OLPC set to dump x86 for ARM chips in next-gen laptops

Goal is to extend battery life of the XO-2 laptop set for release in 18 months

One Laptop Per Child Association Inc. (OLPC) is set to dump x86 processors, instead opting to put low-power ARM-based processors in its next-generation XO-2 laptop with the aim of improving battery life.

The nonprofit is "almost" committed to putting the ARM-based chip in the next-generation XO-2 laptop, which is due for release in 18 months, said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of OLPC. The XO-1 laptop ships with Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s aging Geode chip, which is based on an x86 design.

OLPC's goal is to extend the battery life of the XO-2 laptop while building in more functionality than is the XO-1 provides, said Ed McNierney, chief technology officer. OLPC officials said ARM-based integrated chips will draw less power than x86 integrated chips and include functionality such as graphics and wireless networking.

"Our current XO-1 uses an average of 5 watts of power, and while most people think that's amazingly low, we think it's our biggest problem," McNierney said.

Although x86 chips could cut their power consumption, ARM-based chip makers have been paying more attention to low-power and power management features on chips, McNierney said.

"We're seeing some very impressive system-on-chip designs that provide both fundamentally low-power demands and the kind of fine-grained power management ... in the XO-1," McNierney said.

However, the ARM chip could lead to problems for XO-2 in trying to load a full version of Windows, Negroponte said. As with the XO-1, OLPC wants to offer a dual-boot option on XO-2 in which users can choose to load either Linux or a full Windows operating system. While ARM processors can run Windows Mobile, they can't run a full Windows operating system.

"Like many, we are urging Microsoft to make Windows -- not Windows Mobile -- available on the ARM. This is a complex question for them," Negroponte said.

OLPC is in talks with Microsoft Corp. to develop a full version of Windows for XO-2, Negroponte said. The XO-2 is still 18 months away from release, so "a lot can change with regard to Microsoft and ARM," Negroponte said.

Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Designed for use by children in developing countries, the XO laptop has been praised for its innovative hardware features and environmentally friendly design. In the same vein, XO-2 is also being engineered with hardware and software features that OLPC hopes will appeal to kids in primary schools.

The XO-2 will include a software-designed, touch-sensitive keyboard and two touch-screen displays. It can be both a traditional laptop and an e-book reader, a tablet, and even a piano with its touch-based input, McNierney said.

The nonprofit has also been aggressive in efforts to increase the battery life of XO-2 laptops in situations where power is unreliable or unavailable. The laptop may carry current XO laptop features, including the ability to run on solar power, foot pedal or pull string.

Plans to add wireless networking features such as WiMax and 3G to XO-2 are also on OLPC's table, McNierney said. OLPC is especially considering WiMax, which offers specific power benefits that could improve laptop battery life, he said. WiMax networks have already been rolled out in many developing countries.

"But everything has to first fit in a very, very tight power budget, and if it can't be done at low power, it can't be done," McNierney said.

OLPC can't implement all its ideas in XO-2, so it ultimately wants to "open source" the hardware design to other PC makers, McNierney said. He said he hopes that opening up the hardware design will spur the development of a "rich family of devices" that accelerate the adoption of the XO-2 technology.

"One size doesn't fit all, even in the countries we're targeting, but OLPC can't design a dozen variations of the XO-2 all by ourselves." McNierney said.

ARM designs low-power integrated chips that are licensed by many chip makers for use in mobile devices. Though found mostly in smartphones, ARM chips are now making their way into low-cost laptops. Freescale Semiconductor Inc. is chasing the netbook market with its i.MX515 chip, which is based on the Cortex-A8 ARM core and includes a 1-GHz CPU, 3-D graphics and high-definition video support. Qualcomm Inc. offers the ARM-based Snapdragon chip for netbooks. It integrates a 1-GHz CPU, 3-D graphics, video capabilities and GPS.

Switching to an ARM processor could also help OLPC partner with more chip makers for input on chip design, McNierney said. Rather than relying on a small number of vendors for chips as it did for XO-1, using more partners could give the nonprofit flexibility and choice in acquiring chips.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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