Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ARM-based netbooks set to arrive on US shores this year

DigiTimes has been making the rounds of the Taiwanese OEMs, and the company claims to have the scoop on a coming wave of ARM-based netbooks, often called "smartbooks," that will wash ashore in the US in the last quarter of this year. Smartbooks based on Qualcomm's SnapDragon processor and NVIDIA's Tegra line are allegedly on deck from netbook names like ASUS, Acer, and Foxconn. Lesser-known Chinese netbook maker Compal, which was showing off products at this past CES but which doesn't yet ship to the US, is also named as an ARM netbook maker, as are Inventec and Mobinnova.

Then there's the Touch Book, from Always Innovating, which sent out a note today to everyone who contacted them via web form (including Ars) to say that the device is is now shipping. We haven't really covered the Touch Book, but boy have we been getting reader mail about it. A lot of folks want us to review it, and I've contacted the company in an effort to get a review unit. (No response so far, but I'll keep trying.) The Touch Books' main gimmick is that its screen can be detached and used as a standalone tablet, and the second gimmick is that it runs the TI OMAP 3 chip, which is looking like a killer PMP/tablet processor.

In all, it looks like by Christmas of this year, we'll have the long-awaited Intel Atom vs. ARM Cortex A8 netbook price/performance/power smackdown that the gadget press has been waiting for since 2007. There's a sizable amount of hype around the Cortex A8 parts being considerably cheaper and more power-efficient than Intel's Atom, but it's worth taking a moment to think about how the two platforms actually stack up against one another.

In terms of absolute power draw, there's no question that the sub-1W ARM A8 platforms are going to smoke Intel's Atom platform. Atom alone has a TDP of around 2W (give or take 0.5W, depending on usage), and when you factor in the other two chips that make up the current iteration of the platform, then you can tack on another zero there.

Intel's forthcoming two-chip Pine Trail will help this situation considerably, but it still relies on a separate I/O hub that will add to the power draw vs. ARM SoCs; the latter have everything from the CPU and GPU out to the USB controller on one die. So these ARM-based smartbooks will face off against Pine Trail-based netbooks, and who wins will depend on which market you're talking about.

In terms of relative performance per watt at the platform level, it's not so clear that Cortex A8 really has a considerable edge over Atom. Benchmark data is close to nonexistent, but looking at the two fairly similar CPU architectures, Atom's x86 tax may not be that severe. By the time an A8 part is clocked high enough to go toe-to-toe with Pine Trail in raw performance, it will probably also be in Intel's ballpark in absolute power draw.

It's still likely that the A8 implementations will win in performance per watt, but in any contest where Intel is in the same ballpark, the company will try to close the distance with features in price. In Atom's case, this means that it can accommodate the full range of Intel platform bells and whistles—including 64-bit processing, the full alphabet soup of Intel SIMD extensions, hyperthreading, and Active Management Technology—in a very low-power package. Depending on how you evaluate those features, they could close the relative price/performance gap.

For instance, hyperthreading's main use is to increase performance by hiding memory latency, and its success in this area is workload-dependent (in some cases it makes performance worse). I will be very interested to see how hyperthreading interacts with a sample Chrome browser workload—multiple tabs, multiple threads, branchy Javascript code, and other elements that may make hyperthreading shine.

AMT is another place where Atom has an edge, at least in the corporate market. If you outfit a fleet with Pine Trail, then you can do the kinds of remote management tricks that Intel likes to tout. If this sort of thing matters to you, then you'll be quite happy to trade 30 minutes or so of battery life for it.

In the end, I would expect smartbooks to do to netbooks what netbooks are doing to notebooks, i.e., they'll cannibalize parts of the market, but they'll also create new niches. If the ARM-based smartbooks really do deliver on all-day battery life with acceptable performance at a lower price, then Intel will be left scrambling at 32nm for whatever new niches they open up.

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