Most netbooks and other ultra-mobile PCs currently run on Intel’s Atom x86 chips, but according to Analytics firm ABI, they shouldn’t get too used to being on top. In a new report, ABI is claiming that ARM-based chips will overtake Intel by 2013. ARM has been pushing for the opportunity to power non-smartphone devices for some time now. In October they introduced the Cortex A5 MP architecture, which they claim can efficiently power a netbook style device.
Intel is not currently sweating bullets, but they may be gearing up for a fight. Intel has established an Atom developer program to push the platform further. The chip maker has also unveiled plans to sell a version of the Atom intended for smartphones called the Moorestown. This is a direct challenge to ARM on their home turf.
The dominance of ARM is far from a sure thing, though. Rival analytics firm IDC has stated that ARM-based netbooks are unlikely to capture more than 10-20% of the market. They cited manufacturers’ tight relationships with Intel. Also, Windows does not currently support ARM chips. Since Windows is the dominant platform even on netbooks, the future for ARM netbooks is still hazy. If Linux netbooks took off, as Robert Castellano of The Information Network predicted last year, ARM would definitely have an in. Linux just needs to have its year. Hey, it could happen.
Talk about a potential turnaround. As it currently stands, some 90 percent of ultra-mobile devices (UMDs) shipped in 2009 sport a x86 processor inside, leaving little room for other architectures. But according to ABI Research, the introduction of ARM-based systems is set to shake things up, and in a big way. ABI says that by 2013, UMD shipments of netbooks, MIDs, smartbooks, and UMPCs based on the ARM architecture will jump ahead of x86-based devices.
"The important netbook segment of the UMD market is now moving into its second generation, and a growing number of netbooks based on ARM platforms are now appearing in the market, a trend no doubt helped by the perception that ARM-based systems are heavily oriented towards an 'always connected' mode of operation," ABI Research says. "Additionally, ARM-based products are coming out in a growing variety of different form-factors including tablets."
Jeff Orr, a senior analyst with ABI, describes the movement as "not a tidal wave, but a rising tide." He's referring to the growing number of laptops and netbooks with embedded or attached modems, which have contributed to a "significantly greater amount of traffic to 3G networks than smartphones do," a further sign that ARM processors are taking over, he says.
Qualcomm's ARM-based Snapdragon chipset is ideal for a lot of different types of devices and form factors. Don't be surprised if you come across smartphones, smartbooks, slate PCs and netbooks all powered by the Snapdragon. We already know that the Google Nexus One is driven by a powerful 1GHz Snapdragon processor. But Qualcomm plans to up the ante with the addition of even more powerful processors to its Snapdragon line. Luis Pineda, SVP of product management for Qualcomm, told tech website Hexus that his company will unveil two new processors this year.
As per the Snapdragon roadmap, a 45nm Snapdragon clocked at 1.3GHz will reach manufacturers later this month, with products based on it debuting around the end of the year. A yet more powerful variant will be unveiled before Christmas in the form of the 8X72, a dual-core 1.5 GHz chip, which will let smartphones and smartbooks keep people entertained with 1080p video playback.
He went on to add that an increasing number of netbook users are opting for Windows 7 ahead of cheaper alternatives. After having slammed the door on a Windows 7 ARM port, he left a small window open by suggesting that smartbook vendors can use the ARM-compatible Windows CE instead. Microsoft's current reluctance to offer a Windows 7 ARM port probably stems from potential technical bottlenecks as much as its commitment to Intel.
ARM designs microprocessors, then licenses the designs to manufacturing. Most cell phones currently use ARM chips, but ARM isn’t content with owning just that market. They hope the new chip will find its way into other products, possibly in direct competition with Intel. The Cortex-A5 is fast enough to run a laptop or netbook, though Windows does not currently run on ARM chips.
Cortex-A5 chips are expected to run at clock speeds in the gigahertz range, and draw only 80 milliwatts of power. This should provide better performance and power efficiency than upcoming Intel chips. The first products with the new design should begin showing up sometime in 2011.
Santa Clara-based chip maker Marvell has launched a new range of CPUs called ARMADA. Based on the ARM instruction set, the new processors will power “smartphones, smartbooks, consumer and embedded devices, and displays.”
