ARM Cortex-based netbooks due soon

The British micro-architecture giant has said netbooks using next-generation ARM chips will be announced within 'months'

Netbooks using ARM's next-generation processor architecture will be announced soon, according to a senior executive at the firm.

Rob Coombs, director of mobile solutions at the UK processor-design company, told on Wednesday that Cortex-A8- and Cortex-A9-based application processors would find their way not only into smartphones — as with most ARM architecture — but also into small, low-cost subnotebooks.

"In the future we're going to be in netbooks," said Coombs. "Expect announcements in the next few months."

Currently ubiquitous ARM-based smartphone processors are commonly based on the company's ARM11 microarchitecture. The successor to ARM11 will be Cortex-A8, and processors based on this architecture are scheduled to find their way into handsets from next year.

Coombs claimed there were currently "people playing around with gigahertz speeds" using Cortex-A8 architecture.

Cortex-A9 is the multicore sister to Cortex-A8, and is likely to go into use around 2010. Multicore processors provide power advantages, as multiple cores running at a lower speed can process more instructions per watt than single high-speed cores.

Coombs refused to explicitly name manufacturers who might be gearing up to announce netbooks using Cortex-based chips, instead referring to ARM's published lists of licensees.

Chipmakers who are Cortex-A8 licensees include Samsung, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments (TI), Broadcom, PMC-Sierra, Matsushita (Panasonic) and Freescale. Those signed up to Cortex-A9 include NEC, Nvidia, STMicroelectronics, TI and Toshiba.

Nvidia has already announced its intention to put ARM11-based processors into mobile internet devices (MIDs), which lie between smartphones and netbooks in size.

ARM's move into netbook territory puts it in strong competition with Intel, itself an ARM licensee. Intel processors, including its Atom low-power x86 design, are currently very common in netbooks, a category Intel itself named.  Intel also hopes to move into smartphone territory with its next generation of Atom chipsets, with chief executive Paul Otellini predicting products in late 2009.

While Microsoft has not produced an ARM-compatible version of its mainstream Windows operating system, the chip architecture is supported by Windows CE, multiple Linux distributions and a version of Apple's OS X. Apple itself is strongly rumoured to have an ARM licence, and recently acquired PA Semi, a chip-design company with extensive experience of designing with that architecture.