Freescale chases $199 netbook with new processor

It will demonstrate an i.MX515-powered netbook with Wi-Fi at CES

Freescale Semiconductor Inc. on Monday is expected to announce a new processor for netbooks that may challenge chip maker Intel Corp. on price in the low-cost computing market.

The company's i.MX515 processor will run on netbooks, low-cost laptops that are designed to perform basic computing functions such as accessing the Internet and running productivity applications.

Intel dominates the market with its Atom processors, which are found in netbooks priced around $299. Freescale hopes to drive costs down even further by putting its processors in $199 netbooks. Netbooks have gained in popularity since Intel started shipping Atom last year, and Freescale wants a piece of the pie as shipments continue to grow.

Freescale will demonstrate an i.MX515-powered netbook with Wi-Fi wireless networking made by Pegatron, a spin-off of Asustek Computer Inc., at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas from Jan. 8 to 11. It wasn't immediately clear whether Pegatron would distribute netbooks with the Freescale processors.

In addition to lowering prices, Freescale plans to improve battery life over Intel's Atom chips, said Glen Burchers, marketing director at Freescale's consumer division. Netbooks with Freescale processors will be able to run for around eight hours, according to the company. That level of performance would top the battery life of Atom-based netbooks.

The processor requires less power to run and doesn't need a heat sink or fan to cool because it is designed from a core used in communication devices like cell phones, Burchers said. The i.MX515 processor is based on the Cortex-A8 core from ARM Ltd., which can scale in performance up to 1GHz. It supports 3D graphics and can play back high-definition video.

Freescale hopes its processors will catch on with audiences like teenagers, who access the Internet intermittently for Web browsing and social networking.

"We believe the netbook is a device that is going to be primarily targeted at Internet access, that is a companion device to computers and to smart phones. It is not a replacement for either," Burchers said. Options to connect to the Internet, such as Wi-Fi wireless networking, will be included in Freescale-based netbooks.

The chips will ship by the middle of this year, Burchers said. Some companies are considering using it in netbooks, though Burchers didn't provide any names. The netbooks could include screen sizes from 8.9 to 10 in. and could reach buyers by the end of the year, he said.

The netbooks will support Linux, and Freescale is working with Canonical Ltd. to develop a version of the operating system for the ARM core. The devices won't support Windows, however.

But with users increasingly adopting Windows-based netbooks, will Freescale be missing out on a larger market for its processor? Netbooks with Intel-based chips enjoy the advantage of running programs that people are familiar with, like Microsoft Office or Internet Explorer.

However, Linux can be effective in doing netbook-specific jobs such as accessing social networks or running productivity applications, Burchers said. For example, he said, it's easy to get used to Firefox or, which look the same in both Windows and Linux.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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