By all accounts, mobility is the name of the game in 2010. Smartphone shipments shot skyward last quarter and major handset makers, particularly LG and Samsung, are ramping up production this year. The same bullish sentiment is expanding into tablets in general and Apple’s iPad in particular. But how do electronics makers plan to bring mobile gadgets to market that balance performance, feature-richness and long battery life that consumers expect? What about the environment? Recent stirrings from chipmakers offer some clues.
While our reader polls mainly indicated disappointed in Apple’s latest creation, there’s a big-picture question worth answering. Did Cupertino just pull a fast one and corner the smartbook market before anyone else could get that market off the ground?
On our last podcast I said that now is the “perfect storm” for the ARM processor platform. The architecture is more capable than ever while remaining power efficient, and is good enough for random bites of Internet and mobile application functionality. ABI Research seems to agree and even went one step beyond — it believes that more ARM processors will power Ultra-mobile Devices than x86 chipsets just three years from now. ABI’s definition of Ultra-Mobile Devices is fairly broad: netbooks, MIDs, smartbooks and UMPCs all fit the bill. Call them what you want, I’d agree that these device classes are poised for ARM acceptance.
Why is that? There’s a change in the mobile winds. Mobile used to mean a crappy experience for the web or software as compared to the traditional desktop experience. So to meet needs, we looked for that same desktop experience in a smaller form factor. Compared to solutions available today, that’s not exactly the definition of mobile — or at least it’s not the only mobile game in town. The real growth has been outside of the desktop world — in ARM-powered handsets and other mobile devices.
The mobile experience is better than ever and part of the reason is that hardware has caught up. Instead of slow, clunky processors, we’re now seeing robust platforms that enable the mobile world to be useful and fun. If nothing else, the tremendous growth of Apple’s iPhone (s aapl) has proven that, much like the speedy Snapdragon (s qcom) in my Google Nexus One (s goog). That same ARM processor is the driving force behind the HTC HD2 — it has given Microsoft’s Windows Mobile (s msft) new life and a fresh breath of excitement unlike any I’ve seen in the past few years. And my colleague Stacey over at GigaOm adds another factor: porting desirable functionality like Flash (s adbe) to ARM makes the platform even more compelling.
Netbooks are probably the lone exception to my thesis, of course. You can’t argue the fact of this x86 phenomenon. But if ARM-powered smartbooks or Chrome OS computers can come in at a compelling price-to-value ratio, I think ARM will even make inroads here too. Thoughts?
According to the deafening buzz, in a week we’ll finally lay eyes on Apple’s tablet. (iPad? iSlate? iSomething Else?) What can green geeks expect? If Apple stays on the course it charted with its MacBook Pro, you can expect the computer maker to extol its eco-friendly virtues including a recyclable housing and a notable absence of toxic materials. Under the hood, some expect an OLED screen and a potent yet energy-sipping ARM processor that make the most out of what’s sure to be a wafer-thin battery.
While I’ve done my own share of mobile device battery testing, Steve Paine has easily done more. From smartphones to MIDs and UMPCs to netbooks, Steve has tested down to the milliwatt over the past few years. Today he observed that on the CPU side of the house, the power difference between ARM and x86 is drastically reduced over what it was. If you’ve been following the progress of Intel’s Atom platform, that’s no surprise. And it doesn’t take an engineering degree to know that larger backlit displays can consume more power that most other device components. So what’s the “sweet spot” for a device display to effectively cancel out the power efficiency of ARM over x86? Here’s what Steve says:
“When you get to screen sizes of 4” and above, something happens that levels the playing field for Intel somewhat. Their CPU platforms (*1) don’t idle down very well but in a typical ‘internet-connected’ scenario on one of these ‘smart’ devices, that becomes almost insignificant as the screen backlight adds such a huge load to the platform that when combined with Wifi, 3G, BT, GPS and audio, the CPU is just 10% of the total load. Swapping Intel out for ARM would save you just 5-10% battery life in an ‘active’ scenario.”
Steve’s point is rather timely, considering all of the ARM-powered devices we peeped at the Consumer Electronics Show. Many of them offered displays well over 4″, with some in the netbook-like 10″ range. It makes you wonder if pairing a low-power Atom (s intc) chip with Moblin or other form of Linux might make for a better experience than an ARM device running Android or a custom Linux distro. Put another way: if you could get potentially more processing power but not pay a power premium, would you?
Of course, display technologies are bound to mature. In fact, our video demo of the Pixel Qi display on a Notion Ink prototype tells me that this whole situation of power hungry displays is due for a refresh in the near future. But until then, Steve may have a pretty good point. Thoughts?
LG Electronics Adopting ARM Processors; newest TVs feature so many functions, like widgets and the ability to display web pages, a more general-purpose microprocessor is needed. (VentureBeat)
White House YouTube Privacy Update; the code still sends cookies back to Google when a video is watched, but Google doesn’t store the information anywhere. (MediaMemo)
WetPaint Unveils TV Fandex; service tracks “fan engagement” of popular TV shows on Facebook, Twitter, Google and WetPaint’s own network of fan sites. (The Hollywood Reporter)
Break.com Launches MadeMan.com; site to go after (surprise!) guys with info on gadgets, sports and night clubs, as well as such Break-like videos as “Hot Babes Test Bras on a Roller Coaster.” (MediaWeek)
Soon-to-Be SyFy Network Buys Up Negative Domains; network braces for backlash over rebranding by purchasing names including SyfySucks.com
and NoSyFy.com (NoSyfy slipped through their grasp). (Broadcasting & Cable)
JibJab Makes Barack Obama a Superhero; new original animated music vid, He’s Barack Obama, packs some presidential punch. (JibJab)
A number of different tidbits of information are pointing towards Apple (s aapl) shifting its chip design in-house, including the acquisition of P.A. Semi and the hiring of Mark Papermaster, but ARM clearly wants to give it every reason not to try to go it completely alone. It’s responsible for the Cortex A8 processor powering the much zippier iPhone 3G S being released later this week, and now, according to CNET, it’s already teasing the dual-core capable A9, due for inclusion in production smartphones in 2010.
The Cortex A9 will be the first smartphone processor to be dual-core configuration capable, further narrowing the gap between what your computer can do and what your phone can do. Next year’s chip will be only 45 nanometers, down from the “bulky” 65 of the A8. The size reduction should reduce power requirements enough to allow a dual-core configuration of A9s to use just about as much power as the current A8. Read More about Dual-Core Processor Could Be Among Next iPhone’s Improvements
The ongoing back-and-forth between Apple and Adobe over Flash on the iPhone is well-documented. First it was, then wasn’t, then was, then probably wasn’t again a possibility. If we take Apple CEO Steve Jobs at his word, then the problem lies with Flash being too heavy and Flash Lite being too insubstantial. And as it stands, Flash appears to violate the existing terms of the SDK, an area where Apple seems unwilling to be flexible.
The latest move in this complicated chess game is by Adobe, and it’s not a direct retort. Instead, MacNN reports the multimedia powerhouse is announcing today that they will be rolling out an ARM-optimized version of Flash 10 in 2009, while not mentioning any specific phones by name. Of course, iPhone followers will know that the current processor for Apple’s cellular device is the Samsung ARM 1176, meaning that it would benefit from Adobe’s proposed optimization.
Read More about ARM-Optimized Flash: Adobe Serious About iPhone