Freescale adds Android, Xandros netbook support

The chip manufacturer says ARM-based architecture could eventually seize up to half of the netbook market from its x86-based rival

Freescale's new ARM processors can now support the Android and Xandros open-source operating systems, the company announced this week.

New industry agreements pave the way for non-Intel netbooks, Freescale said, with "dramatically longer" battery life and better portability. Up to half the netbook market — expected to double to 30 million units in 2009 — may go to ARM, the company predicted.

The five-core i.MX515 processor now supports Phoenix's instant-on HyperSpace operating environment — announced on Monday — and will work with specially optimised 3G HSDA data modules from Option and Wavecom. The chipset already supports the Ubuntu Linux operating system.

The i.MX515 processor is based on the ARM Cortex A-8 architecture. ARM first told ZDNet UK of its intentions to put its architecture into netbooks in October last year. At the start of 2009, Freescale became the first of ARM's manufacturer partners to announce it would be using Cortex A-8 as the basis for a netbook processor that would allow for £140 subnotebooks.

Glen Burchers, Freescale's sales and marketing director for consumer products, told ZDNet UK on Thursday that these £140 netbooks would be in stores before Christmas this year. Freescale believes 30 million netbooks could ship in 2009, "maybe even aided by the economic downturn because of the [relatively low] price points", he added.

Burchers claimed that the low price and power requirements of ARM-based netbooks, as well their predicted slim form-factor, would over time draw "up to half of the netbook market [to] non-x86, ARM architecture". Freescale would not be the only beneficiary of such a shift, Burchers said, because of ARM's partnerships with other manufacturers such as Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. "It's good that there's competition in this market," he said. "It will lead to lower power and the price will continue to get better".

Intel currently dominates the netbook processor market with its x86-based Atom chipsets, which can be used to run Microsoft's Windows XP. However, Burchers said Linux-based operating systems and free productivity suites such as are "sufficient" to meet the needs of netbook users.

According to Burchers, ARM-based architecture allows for "dramatically longer" battery life than that found in current, x86-based netbooks. "We have demonstrated to manufacturers in excess of eight hours of battery life on the same batteries that give two hours on an Atom-based netbook," he claimed.

Burchers said the power consumption of a current, Atom-based netbook was roughly 10W. "Of that, 1-1.5W is the LED backlight and about 1W is the memory refresh and USB," he said.

"The majority of the rest of the power is attributable to the Atom chipset [including] the southbridge plus the processor plus graphics — Atom is three chips," Burchers said. "Our processor is a single chip with five cores on board, [which] reduces the 7.5W down to less than half a watt. That takes the total power budget of the netbook from 10W down to under 3W, and gives between a tripling and quadrupling of battery life."

The five cores on the i.MX515 chipset include a main CPU core running at 1GHz, a Neon digital signal processor that comes as part of ARM's licence package, an OpenVG-compatible 2D graphics block, an OpenGL ES-compatible 3D graphics block, and video encode/decode block. Also included in Freescale's reference design for manufacturers are interfaces for USB, Ethernet and the storage drive — Burchers said Freescale anticipates 95 percent of the drives used in ARM-based netbooks to be solid-state drives (SSDs), adding that such netbooks would be "cloud-computing devices with small amounts of local storage".

Burchers said the power savings would come from operating all five of the cores independently. "While we're running video playback, we're playing the video core at full speed — both graphics cores are turned off," he said. "The DSP is playing back the audio, and the processor core, which can run up to 1GHz, is only needed to run at 50MHz. Playing back MP3s can use just 19 milliwatts."

Because Freescale's CPU only generates 0.5 watts of heat, Burchers claimed, netbooks using the i.MX515 chipset would not need fans, heat sinks or heat spreaders. He said these omissions would make it possible to remove 5mm from the thickness of the netbook. He also said Freescale's circuit board could be reduced to 10cm x 10cm in size, making it feasible to align the board with the connectors and drives — rather than stacking it above or beneath them — and further reduce the thickness of the PC.

Freescale currently has no orders for its chipset, Burchers said, but is engaged with major original design manufacturers in Taiwan. Asus spin-off Pegatron is showing a prototype netbook based on i.MX515 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week — it also did so at CES earlier this year, but the prototype now includes the 3D module, Burchers said.