Will ARM netbooks be competitive?

Will ARM netbooks be competitive?

Summary: Rumors of netbooks using smartphone components rather than Intel chips and Microsoft Windows are nothing new. But we're finally getting a good idea of just what a PC based on an ARM processor and Linux will look like.


Rumors of netbooks using smartphone components rather than Intel chips and Microsoft Windows are nothing new. But we're finally getting a good idea of just what a PC based on an ARM processor and Linux will look like.

Because the tiny ARM chips are designed for smartphones, many believe that netbooks using them will be less expensive and get better battery life than those using Intel's Atom processor. ARM itself has said that netbooks using its technology will cost $200 and last eight to 12 hours on a charge (ARM: Heretic in the church of Intel, Moore's Law). But it's not clear that the first ARM netbooks--six to 10 models this year, according to ARM--will reach these lofty goals.

One of the first is likely to be the Alpha 680 from Guangzhou Skytone Transmission Technologies, a company in China that has previously worked with Wal-Mart on low-cost Linux PCs. In an interview with Networkworld, Nixon Wu, the company's co-founder, said Skytone will have "final prototypes" of its netbook in June, and will release it this summer. The Alpha 680 is based on a 533MHz ARM11 processor and Android, the Linux-based operating system currently used on HTC's G1 "Google phone." (Samsung announced an Android smartphone, the I7500, earlier today.)

Even by netbook standards, the Alpha 680 looks under-powered. It is based on a 7-inch display with a resolution of 800 by 480 pixels, even as most netbooks are moving to 10-inch, 1024-by-576 displays (several are now offering 1366x768 displays as well). It will have 128MB of memory (expandable to 256MB) and a 1GB SSD (also expandable, to 4GB). Even with this low-end configuration, the Alpha 680 will start around $250. That's less than any 10-inch netbook, of course. But you can pick up the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 with an 8.9-inch LED-backlit display (1,024x600), 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 1GB of memory, 4GB SSD and Ubuntu Linux for $279.

As for battery life, Skytone says the Alpha 680 with its two-cell battery will get two to four hours on a charge. By comparison, the Mini 9 with its standard four-cell battery lasted 3 hours 21 minutes on CNET's tests.

To keep the price down, the Alpha 680 won't come with many applications. You can use Web-based applications or download apps from the Android Store, though Wu told Networkworld that some 20% of apps in the store won't work because of compatibility issues. Uh-oh. There's a reason why more than 90 percent of netbook buyers have chosen a $15 copy of Windows XP over a free Linux distribution.

Comparing the Alpha 680 with current netbooks misses the point, Wu told Networkworld. Netbooks have actually become too powerful, he said, and what the rest of the world really needs is a very low-cost mobile device for checking e-mail, browsing the Web and performing basic chores. That may be true, but ARM-based netbooks will still need to be competitive in terms of specs, performance and price to knock Wintel off its perch.

The Alpha 680 will be smaller and lighter than other netbooks--no surprise given its specs. Skytone says it will weigh 1.5 pounds and measure 8.5 by 6 by 1.2 inches. But so far that approach hasn't worked woo well either with early netbooks using 7-inch displays or with MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices). Ultimately the question is whether there really is a market for a device that is neither smartphone nor notebook.

Topics: Processors, Hardware, Mobility

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • One killer app not mentioned

    Remote client. With a remote client you basically have the power of your main computer at home or work with the all mobility and power longevity a netbook would imply.

    If you can get a remote client that can connect to any desktop while eliminating all the routing issues you normally get when trying to get past the local router on the server node (even if it means you have to install software on the server node), that would be your killer app for netbooks, especially ARM netbooks. That would eliminate any issue with x86 compatibility. In fact that would be a great product to package and market.
    Michael Kelly
    • Well, you would still need more than a 7 inch screen. I think the sweet

      spot for screen size (which also allows a decent keyboard) will be about 11 inches.
      • Not screen size so much as screen resolution

        I have an Eee S101 which is 10.4", and the size is just fine. Even my older Eee 900 at 8.9" was big enough for viewing (though the keyboard was indeed cramped). However when you connect to a laptop or desktop that is usually connected to a 1280x800 or better screen, all the icons get scrambled and many windows that expect a height of at least 768 pixels get cut off, many times with no option of resizing it or panning down.

        And it's not just a Windows problem. There are a lot of configuration windows that get cut off in the Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix.
        Michael Kelly
        • You have to look at the bloody thing.

          It won't be long before American's are suing left right and centre for "headaches" and "eye-strain" and more "RSI" claims.

          Touch screen vendors will also be sued for disease transmission.

          Litigious lot.
          • Yeah Europe is so non-litigious, they are the

            role model for the rest of the world - LOL Not! Nice try foamy.
    • And the killer apps would be ...

      The remote client you mentioned would be ThinServer XP. Run all your favourites Windows apps on your Android netbook :)

  • Agreed, Arm netbooks need to offer minimum, a 9 inch

    screen, 1GB memory, 6 hours of battery, and be the same price or a little cheaper, to be competitive with Windows based Atom netbooks.

    I think that will happen.
    • At what point though?

