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Crossing paths: netbooks and smart phones

Posted: 27 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:crosstalk? netbook smart phones? teardown Portelligent?

By Jeff Brown and Howard Curtis

Conventional laptops and mobile phones remain worlds apart when it comes to cost, size and design metrics. Trends revealed in recent Portelligent teardowns of netbooks from Asustek and Dell, however, show a narrowing of the breach between that class of mini-notebook PCs and recent smart phones from Apple and HTC.

The gap has closed along a number of system cost and complexity vectors, including hardware bill-of-materials (BOM) cost, IC component count and IC die area. Nevertheless, for now, persistent differences in power consumption, form factor and software are keeping the two device classes out of direct competition with each other.

The Asustek Eee PC 2G was the first Intel architecture-based portable personal computer analyzed by Portelligent that demonstrated a total hardware BOM cost of less than $200 previously only true of cellphones.

Netbooks like Asustek's (center) still differ in form factor and user expectations from smart phones like this HTC-built model.

By making use of a low-cost Centrino chipset from Intel; replacing the hard drive with 2Gbyte of NAND memory; and providing a 7-inch, 800 x 480 resolution display, Asustek achieved a cost to manufacture that enabled a retail price point below $400. On the heels of Asustek's success with the Eee PC, most of the major PC manufacturers have launched their own netbook PC models built around Intel's Atom chip set.

Netbook PCs are miniature versions of notebooks that keep cost to a minimum. Contributing to the declining cost trends observed in netbook PCs, the non-memory IC component count and die area seen in the Asustek Eee PC are now below those observed in ultrahigh-end smart phones, and well below the figures seen in notebook PCs.

Separate for now
Smart phones are headed in the opposite direction: The expanding capabilities of ultrahigh-end handsets are driving the devices' cost to manufacture above $150 and often closer to $200, despite reductions in component costs.

While the smart phone and the netbook are converging on the dimensions of system complexity and cost, at least two factors keep them relegated to separate market segments for now: form factor and power consumption.

Netbook PCs demonstrate a 50 percent smaller footprint than full-size notebooks. Further reductions in size would impose sacrifices in the usability of the keyboard and a cramped display two key differentiators from smart phones.

As for smart phones, consumers expect to be able to place a phone handset unobtrusively in a pocket. At 6cm x 12cm, the Apple iPhone and the HTC Google Phone push the upper limit on acceptable cellphone size.

Cost and complexity (Click to view full image.)

The reductions in component count and die area from those of conventional laptops, combined with the movement to a solid-state disk drive and smaller display, have enabled the netbook PC to improve power consumption by more than 65 percent over previous generations of notebooks. Even with those power efficiency improvements, however, netbooks still require as much as 10 times the power for the same activity compared with smart phones from Apple and HTC.

Netbooks and smart phones occupy adjacent niches, but they will not truly compete head-to-head until the form- factor differential and the discrepancies in power consumption are reduced or eliminated.

Recent announcements of phones with built-in projectors, along with lower-power netbook platforms from Intel, Nvidia, and Qualcomm, may further blur the lines between smart phones and netbooks in the coming year.

- Jeff Brown is principal analyst for data analysis and forecasting at Portelligent, a division of EE Times publisher TechInsights. Howard Curtis is vice president of global services at Portelligent.

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