One of the hottest product categories on display at Computex in June was the ARM-powered smartbook. These little computers look a lot like your typical netbook, but they feature low power ARM-based processors that are cheaper than most Intel chips, but a bit slower. On the bright side, many of these chips include built-in support for things like 3G, WiFi, GPS, and HD video encoding. And NVIDIA has built a platform called Tegra, around an ARM-based chip bundled with an NVIDIA graphics processor for high performance graphics on low power devices.

The only catch is that Smartbooks can’t run full versions of Windows. They can handle a number other operating systems including of Linux distributions, Windows CE, and Google Android (which, while it’s based on the Linux Kernel isn’t exactly a Linux “distribution” in the common sense of the word). But since Windows XP, Vista, and 7 haven’t been designed to run on ARM chips, those operating systems are non-starters.

Anyway, so-called “smartbooks” were all over Computex, but they haven’t really hit the streets yet. But DigiTimes reports that’s about to change, with a flood of smartbooks set to hit the market in the fourth quarter of 2009. These machines will reportedly use ARM-based chips including Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and NVIDIA’s Tegra.

DigiTimes says a number of Taiwanese companies, including Acer, Foxconn, Pegatron, Compal, and Inventec are expected to push out these devices soon. If you don’t recognize some of those names, that’s because they’re OEMs or ODMs, meaning they make computers that are distributed and sold by big name companies you probably have heard of. The much talked about Mobinnova élan is expected to be among the early batch of smartbooks to hit the market.

Missing from the list? Asus. While the company helped kick off the netbook revolution by launching the Eee PC 701 in late 2007, Asus reportedly doesn’t think the demand for ARM-based mini-laptops is strong enough to justify launching one right now. Those plans could change.

It’s likely that some or all of these smartbooks will be sold in partnership with phone companies that could bundle the devices with 3G wireless data plans.

Keep in mind, the DigiTimes article is attributed to “industry sources,” so this could all be wrong. While DigiTimes usually has a pretty good track record, the publication ran an article the other day saying that Intel was halting orders of its Atom Z-series processors for netbooks, which prompted an Intel spokesperson to spend a very long weekend doing damage control and explaining that Intel had no such plans.

Update: In other news, DigiTimes reports that ECS and MSI have decided not to launch ARM-powered smartbooks before the end of the year.

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22 replies on “The Smartbooks are coming, the Smartbooks are coming (this year)”

    1. Only for those needing to run full Windows applications, or who don’t realise that it really doesn’t matter. Sadly there are all too many of the latter, which is part (though only part) of the reason Windows has gained the toe-hold it does in the netbook world. I recently put Ubuntu on my laptop, and my wife is currently using it for general duties without a problem. The browser works, the basic applications do as they are supposed to, and even the file-system’s not proving difficult to suss.

      1. As you say, all too many of the latter, but also with netbooks at the $300 level it’s not clear how smartbooks can appeal to anything other than a niche audience.

        1. Of course it’s clear… 8-10hrs battery with no large battery pack, cheaper, lighter, HD video, Navigation, Always connected data, instant on/off.

          I have used CE for years and there is very little I do on my PC that it can’t do (except latest games) but then I wouldn’t be playing games on a netbook anyway.

          Smartbooks may not be right for you but they can be considerablly more than a niche market. It is all about how well the software is implemented (early netbooks were often badly done on linux with menus not fitting screen etc.) and how well they are sold 🙂


          1. Of course, there’s no right or wrong. Just some people sitting around musing.

            As DG points out, there are many who will prefer netbooks simply because they run Windows. I’m pessimistic enough to think that the number is so huge that it’s what will determine the fate of any product that can’t run a full version of Windows, but perhaps the time is ripe to wrest control away from MS in the wake of the Vista debacle. But there are a lot of business machines out there that are not going to go to Linux any time soon.

            If I ran MS there would be no Windows 7. After what happened with Vista, my next OS would be called XP, Release 2, and it would be fully backwards compatible with XP.

  1. Now all we need is for HP to relaunch the Jornada HPC with 2009 tech…. That is something I would be very interested in!

