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Next year's netbooks: Notebook, meet smartphone

Google Android, ARM processors and all-day batteries will transform today's netbook into something completely new.

By David Haskin
May 19, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Computerworld - Even by the rapid-fire standards of the technology industry, netbooks have evolved quickly. However, the most significant netbook changes of all will start becoming available in the next year.

First popularized after Taiwanese vendor Asustek released its EeePC in October of 2007, netbooks initially were small and cheap. The first EeePC, for example, had a slow Celeron processor, a seven-inch screen, weighed about two pounds and cost $400.

It didn't take long for Asus and competitors such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Lenovo to release a second generation of netbooks. These usually come with 10-inch screens, better keyboards, and a faster Atom processor, for anywhere from $300 to $600 or above.

Nobody expects today's style of netbook to go away. But currently a host of vendors are hard at work on an entirely new type of netbook, which they say will use new processors and operating systems.

The old netbooks were, essentially, the tiniest notebooks computer vendors could make, notes Glen Lurie, president of AT&T's Emerging Devices Organization. "But now there are new entrants looking at netbooks as mobility devices," says Lurie. "They're saying, why not use other chipsets and other operating systems? This [attitude] is leading to some nice innovation." In particular, Lurie says, the new netbooks will blend the best features of netbooks and smartphones.

Here's what to expect as these new netbooks begin to be available by the end of the year.

A new heart

If the heart of a computing device is its processor, the new netbooks will be getting something of a heart transplant.

Until recently, netbooks have used variations of the same long-standing x86 processors that were used on desktops and laptops since the early 1980s. These processors, such as Intel's Atom, were modified to use relatively less power than standard laptop processors, making them a good fit for small devices such as netbooks.

Wistron PBook
The Wistron PBook will be based on the Snapdragon platform.

By contrast, the new netbooks will largely use processors based on designs from the U.K.'s ARM Holdings PLC, long a developer of processors used in cell phones and smartphones. Several vendors will be manufacturing these processors, including Texas Instruments and Freescale. However, the processor that has garnered the most attention is Snapdragon, which is being manufactured by Qualcomm, another long-time developer of phone chips.

These new processors aren't just change for change's sake, according to Mark Frankel, vice president of product management in Qualcomm's CDMA Technologies division. Rather, the new processors will enable netbooks to have a new set of capabilities, he says.

Using similar hardware such as Atom processors, "made netbooks somewhat cookie-cutter-like," Frankel says. "Now, there's a transformation occurring in netbooks."

In particular, Frankel claims that Snapdragon draws only 500 milliwatts of power, which is one-fourth the power draw of Intel's Atom processor. "Because of the lower power requirements, you'll be able to leave it on all day like you do with your smartphone," Frankel says. Another key advance is that these devices can be turned on without the traditional minutes-long boot sequence.

In addition, while the initial version of Snapdragon will operate at a relatively slow 1GHz, it will have extensive media acceleration capabilities. These new capabilities make the new netbooks a perfect fit for a projected new target audience, proponents believe.

"Users will be younger, more mobile and they'll want e-mail access, media content, the Web, social networking," AT&T's Lurie notes. "They want to get to these things immediately, so you can't have a two-minute boot sequence and you need a full-day battery."

Adds Frankel,"There will be a richer user experience with more emphasis on entertainment than on productivity and PowerPoint."



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