Will Samsung Ship a Laptop Based on Via's Nano Processor?

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Samsung Electronics reportedly plans to introduce a laptop computer next year that's based on Via Technologies' low-power Nano processor.

Rumors of the Nano-based Samsung NC20 laptop, along with a low-resolution picture and a February release date, first appeared on the blog, Genzomedia, before being picked up by Notebook Italia and spreading to other gadget blogs from there.

The reported specifications of the NC20 include a 12.1-inch display, a 1.3GHz Nano U2250 processor, 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive, all packed in a system that weighs 1.5 kilograms and costs US$642. However, Via doesn't offer a version of the Nano named U2250. The 1.3GHz version of the chip is actually the U2350, suggesting a typographical error may be to blame.

Are the rumors true? It's hard to say. I reached out to executives at both Samsung and Via for an answer. Not surprisingly, they all responded, "No comment."

Nevertheless, the rumored laptop is definitely plausible.

For starters, Samsung has used Via processors before. After deciding that its Q1 ultramobile PC was too expensive in 2006, Samsung dumped Intel's pricier Celeron M processor for a less expensive Via C7-M chip in the next version of that product, the Q1b. Samsung ultimately switched back to using Intel processors, but the Q1b was nevertheless a success for the company.

There have also been increasing signs that the first Nano-based systems, expected to be released during the first quarter of 2009, are close to hitting the market.

At Microsoft's WinHec 2008 conference in Taipei earlier this month,Via showed off a prototype laptop based on the Nano -- one of the first such systems to appear in public. The prototype laptop, which does not resemble the picture of the Samsung laptop that spread with the NC20 rumor, made a brief appearance in a video that was shot at WinHec and posted on the blog of Richard Brown, Via's vice president of corporate marketing.

But why would Samsung choose to use the Nano, especially considering the runaway success of Intel's Atom chip, which is also inexpensive and consumes little power?

The first desktop Nano processors were released earlier this year and third-party reviews showed them outperforming Intel's popular Atom chip, which Samsung used in its NC10 laptop. But while Atom-based laptops, called netbooks, have flooded the market recent months, laptops based on Nano have been slow to arrive.

Hewlett-Packard, which used Via's older C7-M processor in its popular Mini-Note 2133 laptops, was expected by some observers to use the Nano in subsequent models. But HP opted to fit out its recently announced Mini 1000 netbooks with Intel's Atom chip instead.

The Atom has been a success for two reasons: the Atom consumes less power than other, more powerful Intel chips and it's much cheaper.

Intel lists the 1.6GHz Atom N270 processor at US$44 per chip but that price is negotiable and, depending on how many you buy, the actual price can be much lower. By comparison, the cheapest Intel Core 2 Duo mobile chip listed by Intel, the 2GHz T7250, is priced at $209 per chip -- nearly five times as much, albeit with a significant boost in performance.

That price difference between the Atom and other Intel chips allows laptop makers to offer low-cost laptops, such as Acer's Linux-based Aspire One, which cost around $300. The other option is to build more expensive, and more profitable systems, such as the Vivienne Tam edition of HP's Mini 1000, which costs around $700 -- $260 more than the standard Mini 1000, which lacks the glossy red finish but is identical to the Vivienne Tam system in other respects.

While hardware makers and consumers have warmed to netbooks, Intel has worked hard to prevent fast growth in this market from eating into sales of laptops based on more powerful chips. The chip maker does this by limiting the specifications of Atom-based systems. For example, Atom processors can't be used in laptops with screens larger than 10 inches and they cannot have PCI Express links for more powerful add-in graphics chips.

These hardware limits -- which Intel describes as a set of features that reflect user requirements -- lend the greatest plausibility to rumors that Samsung will use a Nano processor in the NC20.

Laptops based on the Atom processor and its predecessors have evolved to have ever larger screens, up from 7 inches to 8.9 inches and now 10.2 inches, the largest allowed by Intel. The increasing screen sizes reflect user preferences for lightweight, portable laptops with more comfortable keyboards and the ability to view a Web page without having to scroll horizontally. It makes sense that this trend towards larger display sizes in this product category will continue towards laptops with 12.1-inch screens, like the rumored NC20.

This has always been Via's strategy for the Nano. The company recognizes that it cannot compete head-on with Intel and wants to find a niche where it can survive. With the older C7 processors, that niche was in low-cost and embedded systems where customers were willing to give up some performance in return for better power consumption -- the same market segment where Intel is targeting the Atom chip family.

When I spoke to Via executives in May, they explained how they hoped to use the Atom hardware limitations to their advantage, selling Nano processors for systems that didn't quite fit into Intel's definitions of a netbook or a mainstream laptop. Specifically, Via hoped to convince computer makers that the Nano is ideal for affordable, ultraportable laptops with 12-inch and 13-inch screens.

Maybe they've done that. A Nano-based laptop would give Samsung an affordable laptop that sits comfortably between a smaller Atom-based netbook and a more powerful laptop, and that's an option that might appeal to consumers given the current economic environment.

This could help Intel, too. Given the antitrust problems that Intel now faces in South Korea, the release of a Samsung laptop based on a Via processor certainly doesn't hurt the chip maker's argument that the processor business remains fiercely competitive.

In any event, we'll know soon enough whether or not the Nano-based NC20 is real.

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