Maker: First Android netbook to cost about $250

Guangzhou Skytone's 1.5-lb. Alpha 680 also first netbook to use ARM chip

The first netbook computer running the Google Inc.-backed Android mobile operating system on a low-cost ARM chip could become available to customers within three months, the maker's co-founder said this week.

The Alpha 680, designed by Guangzhou Skytone Transmission Technologies Co., is going through final testing now, Nixon Wu, Skytone's co-founder, told Computerworld exclusively.

The 50-employee company, located in Guangzhou, a city in southern China, is aiming to have final prototypes ready by June, with manufacturers likely to introduce models to the market one to two months after that, Wu said.

The Alpha 680 caused a flurry of excitement after it was spotted online earlier this week by Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub.

Prototypes actually made their public debut at an electronics trade show in Hong Kong the week before.

"We've gotten 300 inquiries from different countries," Wu said.

The excitement surrounding a no-frills computer made by a little-known Chinese manufacturer is mostly in response the potential of the technology underlying it.

Used in billions of cellphones today, ARM processors are less expensive and more energy-efficient than even Intel Corp.'s power-sipping Atom CPU.

Meanwhile, Android is fast emerging as a popular flavor of Linux for smartphones such as Google's G1, attracting interest from software developers as quickly as Apple Inc.'s iPhone did.

Some market experts predict that the combination of ARM and Android could help usher in an era of sub-$200 netbooks with 12-hour battery life and creative designs highly tailored for different consumers.

It could also allow ARM/Android netbooks to wrest the netbook market from Atom chips and the Windows XP operating system, which could weaken or break Intel and Microsoft Corp.'s grip on the PC market.

Great expectations

Ian Drew, an executive at ARM Holdings PLC, told Computerworld earlier this month that he expects to see "six to 10 ARM-based netbooks this year, starting in Q3."

As the first in this coming wave, the Alpha 680 may enthrall some netbook watchers and disappoint others.

The Alpha 680 will break new ground in portability. Prototypes weigh about 1.5 lb. and measure 8.5 in. long, 6 in. wide and 1.2 in. thick, said Wu -- petite enough to fit inside a small purse or shoulder bag.

"It's definitely smaller than the Eee," Wu said. (The original Eee 701 weighs 922 grams and measures 9 by 6.5 by 1.4 in.).

The Alpha 680 is using an ARM11 CPU running at 533 MHz. First introduced in 2002, the ARM11 chip, including later, more powerful versions, has been used in many different smartphones, including Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iPhone Touch devices.

Android performs fairly well on the chip, said Wu. YouTube Inc.'s Flash-encoded videos, for instance, can play fine, he said.

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