Confessions of an Atom bigot: How I learned my hate for Intel's low-end chip was wrong

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I have a confession to make: I was wrong about the Atom chip. 

I’ve hated the Atom since its inception. As one of the biggest proponents of enthusiast computing, I saw Atom as an abomination to anyone who cared about performance. Even Intel’s first “we’re finally serious about Atom Bay Trail chips” didn’t really change my attitude—and Bay Trail was a serious step up in performance for Intel’s red-headed stepchild.

Recently, however, I realized it was time to face my bigotry—or face reality, anyway. My commute is mostly on foot and bike now. Even the spectacular Dell XPS 13 or the Surface Pro 3 feels big and heavy when you haul everything with you.  

I needed something lighter, and my phone just didn’t cut it. I needed access to a real keyboard, a real mouse and a full-service OS. Not even a Chromebook would do, because it forces me to rethink my workflow and slows me down more than—well, an Atom. I wanted a machine that could that replicate my work desktop in as light and small a package as possible.

My solution: an 8-inch Windows tablet running Atom.

my ride Gordon Mah Ung

This 8-inch Bay Trail-based Atom tablet, folding keyboard, mouse and wall wart weighs in at less than a MacBook (Air) 12.

Crow, what does it taste like?

The name of the tablet is unimportant; I’m not reviewing the tablet, but rather the lifestyle it enables. I’ve carried this setup around for the last two months, and I’m surprised by how well Atom has served my productivity needs. With a folding keyboard and Microsoft’s Arc Mouse, I can do almost everything on this Atom tablet that I could on a Surface Pro 3 or Dell XPS 13 from a productivity standpoint—just at a slower pace. I run Office, Chrome and occasionally Photoshop on it. The only thing I wish it had was active pen support.

The compact package weighs considerably less than Apple’s new 12-inch MacBook, too. The naked tablet with a Bluetooth mouse (a must-have), wall-wart charger and folding keyboard is 1.65 lbs. The 12-inch MacBook is 2.35 lbs. with charger.

my ride 2 Gordon Mah Ung

Besides the weight, the foot print of this setup makes it ultra portable.

Don’t get me wrong—this will not replace my real laptop for all uses. When I go to trade shows or anywhere else where I’ll be doing longer stretches in front of the computer, a laptop with its larger screen and heartier performance will go with me. My work PC will remain a multi-monitor desktop, and my primary home rig will continue to be an 8-core dual GPU box. But this tablet is my carry-on PC—it goes everywhere with me in my messenger bag or man-purse on the weekends.

There are things I’d fix in Bay Trail. Its tablet configurations max out at 2GB of RAM, and it seems to be mostly for cost. Bay Trail is a 64-bit part with a maximum of 4GB of RAM. You can get by with 2GB of RAM, but you hit the ceiling fairly quickly. An Atom tablet with 4GB would let you actually multi-task. Bay Trail tablet SoCs are also limited solely to eMMC storage, which lags far behind SATA SSD in performance. The trade-off would be power consumption: With the tablet I have, I can get all-day battery life.

Looking forward to Cherry Trail

I never thought I’d write this, but I’m looking forward to Intel’s next-gen Atom parts. The 14nm Atom X7 and X5 SoC wasn’t expected to bring much to the table beyond better graphics, but our first tests of Surface 3 show it can deliver more than anyone expected. (For the record, I’m not sure I buy completely into the score the iPad Air 2 gets in the chart below. Other tests I’ve seen put the A8X ahead of, but a lot closer to, Bay Trail chips).

surface 3 geekbench single core PCWorld

Cherry Trail’s per-core performance is a nice bonus.

Among the other improvements Atom X7 will bring is more memory bandwidth. Bay Trail tablet chips are limited to dual-channel LPDDR3 at 1066MHz clocks. Atom X5/X7 supports LPDDR3 at 1,600MHz speeds. That will mostly aid graphics performance but will also help increase system responsiveness some what.

When I played with our Surface 3 review unit, the responsiveness over the Bay Trail tablet I’m using was impressive. For me, though, it’s still too heavy and too big for an EDC PC. I’m hoping to see a 7-inch or 8-inch Cherry Trail unit with a good folding keyboard.

fake surface phone 1 Nadir Aslam

The only thing that could tear me away from this Atom tablet would be a mini-Surface—yes, even smaller than a Surface 3. A fellow dreamer named Nadir Aslam actually created this fantasy device: A Surface Phone, blending Surface productivity with phablet sizing. Provided the keyboard were full-sized and had decent travel, plus a full OS, I’d be all over it.

You’ve won, Atom. You haven’t replaced any of my regular PCs, but you’ve allowed me to be productive on the go, turning this Atom bigot from hateful to grateful. 

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