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Smartbooks to take center stage at Computex

Posted: 03 Jun 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smartbook? processor? netbook?

What's bigger than a smart phone, smaller than a notebook and different than a netbook? That's the description of a smartbook, a term Freescale Semiconductor and Qualcomm Inc. are minting at Computex Taipei 2009 for the ARM- and Linux-based portables their customers are designing.

Intel Corp. popularized the term netbooks to refer to ultrasmall laptops, generally using its Atom processor and some version of Microsoft Windows. Compared to netbooks, smartbooks will be smaller, cheaper, and have longer battery life and instant-on capabilities, backers say.

"We are re-labeling this category smartbooks," said Glen Burchers, a consumer marketing director for Freescale.

Smartbook prototype with sliding keypads

Whatever you call them, mobile devices will be all the rage at Computex in Taipei, where about 80 percent of the world's notebook computers are made. Chipmakers including Broadcom, Nvidia and Sandisk are expected to make announcements at Computex about their activities around netbooks.

Several of Taiwan's contract design and manufacturing companies will show smartbooks at Computex based on Freescale's iMX51 processor, Burchers said. Branded OEM product launches are not expected until the fall.

Some of the new systems will use a notebook-like clamshell form factor but be about 20mm thick compared to 30mm for some Windows/x86 netbooks, Burchers said. In addition, the smartbooks will run an entire day on a single battery, thanks to the power-pinching ARM processors, he added.

Some of the ARM-based systems will sell for as little as $199. Atom-based notebooks typically sell for $399 to $599.

Taiwan's Pegatron and Wistron will both show clamshell smartbooks at Computex. Burchers said he believes the companies have deals to sell the designs to OEMs.

More than a dozen companies plan to be shipping smartbooks by this fall using chips from Freescale, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm, according to Will Strauss, principal of market watcher Forward Concepts. "We believe that smartbooks could be a 40-million unit annual market by 2013," Strauss wrote in a newsletter released May 31.

To drive the new concept forward, Freescale hired industrial designers from the Savannah College of Art and Design. They have researched the requirements of target users and developed concept physical and user interface designs to display at Computex.

The Freescale work mirrors efforts years ago by Intel to stage a fashion show to get PC makers to design more stylish desktop computers. "Taiwan doesn't have a lot of focus on industrial design," said Burchers.

He acknowledged two concerns for smartbooks are the lack of native support for Adobe Flash on ARM and the fragmentation of Linux application environments. However, he said solutions to both issues are in the works.

Smartbook prototype featuring vertical display

Some OEMs will use Adobe Flash Lite 3.1 in devices shipping this fall. The software is roughly equivalent to Adobe Flash 9 for desktop PCs and can handle video from the vast majority of popular Websites, he said. A version of Flash 10 for ARM could be available by the end of the year, he added, though Adobe said the code may not be widely available until early 2010.

On the application front, Freescale is showing customers a prototype app store for Linux that aggregates as many as 6,000 Linux applications and tools. The company expects OEMs will develop their own online app stories for smartbooks just as Apple has done for the iPhone.

"One of the downsides of Linux is the fragmented nature of it," he said. "That's why so many designers are excited about Google's Android, because it's managed by a single entity," he added.

Android supports 320 x 480 pixel displays now and will support 800 x 480 in its next version called Donut. But work is going on to bring to Android support for 1280 x 1024 pixel resolutions as well as external USB peripherals, he added.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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