Based on their intended device segment, the new application processors fall into four different series: the ARMADA 100, 500, 600 and 1000. "Launch of the ARMADA family represents a watershed event in mobile computing,” said Marvell’s co-founder and VP, Ms. Weili Dai.
Any large technology company relies on their server infrastructure to serve their customers. The sort of power that runs Google or Facebook doesn’t come cheap. It's not so much the cost of the hardware, it’s the massive cost of powering that infrastructure that eats into the bank account. Two start-ups aim to change the server game with some new, low-power alternatives to conventional servers.
SeaMicro, from Santa Clara, is putting together servers based on the low power Atom chip seen most often in Netbooks. Those in the know have indicated that SeaMicro will be able to pack 80 Atom chips in a very small chassis. These Atom servers would offer massive reductions in energy costs, but still provide adequate processing power to serve up data. After all, how much power does it really take to push out some Google results?
In Austin, Texas, there’s an even more ambitious server project afoot. Smooth-Stone is working to integrate the ARM chips you’ve seen in smartphones, like the iPhone, into a new server architecture. Smooth-Stone CEO, Barry Evans, accumulated a great body of knowledge working for Intel’s mobile products group. This seems to jive nicely with the company’s apparent goals. Details on this one are scarce, but if the performance is sufficient, the energy savings could be staggering. Could it be that the era of companies running rack after rack of Xeon-based web servers is coming to a close?
A newly announced partnership between ARM and GlobalFoundries could mean the next generation of mobile devices will be faster than anyone expected. The project will focus on the ARM Cortex-A9 chip. The current Cortex-A8 powers the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre. The new chip will be based on a 28nm process.
According to GlobalFoundries, the 28nm parts will take advantage of the manufacturer’s High-K Metal Gate semiconductor. The HKMG technology is known as “Gate First”, meaning that it should allow high performance with minimal leakage.
ARM CEO, Warren East, said of the collaboration, “This announcement reflects our business value and strategy of providing best in class processor implementation by marrying our own processor and physical IP with world class manufacturing semiconductor technology.” So get ready, the next round of ARM chips could blow your socks off.
These days, netbooks have become a very popular alternative to conventional notebooks for mobile computing. Netbooks are lightweight, have great battery life, and are relatively inexpensive compared to full-sized notebooks. This makes them ideal for students or people on a budget. Of course, the lower cost and extended battery life does not come without a trade-off—many netbooks have lower system specs as well, which means that they are not designed for heavy-computing applications.
Although many netbooks now run Windows XP because of Microsoft's hurried entry into that market, many earlier models were built to run Linux. (For instance, the Asus Eee 700 Series ran Xandros, and the current models are offered with either Linux or Windows) And although most current netbooks are x86-based (running the Intel Atom CPU), the usage of ARM-based CPU chips is likely to increase in the future since ARM offers far superior energy efficiency over x86 and battery life has always been a major factor in mobile computing. ARM chips have been used successfully for some time in smartphones and music players, including the newest Zune HD. Since ARM is a different CPU architecture than x86, Windows will not work on ARM. Earlier this year, Microsoft's Steve Guggenheim said that the company currently has no plans to port Windows 7 to the ARM architecture. Therefore, any new wave of ARM-based netbooks will run Linux once again. Unlike Windows, most Linux distros can be compiled for ARM if you have the requisite skills for doing so.
Linux is an ideal choice for netbooks for multiple reasons in addition to CPU architecture. Netbooks generally have lower specs than most full-size notebooks (not to mention desktops) so they are ideal for lightweight applications like web browsing, document preparation, etc. Linux does these tasks very well without the bloat that Windows systems have to deal with from anti-malware utilities. This primer will help you set up and optimize Linux for your netbook.
The rumors are true - AMD spin off Global Foundries and ARM are in talks about joining forces to build chips together. According to Kevin Smith, ARM's vice president, his company plans to add manufacturing partners as it expands its business beyond mobile phones.
ARM also hopes to capture 15 percent of the mini-notebook market by the end of 2010, Smith added. The company is already working with Freescale Semiconductor, Sharp Corp., and Pegatron Technology, and adding Global Foundries to the mix would be a major boost.
It would also be a major win for Global Foundries, who is now reported to have over 150 customers, after starting off with just two (AMD and ST Microelectronics).