      It's not as if Intel is going to sit on its hands, AMD already taught them their lesson on that. If it's a year+ from now then we'll see Wintel netbooks that last 8-10 hours, have 16-32GB SSD and 1-2GB of memory for the same price. Which would still put what you're outlining to shame.

      ARM needs to be better to win. Being "as good" doesn't work when you're on the bottom.
      • Well, right here, right now, Intel can not compete in the cell

        phone chip market. Intel will also be unlikely to be able to fix the problem (for netbooks or cell phones) within a year either, and, in that time, the multiple Arm vendors will not stand still either.

        Remember, there is a basic architecture problem with x86 that will not go away. It is way too complicated and takes a lot of transistors to implement.

        In a year, the only thing Intel will have going for itself in the Netook market is that many users will still trade battery life to be alble to run Windows.
        • But that's a *HUGE* advantage

          I just bought an HP Mini for $400. The reason? It has a (nearly) full size keyboard--in a 10.2" netbook. :) But it also runs XP Home, it has 1GB of memory and a 60GB hard drive.

          Agreed, a 1.6Ghz Atom is pretty slow--but then again how much slower will an ARM be when it has to do the same job? Most apps aren't that demanding--but running a GUI, running multiple apps and not being 100% compatible with the Android software store? Hmmm.

          At 1024x600 my Mini's screen is *almost* big enough, it really needs to be 768 but I can live with the size for most Terminal Server uses.

          But the point is, if I need to I can use it as a full blown XP laptop. It can run whatever crazy little Windows program I want to run on it. I can go to any computer store and get whatever software I need, right off the shelf. That's pretty handy if you're traveling.

          It may be slow, but it *will* run nearly any Windows software. :) Can't say that about ARM netbooks, no matter how small/cheap.

          Oh, and I get 2.5 hours on a 3 cell battery, which is plenty. I can always run it off the car charger or AC power if I need more time. Or splurge for the 6 cell battery to give me 5 hours.

          ARM Netbooks? Not seeing the need...
          • So what?

            [i]It may be slow, but it *will* run nearly any Windows software. happy Can't say that about ARM netbooks, no matter how small/cheap.[/i]

            Not everybody has to run M$-reliant software, ya know...

            This sounds like a good alternative. Let's see how it does in the marketplace.
            hasta la Vista, bah-bie
    • if they will pick a decent distro, then 566Mhz and 512MB

      is enough. something custom, perhaps slackware based - like vectorlinux. use a virtual screen of 1024x768 and the 8in display is fine. but that thing looks a lil clunky for my taste, i would like to see it under 3/4 inch thick
  • ARM netbook will fail because of only one issue

    ... binary compatibility.

    The only way I can seriously see this taking off is if you had an iPhone app and you could seemlessly install it on your Mac. Same deal on Windows / Windows mobile.

    If you have a limited purpose device like a smartphone, you can mitigate this by ensuring application datafile compatibility.

    But when it looks like a laptop, acts like a laptop, and you can't install your normal software on it = big perception problem.

    • Most users use just email, web browser, office suite. The average Joe

      uses very few local applications anymore. Especially for a netbook format, that is all that is needed.
      • Netbook format?

        Some of the crazy specs being bounced around are saying they would have 11 - inch screens!

        Give me a break. Someone would have to be a moron to blow $500 dollars on the 11+ inch 'netbook' (the screen being the most expensive component probably) versus a a full featured 13 inch notebook like a Mac.

        I don't see it. Some people will fall all over themselves for battery life, but there is an easy solution for that... A laptop vendor need only license battery technology from a company called Electrovaya to make standard laptops run longer.

        • why bring apple in to this

          they dont have a product comparbly to this... well performace wise... MBA might get close... but i would rather have 7 little acers than a MBA...

          apple netbook is the i pod touch... but more expensive...
          • Huh?

            'dave@...' scribbled:

            "they dont have a product comparbly to this"

            To what? I don't even know what you're trying to say here.

            "MBA might get close... but i would rather have 7 little acers than a

            This is just dumb. You can only use one crap computer at a time. So why
            would you want to carry around SEVEN?!

            It's obvious Apple will nail this one - if they choose to. Asking: "why
            bring apple in to this" is like asking: why mention sunshine in a weather
            Graham Ellison
        • Spoken like someone who has never tried an 11" netbook

          There is a HUGE difference in weight between a $500 11" netbook and a $500 13"-15" laptop. There is also a HUGE difference in battery life. The difference in computing power, unless you are running apps that require a lot of GPU power, is not that much.

          I agree there is a need for compatibility between these netbooks and regular laptops/desktops, but only as far as data goes. Binary compatibility only matters if you plan on spending $100+ for software on each system, and these days it's not even necessary to spend $1. And again, the purpose of a netbook isn't to have a 100% functional PC, it's to have all the basics while you are on the go. The netbook caters to the masses, not niche markets.

          Maybe that will change with Win7 if they can get that to be on par with Linux performance and price on the Atom. If it does then I would agree that any performance/price gains using Linux on ARM would be moot.
          Michael Kelly
    • ARM netbook will fail because

      I call it a Treo by Palm, works extremely well for over 3 years no crashes! I have purchased 6 of them for office staff.
  • Well, Linux on a toaster didn't fly either so don't hold your breath..nt