Mini-laptops based on Arm chips are nearly ready to make their way to users, which could heat up the battle in a space dominated by netbooks with Intel's Atom chips.
Sharp announced the PC-Z1 last week, also called the NetWalker, which will be one of the first mini-laptops based on an Arm chip to reach store shelves. The device has a 5-inch touch screen and a 68-key keyboard and offers 10 hours of battery life. It is designed for those who rely on the web for computing, and it will start shipping in Japan by the end of September.
Many similar devices with larger screens may become available by the end of this year. They will be based on Arm chips designed by companies such as Freescale Semiconductor, Nvidia and Qualcomm. No major PC maker has officially announced Arm-based mini-laptops, which have been called "smartbooks" by some chip makers, though Dell is investigating the concept.
Smartbooks are designed to have similar characteristics to netbooks, including compact keyboards and screens. The devices are designed as alternatives to netbooks, most of which are based on Intel's Atom chips and come with Microsoft's Windows OS. The first smartbooks will come with Linux, as Arm-based chips do not support Windows XP.
But at least one major PC maker has questioned the viability of such products. Asustek Computer CEO Jerry Shen last week said he saw no "clear market" for smartbooks and that the company had no plans to ship them. Asustek demonstrated a mini-laptop with Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform at the Computex trade show in June, running Google's Android open-source operating system. Asustek introduced the first widely popular netbook when it rolled out the Eee PC in 2007.
Keith Kressin, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, disagreed with Asustek. There is a market for smartbooks, which are better for people who rely more on the web for computing, Kressin said. "We're not trying to emulate the PC experience," he said.
Smartbooks provide a longer battery life, as Arm chips draw less power than Intel's Atom chips, Kressin said. Kressin also highlighted other benefits, including instant access to the Web and quick startup compared with Atom-based netbooks.
"Every OEM has their own vision of what a smartbook is prior to entering the market," Kressin said. "I'll leave it to Asus to make the decision on what they want to bring to market."
Low prices and longer battery life may draw some attention, but Arm chips need better application support to compete with Intel chips in the short term, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.
"As far as notebooks and netbooks go, it's still an x86 world. The inability to run standard x86 operating systems makes any Arm-based device a non-starter for consumers and business alike," Olds said. Smartbooks could take off if the software ecosystem surrounding Linux operating systems were to expand, he said.