Smartbooks prepare to compete in netbook space

Arm-based mini-laptops, also called smartbooks, will hit shelves by the end of this year

Mini-laptops based on Arm chips are set to make their way to users, which could heat up the battle in a space dominated by netbooks with Intel's Atom chips.

Sharp last week announced the PC-Z1, also called the NetWalker, which will be one of the first mini-laptops based on an Arm chip to reach store shelves. The device has a 5-inch touch screen and a 68-key keyboard and offers 10 hours of battery life. It is designed for those who rely on the Web for computing, and it will start shipping in Japan by the end of September.

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Many similar devices with larger screens may become available by the end of this year. They will be based on Arm chips designed by companies such as Freescale Semiconductor, Nvidia and Qualcomm. No major PC maker has officially announced Arm-based mini-laptops, which have been called "smartbooks" by some chip makers, though Dell is investigating the concept.

Smartbooks are designed to have similar characteristics to netbooks, including compact keyboards and screens. The devices are designed as alternatives to netbooks, most of which are based on Intel's Atom chips and come with Microsoft's Windows OS. The first smartbooks will come with Linux, as Arm-based chips do not support Windows XP.

But at least one major PC maker has questioned the viability of such products. Asustek Computer CEO Jerry Shen last week said he saw no "clear market" for smartbooks and that the company had no plans to ship them. Asustek demonstrated a mini-laptop with Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform at the Computex trade show in June, running Google's Android open-source operating system. Asustek introduced the first widely popular netbook when it rolled out the Eee PC in 2007.

Keith Kressin, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, disagreed with Asustek. There is a market for smartbooks, which are better for people who rely more on the Web for computing, Kressin said. "We're not trying to emulate the PC experience," he said.

Smartbooks provide a longer battery life, as Arm chips draw less power than Intel's Atom chips, Kressin said. Kressin also highlighted other benefits, including instant access to the Web and quick startup compared with Atom-based netbooks.

"Every OEM has their own vision of what a smartbook is prior to entering the market," Kressin said. "I'll leave it to Asus to make the decision on what they want to bring to market."

Low prices and longer battery life may draw some attention, but Arm chips need better application support to compete with Intel chips in the short term, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.

"As far as notebooks and netbooks go, it's still an x86 world. The inability to run standard x86 operating systems makes any Arm-based device a nonstarter for consumers and business alike," Olds said. Smartbooks could take off if the software ecosystem surrounding Linux operating systems were to expand, he said.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform will support a number of operating systems, including Google's upcoming Chrome OS, Kressin said. Snapdragon-based smartbooks will become available by the fourth quarter, he said. Qualcomm has said it is working with companies including Toshiba, Compal Communications, Foxconn and High Tech Computer on Snapdragon-based devices. Kressin wouldn't comment on whether those will be smartbooks. Toshiba has already launched the TG01 handset based on the first-generation Snapdragon platform.

Snapdragon, which is already commercially available, includes an Arm-based processor, mobile broadband communications and graphics in one package. The company also plans to start sampling a faster version of Snapdragon in the fourth quarter.

Chip company Freescale, known for its microcontrollers and embedded chips, is also pushing its Arm-based chips into smartbooks. Sharp's NetWalker has Freescale's i.MX515 chip, which has a processor based on Arm's Cortex-A8 core and can scale in performance up to 1GHz. NetWalker is the first of many new devices that could hit the market by the end of this year or early next year, said Glen Burchers, director of Freescale's consumer segment.

The initial products could be clamshell devices with 9-inch or 10-inch screens. The Sharp device doesn't have 3G connectivity, but the upcoming devices will, Burchers said.

Smartbooks based on Freescale chips initially will come with Canonical's Ubuntu Linux OS. But the lack of support for a full Windows OS such as Windows XP could slow down the adoption of the devices, the chip makers said.

Linux-based mini-laptops have seen slow adoption, with many consumers preferring the familiarity of Windows. Over the past few quarters, about 90 percent of netbooks in mature markets, and as many as 70 percent in developing countries, have shipped with Windows, according to Gartner.

Despite the doubt surrounding Linux adoption, Burchers said a better user interface in the OS could make the device easier to use.

"It is the single biggest challenge the smartbook market faces," Burchers said. "It's not really the function of the Linux systems that is a problem, it's the user interface. It was originally geared toward a techie user. It was created by geeks, for geeks."

However, Internet-savvy Linux operating systems with better user interfaces are on the horizon, Burchers said. Google in July announced it was developing the Chrome OS, a lightweight operating system based on Linux and geared toward people who do a lot of Web-based computing.

Freescale and Qualcomm are both working with Google to develop the Chrome OS, the companies said. Freescale's Burchers also said Canonical is making major changes in the next version of Ubuntu Linux, with a big focus on user interface and usability.

Ultimately, a snappier user interface and more applications could help smartbooks find a niche as devices that behave like smartphones, but are sized like netbooks, analyst Olds said.

"There is some attraction to the low-power story, mainly arising from the ability to use ultra-small form factors and to also provide long battery life," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.