Intel’s Atom Processor: What Does It Mean When Your Next Computer Costs $250

Intel further detailed plans for its Atom processor at this year’s Computex. The company is expecting the processor to create a whole new set of computers dubbed “netbooks” and “nettops,” low-power systems that are primarily used for internet and other basic functions such as listening to music and word processing. “Netbooks” will be much smaller in terms of storage (2-4 GB) and screen size (7-10 inches) and priced around $250.
The Atom uses a much lower voltage than conventional desktop and notebook processors. Intel’s current Core 2 Duo processors max out at 35W, the Atom will top out at 4W. While a computer’s total wattage includes other components – power for the hard drive, optical drive, graphics processor, etc. – the drop in processor wattage is significant. Intel is hoping new technology such as flash-based storage will be used to help further decrease the energy used in the systems. Low voltage not only means better battery life, but decreased energy demand and environmental impact, a plus for users and the planet. Pricing a computer at $250 also means making the computer available to people with a wider range of incomes, serving the people aspect of the triple bottom line.

The $250 price tag, though, brings up an important question: will people be more likely to update their computer every year instead of every three? This could thrust us into the disposable computer age and contribute to the growing issue of e-waste. With no federal regulations in place, e-waste is often exported to poorer regions of the world where it is crudely scrapped at the expense of human health and the environment. Alternately, e-waste is tossed into landfills where materials can never be recovered and can contribute to water quality issues.
Thankfully, electronic recycling is an option that is growing in popularity and its importance cannot be underestimated. Every major electronics manufacturer has a take back program in place and retail outlets such as Best Buy are beginning to take e-waste in stores. But the increase of waste due to this new set of low-cost computers could outpace the increased rates of electronics recycling and cause a net increase of waste. If people perceive a computer as cheap and disposable, they will be much more willing to dispose of it like common trash. People may also be more careless with their technology as replacing a lost computer will also be much easier.
Atom-based systems will be available later this year.

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