  2. They better get their finger out and sell them without being bundled with a data package…

    I can tell you for nothing UK mobile providers are greedy and overpriced. I want to buy a smartbook as soon as they come out but I refuse to buy one bundled with a contract.

    They need to ensure some are available to purchase without contracts or they are already doomed to failure.

    Were these not supposed to be cheap? $150-200 or UKP £125-175. Surely these are cheap enough to sell to joe public?


  3. Don’t worry overmuch about Asus’s absence. They are really tight with Intel and wouldn’t want to start a fight with them until the market for these things are so proven they can honestly tell Intel “We don’t have achoice!”

    And remember that Pegatron IS up their necks in ARM and they are part of the ASUS family of companies.

    1. Don’t count Intel out just yet –
      they also build ARM compatible processors, have for years.

      Don’t count MS out just yet either –
      In addition to the mentioned products, keep in mind there
      was once an NT for Alpha (64 bit RISC) –
      not an impossible job to port that to 64 bit ARM.

      Old code never dies – it just gets new version numbers.

      The major problem for MS is their long standing “customer lock-in”
      strategy – not only are the customers locked in, so are all the Windows
      Application vendors – and *they* are unlikely to be able or willing to
      port to RISC of any flavor (one of the reasons Alpha-NT died).

      1. intel sold its ARM related assets some years ago…

        sure, they could get them back, or start over, but right now their atom series is head to head with ARM…

        1. Well yes and no… Intel sold PXA xscale to marvell but IIRC they kept the other side making the xscales for controller cards etc.

      2. As far as Windows on ARM, that’s the most common platform for Windows CE. CE is best known in its guise as Windows Mobile for phones, but it’s also embedded in various other devices as well. Back in the late 90s, there were even predecessors to netbooks — low power lightweight computers that ran all day on their battery charge on the Handheld PC Professional platform, such as the pre-Pocket PC HP Journadas.

        While everyone thinks of CE as crippled, there’s really no reason it has to be. I think CE has most of the Windows API, so Microsoft could probably port large chunks of Windows any time they had a reason too.

        Microsoft has put a huge investment into CE lately to clean up the antiquated Windows Mobile. My guess is that if ARM netbooks gain any traction at all, vendors will find themselves with some killer deals on Windows CE.

        But yes, applications are the wrench in the works. Even if Microsoft shipped a massively improved Office and IE, I doubt they can come close to reaching anywhere near feature parity even with most of the apps bundled in Windows, nevermind the universe of third party software.

        I think Intel’s plan is to build Atoms that go after ARM in low power draw and MIPS per watt, and I doubt they will start pitching ARM chips again unless they are left with no other choice.

    2. It’s comforting to know that Asus will be around pumping out “real” netbooks until we can see what’s happening with the smartbooks.

  4. This is just a nitpick, but. . . I don’t think we need to keep mentioning that Chrome is based on Linux every time it comes up, any more than we need to point out that Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD.

    As for the ARM-powered netbooks (“smartbook” is merely marketdroid doubletalk), I can hardly wait. I want one. If somebody can get a Pixel Qi screen into one of them, that’ll be fantastic.

    1. indeed, arm-based internals, pixel qi screen, convertible, and of a size that allows a A4 or us letter to be shown as a whole would be jawdropping 😀

    2. The only reason I mentioned it is because every time I write a line
      that says something like “various Linux distributions and Google
      Chrome,” someone tries to suggest that Chrome IS a Linux distribution.

      1. Android, surely, not Chrome (per the article!)

        Chrome’s just Google’s browser, based on Chromium, based on Konqueror.

    3. <"smartbook" is merely marketdroid doubletalk

      My thoughts too, though it has a catchy ring to it. I've seen many times when marketers pick out their product's weakest point and present it as though it's advantageous, thus nullifying the weakness in the minds of people who don't think through these things… but I still want one, and a Smart Car as well!

      I'm at a loss for examples now, but "clean coal" and and the "Pork is health" bumper sticker come to mind.

  5. Really Brad, your post-titles are even more amusing than the news they contain! Awesome work 🙂

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