Intel's just pulled the covers off its next-generation low-power Atom chips. They're smaller and more power efficient but not necessarily more powerful. Will they revitalize the netbook phenomenon? Nope. They're going in Tablets.
The three chips (codenamed Pine Trail) that'll be launched at the upcoming CES show are the N450, the D410, and D510, and they're distinguished by having the Intel GMA graphics chip actually manufactured on the same die as the CPU. They're all clocked at 1.66GHz, and the two D-series chips are actually targeted at the kind of low-powered desktop machine Intel used to call a "nettop."
The N450 is the most intriguing chip in the list, though. Without the original Atom chips there'd be no netbooks, and over at ZDNet they're asking the obvious question about whether the N450 will kick off another explosion in the tiny machines. The answer to that is no, not really, despite Intel's claims that there are 80 netbooks using the new chip ready to roll onto shop shelves. The N450 isn't much more powerful than the existing top-end Atom, it's just got integrated graphics on-die for the first time, and it's 60% smaller and 20% more power efficient than its predecessor. Though the power efficiency will have a positive impact on battery life, the smaller size really won't make much of an impact on netbook design, thanks to the limitations of the form-factor of netbooks. Netbooks will use the chips, but from a consumer point of view there's no real excitement about these machines over netbooks that use older versions.
So why is the N450 exciting? Because it's perfectly positioned to power the upcoming wave of tablet/slate PCs. Think about it—this makes sense for all the reasons that don't work for netbooks. The chip is powerful enough to run Windows 7 and the graphics capabilities should let it handle HD video. It's smaller, which is good for the extremely limited space inside slate-format PCs. And the low power consumption will be important for battery life—again, super-critical for tablets where the battery has to be small enough to slip inside the low-profile case of the computer, but big enough to not cripple the tablet's usefulness as a portable device.
There's just one issue with the new chips: Intel's already in trouble with the FTC over alleged monopolistic practices, and by building the GPU onto the chip, Intel's basically precluding the use of GPUs by other manufacturers—like Nvidia. And that just might lead to more legal difficulties.