The Netbook Revolution: A Whole New Niche in Computing

New Processors Could Boost Netbooks -- and Lead to New Devices

New processors could boost netbooks -- and lead to new devices
So far, the big winner in the netbook stakes has been Intel, whose low-voltage Atom processor now powers most netbook models. Rival microprocessor vendors, such as Via, have enjoyed only limited success. But as the netbook market matures, other chipmakers are expected to piggyback on Intel's good fortune. For example, Nvidia's Ion platform combines an Atom processor with Nvidia's GeForce 9400M GPU, a combination that Nvidia claims offers better performance than Intel's own integrated graphics.

Perhaps the most anticipated development, however, is the impending release of new netbooks based on ARM processors. ARM is a low-cost, low-voltage chip design that has enjoyed widespread use in consumer electronics devices such as MP3 players, PDAs, and mobile phones. If ARM chips can be adapted to deliver adequate performance for mainstream computing tasks, some analysts believe they could drive the cost of netbooks down to $250 and below.

The advent of ARM is also expected to bring new devices that offer similar capabilities to current netbooks, but in very different form factors. Qualcomm, for example, is working an ARM-based chip platform called SnapDragon, which it says is intended for ultramobile PCs and "pocketable" Internet devices -- form factors where the current Atom chips could prove too power-hungry. But Intel isn't resting on its laurels, either. It's readying a new generation of the Atom called the Intel Z Series, intended for palmtop Internet tablets, rather than laptop-style netbooks.

So far, demand for such devices has been limited. Early examples, including Nokia's Internet tablet line, have seen only modest uptake. But Apple's successes with the iPhone and iPod Touch show there could be promise in this category, especially if cheap chips and increased competition drive prices down to more affordable levels.

The Next-Gen Netbooks Won't Run Windows

The move to ARM-based netbooks has implications beyond cost and performance, however. It also means a new OS. Unlike the Atom chip, ARM is not a member of the x86 family, which means it can't run Windows. The closest it gets is Windows CE, which itself offers a markedly different user experience from the desktop Windows to which users are accustomed.

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