Take note, Intel: New silicon to redefine Netbooks

New chips from Advanced Micro Devices, Freescale Semiconductor, and Qualcomm may redefine the market for so-called Netbooks and ultraportables.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
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.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Move aside, Intel. New chips from Advanced Micro Devices, Freescale Semiconductor, and Qualcomm may redefine the Netbook and ultraportable market next year.

To date, Intel has pretty much defined Netbook performance and features with the popular Atom processor. "We're very comfortable with our product leadership but we don't take anything for granted. And we expect competition in this space. Stay tuned," said Bill Calder, an Intel representative.

Stay tuned indeed. As the Netbook market grows, other chip heavyweights want a piece of the pie. Netbooks--which typically weigh less than 3 pounds and have screens under 11 inches diagonally--got a lift this week when they became one of the top sellers at resellers on "Cyber Monday."

Qualcomm's Netbook prototype using its Snapdragon silicon
Qualcomm's Netbook prototype using its 3G Snapdragon silicon Natasha Lomas/Silicon.com, a CBS Interactive site

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, AMD is expected to introduce its ultraportable platform. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chipmaker is targeting "Yukon" technology at consumers that want "smaller, sleeker, and lighter notebook form factors that offer great performance," the company said.

AMD is hoping to one-up Intel by focusing on ultraportables that would have larger screens (ranging up to 13 and 14 inches), bigger keyboards, better graphics horsepower, and ultimately dual-core processors. (Though Netbook vendors are expected to come out with dual-core Atom designs, Intel says its current dual-core offering is targeted at Nettops, not Netbooks.)

Yukon, which AMD first discussed at a November analyst meeting, comprises the Huron single-core processor, RS690E graphics, and the SB600 chipset. A dual-core Conesus chip (as part of the "Congo" platform) with RS780M graphics silicon would come later.

In addition to standard 802.11n Wi-Fi, the Yukon platform also includes 3G broadband wireless, according to AMD slides.

And 3G may be the next big leap for Netbooks. A source at one large chipmaker said that a Japan-based telecommunications company may roll out a subscription-based "$1" Netbook with 3G. And this may also be the next big feature included on Netbooks in Europe where the form factor has proven to be popular.

Enter telecommunications chip giant Qualcomm, which comes at these devices from the opposite direction of PC chipmakers Intel and AMD. Qualcomm has been making and designing highly integrated chips for cell phones since it was founded in 1985.

The San Diego, Calif.-based company has been showing off a Netbook-like design based on its Snapdragon chip. (See photo.) While Snapdragon supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, it is designed from the ground up as a 3G platform. And Qualcomm does this all on silicon that can fit inside a smartphone. Like a cell phone, Snapdragon-based Netbooks would have always-on connectivity.

In November, Qualcomm introduced a 45-nanometer chip (Atom is 45nm too) with "two integrated computing cores" running at speeds up to 1.5GHz. The dual-CPU Snapdragon single-chip QSD8672 offers long battery life and a full range of 3G mobile broadband options.

Sampling of the newest Snapdragon chip is scheduled for the second half of 2009.

A Qualcomm spokeswoman said Thursday that the company is working with end-product Netbook manufacturers including Acer, Toshiba, and HTC, with products expected in the first half of 2009 using current Snapdragon technology.

The 3G wireless broadband technology uses integrated multi-mode modems including HSPA+ for up to 28 Mbps when downloading data and up to 11 Mbps when uploading. Other features include support for Linux and Windows Mobile, GPS, Bluetooth, 1080p high-definition video recording and playback and support for Wi-Fi and mobile TV technologies such as MediaFLO, DVB-H and ISDB-T.

The integrated 2D and 3D graphics support display resolutions up to WSXGA (1440 x 900).

Freescale--formerly Motorola's chipmaking arm--also plans to get in on the Netbook act. It plans to announce its entry into the Netbook market at CES with an addition to its i.MX application processor family.

Freescale says its processor will be the "only one in the space that offers a dual-core graphics engine targeting OpenVG and OpenGL, which enables 2D and 3D graphics as well as Flash and SVG." (SVG stands for Scalable Vector Graphics.)

The new i.MX processor is based on a highly-advanced, GHz-class ARM core, according to a representative.