Review: No match for Atom Dual-Core
In our first review of the Nano that you can read here we were unfortunate to get a defective mainboard which ran too hot, causing the Nano throttling the clock down. That is why our scores were way lower than they should have been.
We were informed that this happened with a few initial samples. VIA just wants to show the potential of the platform and big OEMs such as HP will come with Nano-based netbooks; this is the key target that VIA wants to hit, and its main competitor is single-core Atom 230.
VIA was kind enough to hand deliver us a new sample. This board is not a production board for the masses, but a modified version of an embedded industry board that runs VIA Nano. VIA has been focusing on the highly profitable embedded market for years, and the board features more connectors and slots compared to any Atom platform you will ever see. Intel doesn't want to cannibalize its own desktop platform, so they have strict rules to prevent any vendor from building something special.
Nano CPU has 64kB of instruction and data L1 cache each and 1MB 2nd level cache, which all run 16-way associative, while Atom has a 24kB 6-way L1 data cache, 32kB 8-way L1 instruction cache and 512kB 8-way L2 cache. On paper Nano looks better.
VIA modified SN board series (provided by VIA)
Nano L2100 1.80GHz
VIA CN896/VIA VT8237S
A-Data 1GB PC2-6400 CL4
Jetway Radeon HD3870 (provided by mec-electronics)
ITX 80W external/internal power supply
Seasonic S12II 330W power supply
Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 80GB (provided by Seagate)
Since this sample was not overheating, the Nano could do the FPU/SSE tests faster than Atom, but hyper-threading gives Atom an advantage to use its full potential on an overall perspective. Even a dual-core Atom can't beat VIA's Nano in this test. While we could reduce memory latencies on the Atom platforms, we could not do so on the VIA platform, because the BIOS has no settings to improve memory settings; but VIA runs with 667MHz DDR2 memory with CL5-5-5-18, while Atom supports only 533MHz with reduced latencies CL4-3-3-11, so the memory speed is quite matched.
Nano L2100 1.80GHz:
Atom 230 1.60GHz with Hyperthreading:
Atom 330 dual-core 1.60GHz:
Sisoft Sandra XII benchmark can give you a better impression.
As you can see, VIA is about 1.8x faster compared to the single-core Atom, but the dual-core is ahead by a big margin. It is still quite impressive for VIA Nano, a CPU that doesn't support hyper-hreading, can beat an Atom hyper-threading CPU.
While the Atom platform is stripped of any useful features, VIA features a PCIe x16 slot and using a HD3870 we can achieve stuff like that:
Of course that was just for fun, we don't think anyone will consider such a platform for gaming, but you see it's possible, even if the CPU score in 3DMark2006 is ridiculously low.
While the system is idling, VIAs CPU/chipset combination is beating Intel by a huge margin. The comparison is not quite fair, because the Nano board has many more features which should use more power. It has a PCIe Gb LAN and and a second PCI LAN, besides support for Flash and RAID for up to four hard drives. To keep it quite fair, we used only one memory module even when VIA is supporting two modules. Using a Radeon HD3870 we had to use a normal ATX power supply, the lowest we could find. Trying to use such a power-supply without additional graphics-card could cause the Nano board not to boot up because the power demand is too low for the PSU to kick in. The higher-end PSU you use the more likely that would happen.
Idle power is impressive, but under load the Atom built-in a 45nm process gets the lead. Even a single-core Celeron is leading. Adding a graphics-cards which was considered high-end a year ago gives you 80W higher power-consumption. Sadly, there are no 80PLUS PSUs with a 200W output rating.
The Nano is a huge step for VIA to get competitive in the CPU market again. The sad part is that we doubt we will see many nice and affordable Nano-based desktop boards from VIA any time soon. Currently, VIA concentrates on the embedded market and have now improved their position. VIA also wants to aim at the Netbook market and HP is probably the first to launch a Netbook that can compete versus Atom and we believe that this will happen by the end of the year.
Although it's built in 65nm, VIA impresses with idle power-consumption, considering that the next lower model called L2200 and clocked 200MHz less can do even better. Atom, in contrast, is built in a 45nm process, which gives Intel at least an economical advantage. The TDP of the Nano L2100 - yes, lower number is higher clocked - is 25W, which is six times higher than Atom, the next lower model, L2200 is rated at 17W while the 1.3GHz models need only 8W. VIA is still doing great, as its chipset consumes much less compared to Intels 945GC/ICH7 combination.
With the new board we were able to play 720p movie-files. It seems that hyper-threading gives Atom a small advantage in this test. The problem seems not to be the CPU itself but the compilers, because most of them are optimized for Intel CPUs. We wish VIA would also help the guys coding ffdshow to get the maximum out of their CPUs.
VIA is working on a new chipset which will also support VC-1 and h.264 hardware-decoding meaning quasi-integration of their S3 Chrome ULV GPU into a chipset which would give them an edge over Intel.
Even being on the right track, VIA needs to further improve their CPUs, a dual-core Nano in 45nm would greatly help the cause. VIA might always be more expensive compared to Intel, but we hope to see VIA boards from other vendors which will do a little competition for Intel. Atom 230 boards are available for under €50, the dual-core Atom boards in the market for under €70, so this will be a hard task.
At least Nano is faster than single-core Atom, the combination with VIAs chipset more power-efficient when idling. In the Netbook market, when it comes to performance and battery life, the VIA Nano is a clear winner.