Last year, Intel introduced a new system platform called AtomTM, which consumes less power compared to standard CPUs and is highly integrated. A new type of PC developed around this platform: the netbook. Although the Atom offers very little CPU power, certain advantages of the netbooks make them attractive to mobile home and business users alike: compact size, long-lasting battery charge, and low price.
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Because netbooks are designed to be taken with you everywhere, their small size makes it easier for you to forget them and for criminals to steal. A lost netbook containing sensitive data could be a real threat, particularly to enterprises whose very survival can depend on the security of their data.
The Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows 7 offer a comfortable way to encrypt your hard disk and protect your data, called BitLocker. Encryption isn't free, however, even with this tool—it needs CPU power. On common CPUs, you will barely notice a difference in how fast the computer deals with your daily work whether your hard disk is encrypted or not. Atom computers, however, just cope with a slim Windows Desktop, and as soon as more applications run at the same time the system feels slow. Enabling encryption further cripples their performance.
A few options exist to help you gain a little bit of performance. You can set a group policy to change the default encryption algorithm from 128 bit key with diffuser to AES 128 bit without diffuser, which lets you gain a little bit of performance at the expense of security. Installing more memory offers another boost in performance because the data is only encrypted when written to the hard disk. Neither option will increase the performance significantly, though, but maybe another encryption tool will.
TrueCrypt, a free application that was already discussed in a few posts, offers fewer options than BitLocker regarding centralized management. Nonetheless, TrueCrypt is very popular because it’s free and it is open source. For some security gurus, open source is the only way to implement secure encryption because—by obfuscating code and not making it publicly available—the number of persons who can review and test the algorithm are limited.
To decide if it’s worth it to switch to TrueCrypt I ran some benchmarks on an Atom N260 Netbook. For BitLocker, I chose three different encryption algorithms. For TrueCrypt, I chose only the fastest algorithm according to its built-in benchmark. Here are the results:
As you can see, TrueCrypt performs worse. The default BitLocker algorithm (AES 128 bit with diffuser) is 12% faster. If you use the same algorithm in BitLocker and TrueCrypt, BitLocker is even faster by 14%. So switching to TrueCrypt in order to increase performance is a bad idea. But in defense of TrueCrypt I have to say that the difference is hardly noticeable; running encryption on a netbook makes it slow whether BitLocker or TrueCrypt is used.