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Dell drags Linux-ARM combo into Wintel PC

Posted: 13 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Dell laptop computer? Linux ARM OS? Windows Intel?

The thought of having smart phone capability to the conventional notebook PC may seem like a bit of a gimmick at first sight. But the idea of doing email and other basic operations while increasing battery life by a factor of ten compared with the same operations on an Intel processor certainly appeals.

And that seems to be what Dell and some other computer makers are doing when they adopt a hybrid Intel-ARM twin-processor approach.

The Dell Latitude E4200 and E4300 laptop computers run a version of Linux as an "instant-on" OS running on hardware with flash memory that is separate to the main Windows Vista or XP OS running on an Intel Core2 Duo processor. In theory, users can do email and other light applications under Linux, Mozilla and so on, and only switch to the Windows operating system and the Intel processor for the heavier applications.

It seems to be universally agreed that games are the heaviest application.

As you get closer to the idea, it becomes apparent that the twin-OS/twin-processor arrangement is cleverinluding access to application databases while bypassing the Windows OSbut slightly more fraught than is ideal.

Good news for ARM
Some notebook reviewers have castigated some of the implementations of instant-on as not living up to expectations. But in principle most people "get it" and realize that different executions will follow and provide the Wintel combine with competition on an application-by-application basis. For processor technology licensor ARM Holdings plc this is a marketing boon that may help it dent the penetration of Intel's Atom in the netbook market.

Things are especially good for ARM because users are getting to compare a power-efficient ARM platform, probably one designed for a smart phone, with a relatively power-hungry Intel processor, which may start tipping buyers towards favoring an ARM-powered PC or netbook.

I don't know what specific ARM processor has been designed into the LatitudeON hardware but it could be something like an OMAP2 device from Texas Instruments which would include an ARM11 processor core, or possibly an OMAP3, which includes the Cortex-A8 processor core. If you look at the Beagle Board from TI you can get a feel for what can be achieved in a 3-inch x 3-inch card that has all the functionality of a basic computer with an OMAP3530 that runs either Windows CE or Linux.

And it is pretty clear why this could be so good for ARM. It allows its processors to compete head-to-head against Intel. If you can get ten times the battery life out of the sub-system for basic operations such as emailwhich is what many of us spend a lot of our time doingthen pretty soon users will start questioning why they are bothering to switch the Wintel part of the PC on at all.

Vista, XP support
One problem for ARM is that it does not yet have the support of Microsoft for the Windows Vista or XP OS to be ported to the ARM processors. ARM processors have received ports of Windows CE, but Big Windows as Warren East, ARM's CEO, calls it, has yet to come over. East told financial analysts that this wasn't a problem but he also told them that ARM's processors would be more competitive with a port.

East concluded a recent financial conference with analysts by saying ,"We're seeing a lot of activity in the Linux space so I don't think it's a serious brake on our progress into that new application area, right now."

It seems clear that the medium-term trend is for PC systems to include multiple Intel processor cores driving the main OS and multiple ARM cores driving subsystems and peripherals. But in the longer term the question will be asked, which is better, heterogeneous multiprocessing or homogeneous multiprocessing?

The equation that Wintel equals hours of battery life while Linux-ARM equals days of battery life is simplistic, but for that reason it is easily remembered and a marketeer's dream. And for that reason Microsoft may be persuaded to speed up that port of Big Windows to ARM. That could remove one more barrier to true competition between ARM and Intel. But that may not even be necessary for ARM and may not be enough for Microsoft. It may be that the netbook could be the platform that finally allows Linux to become a competitive consumer product.

When it is considered that saving power and green credentials are moving from marketing benefit to legal requirement, in the form of the Energy Using Products directive in Europe in can be seen that the hybrid approach could be the method whereby Linux-ARM could win the siege of Wintel.

- Peter Clarke
EE Times Europe

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