New Smartbooks should Hit The Market Late This Year

Quick question—what's smaller than a netbook, bigger than a smartphone, and doesn't conform to Intel's definition of a MID (Mobile Internet Device?) If you guessed "smartbooks," give yourself a pat on the back for being prescient. If you've never heard of a smartbook before, don't feel bad; the term refers to a series of ARM-based sub-netbooks companies like Acer, Foxconn, and Pegatron all intend to back. The name is a portmaneau between "smart phone" and "netbook;" the devices themselves are meant to echo the various feature sets common on today's cell phones.

Smartbooks were unveiled for the first time at Computex last June, but we'll reportedly see an array of these devices on the market by the fourth quarter of this year. Qualcomm has a smartbook introduction video and additional technical information posted on its website. Smartbooks will reportedly offer 3G mobile broadband, wi-Fi, "full" Internet browsing, Bluetooth, a built in GPS, HD video, and a full day of battery life (up to a week in standby), all while weighing less than 2lbs. That's an attractive feature set, but there's one thing a smartboook doesn't appear to do—make phone calls. It's entirely possible that we'll see this feature offered as an add-on or that the devices will be capable of VoIP, but the lack of integrated cell phone service leaves me wondering how much of a market there is for smartbooks.

Once upon a time (in that dim, prehistoric era we call the "90s,") there were cell phones for calling people and PDAs for everyone else. The two devices were separate and both markets grew quickly, right up to the point where mobile phones began to offer PDA-style features. Early smartphones may have been second-rate PDAs, but the quality and capability of these devices grew until the PDA market was rendered moribund. Smartboooks are predicated on the theory that customers will buy a second device if it offers enough gadgets, whizbangs, and wowzers. I suspect this is, at best, a very tricky balancing act. Most smartbook features are already supported by high-end smartphones, which means smartbooks will significantly rely on offering superior feature quality (better video, quicker application performance) as opposed to carrying an entirely distinct set of capabilities.

If I'm dubious, it's because a cheap, simple "good enough" often trumps an expensive, complicated "excellent" in the mass market. It's not clear that smartbooks have the right feature sets or price points to compete effectively against smartphones, or that they'll be able to distinguish themselves from future MIDs and netbooks.

Smartbook Hardware

If you're curious about the chipsets and ARM CPUs we'll see when smartbooks hit the market, there are two major contendors at the moment. First up is Qualcomm, with its Snapdragon chipsets and (relatively) high-end ARM-based CPUs. There are currently two Snapdragon chipsets, the QSD8x50 and the QSD8672. The x50 variant is a 1GHz CPU paired with a 600MHz DSP, with support for 720p video playback, accompanying 1280x720 display support, and integrated 3G. The QSD8672 is a more advanced, dual-core 45nm processor that offers two ARM processors at up to 1.5GHz, higher resolution (1440x900), a stronger 3D engine than the x50, and 1080p playback. (Said playback would obviously require scaling, as the maximum screen size is smaller than the video window.)

NVIDIA's Tegra is the other platform OEMs are making noise about. Tegra—or at least, the upper-end Tegra 650—is built on a 750MHz ARM11 MPCore. First-generation Tegras will presumably be single-core products; NVIDIA may have gone with the ARM11 MPCore as a way to guarantee scaling farther down the line. NVIDIA's big design win so far has been the Zune HD, which will launch later this year. Tegra is also designed as an SoC (System on a Chip), which conserves power and improves battery life.

We won't know how Snapdragon and Tegra compare until devices launch later this year, but the speed and capability of Tegra's GPU as compared to Snapdragon's will count for quite a bit. On paper, Snapdragon could have an advantage, but GPU acceleration could turn that situation around right quick.