test

 Converting a Large WAV To MP3


In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenically-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.
 


Once again, please note that the Intel Atom has HyperThreading enabled and can process two threads at once, which accounts for the multi-threaded result above.  Although the Atom has the ability to use HT to increase performance with some workloads, the Nano still completed the test much faster than the Atom. According to the two audio encoding tests we've run, it's clear the Nano's out-of-order design is much better suited for this type of task.

 Futuremark 3DMark06 - CPU Test
 Simulated DirectX Gaming Performance

 
3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded DirectX gaming metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems.  This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance.  Calculations that are normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering.  The frame-rate generated in each test is used to determine the final score.
 


3DMark06's CPU benchmark also had the VIA Nano finishing well out in front of the Intel Atom, to the tune of about 20%.

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Power Consumption

We have one final data point we'd like to cover before bringing this article to a close. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each of the system configurations we tested used while idling and running under load.
 
 

Power Characteristics
Processors and Platforms

 
Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption here at the outlet, not just the power being drawn by the processors alone.  In this test, we're showing you a ramp-up of power from idle on the desktop to full CPU load.
 


Now you see can all see why the Nano and Atom aren't quite in the same class as the Athlon 64 X2 and Core 2 Duo.  One of the main goals when both the Nano and Atom were being designed was low-power operation and both design teams have succeeded on that front.  Intel's part has an obvious advantage, consuming 19 fewer watts than the Nano under load, but remember the Nano is 1.8GHz, 65nm part, while the Atom is a 1.6GHz, 45nm part.  If / when VIA is able to transition the Nano to a more advanced 45nm process, its power consumption should be reduced significantly.  Of course, this hints at Intel's huge advantage in manufacturing.  By the time any of their main competitors are able to "catch" Intel at 45nm, they'll be readying the next iteration.

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Our Summary and Conclusion


Performance Summary:
Although we weren't able to run all of the test we would have liked for this article due to an unforeseen problem with our Nano reference board, the few tests we were able to run painted a relatively clear picture of the CPU's performance. In general, the VIA Nano is a stronger performer than the Intel Atom across a variety of workloads. Our test setups prohibited an exact "apples-to-apples" comparison, but the performance deltas we recorded more than make up for the clock speed discrepancy between our test systems. While the VIA Nano L2100 processor we tested had a 200MHz, or 12.5%, higher clock frequency than the 1.6GHz Atom 230, it typically outperformed the Atom by more than 15% to 20% in the applications we tested.

 


It's clear from our limited testing of the VIA Nano that the company has a strong product at the ready. Virtually across the board, the Nano showed good performance versus its primary competition, and it has a number of other things going for it as well, like pin-compatibility with the established C7 core, an open platform, and hardware acceleration for certain types of encryption. Based on what we've seen here today, we hope many of the OEMs currently selling products based on the C7 adopt the Nano and offer products with increased performance. HP's Mini-Note 2133 in particular comes to mind.  The 2133 is one of the more attractive netbooks currently on the market and it would be enhanced significantly by the performance of the Nano processor in our opinion.

We're hoping that VIA is able to announce some exciting design wins soon, because the ultra mobile market is hot right now and they've got a CPU well suited for the segment. VIA obviously can't compete with Intel in terms of marketing muscle and manufacturing, which means the landscape could change relatively quickly in this space, but for now, strictly speaking in terms of performance, the Nano is solid.
 

  • Strong performance in its segment
  • Relatively Low Power
  • OOO Execution
  • Audio Encoding
  • Higher Power Consumption than Atom
  • Availability



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