Qualcomm, Freescale say 'smartbooks' to rival Netbooks

Where Netbooks use an Intel Atom processor and, typically, Windows XP, the forthcoming smartbooks will feature ARM chip designs and Linux.

CARLSBAD, Calif.--Qualcomm and Freescale Semiconductor are ready to begin pushing a category of devices that they say are cheaper, lighter, and more connected than Intel-based Netbooks.

And just to make sure that the difference is crystal clear, both companies are calling the category "smartbooks."

"We are relabling with the term 'smartbook.' We are joining others in using this term," said Glen Burchers, director of global consumer segment marketing at Freescale, in a phone interview Thursday. "The manufacturers that are using ARM-based devices are cooperating in using this terminology," according to Burchers.

"The smartbook is the smartphone experience on a larger form factor," according to Luis Pineda, vice president of marketing at Qualcomm's CDMA technologies division, speaking during a teleconference on Thursday.

So, what makes a smartbook different from the Netbooks being sold by companies like Dell and Hewlett-Packard? Netbooks use an Intel Atom processor and, typically, Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. Smartbooks will use processors based on an ARM design and the Linux operating system. And 3G connectivity will be standard--like a typical smartphone.

ARM chips offer better power efficiency than Atom processors and ARM-based devices come with virtually no cost overhead for the operating system. "The primary distinction between them (smartbooks) and the existing crop of Netbooks will be longer battery life--eight-hour battery life--slimmer form factor, and lower price point," said Burchers.

One Snapdragon-based prototype uses a tablet motif.  Both Qualcomm and Freescale say that the term smartbook will encompass multiple designs. 3G connectivity--the standard for smartphones--is key.
One Snapdragon-based prototype uses a tablet motif. Both Qualcomm and Freescale say that the term smartbook will encompass multiple designs. 3G connectivity--the standard for smartphones--is key. Qualcomm

Other distinguishing features are "instant-on" and "persistent connectivity," according to Burchers. "The idea is that the device is intelligent enough to go fetch your emails and your messages automatically. And this is what you'd expect from a smartphone," he said, trying to emphasize that the device would operate in some ways more like a smartphone than a Netbook.

Qualcomm, for its part, has a Web site dedicated to smartbook prototypes and concept devices and lists standard features such as 3G mobile broadband, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and HD video. Qualcomm hosted a dinner at the The Wall Street Journal's "D7: All Things Digital" conference, where company executives discussed the smartbook strategy.

Qualcomm's smartbooks will be powered by its Snapdragon processor , while Freescale's chips use an uncatchy "i.MX515" moniker. Both companies license the basic chip design from U.K.-based ARM. In Qualcomm's case, it has an ARM architecture license which allows the San Diego, Calif.-based company to do major modifications to the basic chip design.

Another Qualcomm prototype is a classic clamshell design.  Some Freescale-based devices will also be clamshell designs.
Another Qualcomm prototype is a classic clamshell design. Some Freescale-based devices will also be clamshell designs. Qualcomm

The first smartbook devices are appearing from so-called original design manufacturers or ODMs, which typically don't market under their brand name but supply devices to large PC makers which then slap on their brand. Wistron and Pegatron, both ODMs, will be showing Freescale-based 10-inch clamshell devices at the Computex conference, Burchers said. Computex starts next week in Taipei.

"These are the first near production-ready devices that we expect to find a home at OEMs (brand-name device makers) before Christmas time this year. We should definitely be able to hit the $199 retail price," according to Burchers.

Nvidia--while not tying itself to the smartbook nomenclature--is also expected to show devices based on its ARM-based Tegra processor at Computex. Nvidia has been touting a $99 "HD mobile Internet device" that telecommunications companies would offer with subscription plans--the route that devices based on Qualcomm and Freescale chips are also expected to take.

Netbooks, by contrast, are typically priced between $300 and $500.

One the challenges facing all ARM-based device makers is the lack of a Windows operating system--a problem that XP- and future Windows 7-based Netbooks don't have. Freescale and others are looking to Google's Android OS, due commercially in devices next year, to counter the marquee draw that Windows has.

"The potential that Google has--this has got everybody's attention," Burchers said. "One thing that's driving that is the Google brand. The second thing is that finally there's one-stop shopping for an operating system that is an alternative to Windows. Linux (generically) is an alternative to Windows but it is fragmented. There are too many derivatives," according to Burchers.

Until the potential of Android in smartbooks is realized, the lack of a Windows operating system will always pose a problem for some consumers, especially in laptop-like clamshell designs.

"The biggest inhibiting factor is that it doesn't have any legacy (established PC) operating system compatibility because Microsoft is unlikely to provide native support for it near-term," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at investment bank Collins Stewart. "For the mainstream market, unless they get Microsoft compatibility it's going to be a long road," Kumar added.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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