Arm chips for mobile devices find a place in commercial laptops

Dell has put Arm processors into its business laptop to run the quick-boot function, though the chips cannot run full-featured Windows-based applications

After comfortably residing for years in mobile devices like cell phones, chips based on the Arm design are finding their way into commercial laptops.

However, Arm processors could be relegated to co-processor status alongside Intel CPUs in commercial laptops unless the chips are able to run full-featured, Windows-based PC applications, analysts said.

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Though Arm can run multiple flavors of Linux and the Windows Embedded CE platform, Microsoft has said its upcoming Windows 7 OS would not support the Arm architecture. Microsoft said Arm is suited for specialized devices like smartphones and e-readers. As such, only the mobile version of Windows has been ported to the Arm architecture.

Nevertheless, Dell's move on Tuesday to use Arm chips in its latest business offering, the Latitude Z, raises the possibility of the processor architecture being used in more laptops.The Arm processor is a secondary CPU that sits alongside an Intel low-voltage CPU intended to run Windows-based applications. Dell is also offering Arm CPUs as an option with its ultraportable Latitude E4300 and E4200 business laptops.

The PC maker decided to use Arm processors because they add a smartphone element to the laptops, said Steve Belt, vice president of business client engineering at Dell.

The Latitude Z has a special motherboard with an Arm-based chip on it, which is designed to run the quick-boot capability called Latitude On. In addition to booting in just a few seconds, Latitude On gives the laptop "always-on" capabilities similar to those in smartphones. The environment provides quick access to commonly used applications such as e-mail clients, contacts, calendar and a Web browser. The feature helps avoid the longer boot times that versions of Microsoft's Windows OS undergo to run such applications.

Arm designs processor cores that are licensed to chip makers. The processors can be found in billions of mobile devices and are making their way into low-power devices, such as netbooks. Arm recently boosted the speed of its processor cores to reach 2GHz in an attempt to show that the processors are scalable and provide the performance needed to run demanding applications like multimedia.

However, it was the power-saving feature of the Arm processors that attracted Dell to use the chip in Latitude Z, Belt said. The PC maker is placing the Arm at the heart of the quick-boot environment, as it consumes much less battery life compared to Intel processors, Belt said.

"Here you get a great power-management story. That's how you get an instant-on story, because I have the power to burn," Belt said. The future of Arm CPUs in Dell laptops is partly tied to how customers respond to the quick-boot feature, Belt said.

"A lot of that is going to be driven by the acceptance of what we've built here. If we see people really like this and use it, trust me, I'm super-excited about this capability. But I'm not going to spend time building things people don't want, either," Belt said.

Many vendors have talked about including Arm processors in PCs. Asustek Computer, for example, has shown a laptop with Arm and Intel processors running in tandem.

Dell's laptop is a step in the right direction for Arm, which is trying to establish a larger presence beyond the smartphone space, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates.

However, Arm may struggle to replace Intel CPUs as the main processors in laptops, since the PC version of Windows has not been ported to the Arm architecture, Gold said. Most fully functional laptops today ship with Intel CPUs and a version of the Windows OS.

Software is more important than hardware in commercial laptops, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. But Arm chips could work in laptops if there is a move toward Web applications and adoption of the Linux OS grows.

Arm processors are already being used as an alternative to Intel CPUs in small, low-cost laptops based on the Linux OS. Those devices are designed mainly for people who do most of their computing on the Internet. Chip companies like Freescale and Qualcomm are expected to deliver chips for such devices, which they call "smartbooks," based on the Arm architecture.

Still, Windows 7 needs to be ported to Arm to get more consideration from PC makers as a replacement for Intel CPUs, Gold said.

"Dell has essentially relegated Arm to a co-processor," Gold said. "I can't see Arm replacing Intel or Advanced Micro Devices -- x86 architecture -- in notebooks. Arm will run Linux so in netbooks it makes sense," he said.

Laptop makers may continue to adopt Arm CPUs as co-processors to run specific functions like scanning Internet data for malware and viruses, Gold said. The power-saving capabilities and low cost of Arm chips make them a good choice as co-processors.

Arm declined to comment for this story.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.