Analysis: The Smartbook Challenges.

Posted on 13 November 2009, Last updated on 11 March 2010 by

Qualcomm announced the ‘first’ smartbook [*1] yesterday. It’s due in 2010 and it’s going to be a very very tough challenge  to make an impact of this wildly dynamic mobile device market we’re seeing right now. My opinion is that ‘smartbooks’ are not going to impress anyone in the first half of 2010 but as we near 2011, they have a chance to break through. Operating system and processing power are the key issues but in this report I talk through a number of the ingredients that go together to make the complete smartbook product.

Sharp Netwalker PCZ1 OS. There isn’t one, yet.  A hacked Ubuntu ARM build, Android or Windows CE with overlay software just isn’t going to cut it in the mainstream market. Interestingly enough, Nokia’s Maemo is probably one of the best bets for a smartbook OS right now although Google could do something with Chrome OS. I have my doubts about Chrome though because consumer operating systems need to be very dynamic. How are Google going to handle the distribution and monetisation of browser apps? Android is another possibility but the main branch of that operating system will prbobably stay focused on smartphones meaning that a ot of work has to be done to build a new version and to keep it syncronised to the main version. The OS problem will be solved but I’m not expecting anything too thrilling in 2010.

Speed. Smartbooks will be slow. When we look at the top smartphones on the best ARM-based platforms we see a fast smartphone. Take that experience and put it in a laptop format and it doesn’t impress. I really love the speed of my 800Mhz TI OMAP 3430-based Archos Android – one of the most powerful ARM-based devices on the market – but it would be a slow slow experience if I was to try and do laptop-like work on it. It’s like cheap 12 inch netbooks masquerading as notebooks. They look great, have a good price but don’t give the end user an experience they can call thrilling.

The fact is that even the latest ARM cores can’t compete with Intel’s netbook platform at general computing activities. Crunching a webpage needs a strong, general purpose processor capable of multi-tasking.  Look to the multi-core Cortex A9 CPUs that will appear in late 2010 for a web experience that will be similar to 2008/2009 netbooks. Of course at that point, Intel will also be offering their next platform.

Battery life. You’ll hear a lot of talk about battery life and unfortunately it will be very difficult for people to understand what the figures mean. In the netbook world you can usually knock 30% off the marketing battery life figures and get a reasonable idea of how the real-world battery will be. In the ARM-based world where the difference between ‘idle’ and ‘off’ is slim, the differential between long battery life and the all-important real-world battery life figure is huge. With the wifi on and screen off, a small smartbook could, like a mobile phone, sit happily for a few days. Turn on the 8 inch screen tand start browsing though and boom! You’ve just increase your battery drain by a multiple of 100 or more. Start browsing a few tabs and that smartbook won’t get a chance to idle. My only advice is to ignore ‘idle’ battery figures. [Read about ‘getting things done’ battery life and why a lower-power processor can increase system power usage here.] Battery life will be better as the ARM platforms are good at turning things off when not used but don’t expect miracles. Remember that while a smartbook might give you 50% more battery life, it might take you 50% longer to do things on it!

Size. Size is not really an argument for smartbooks. Coming from the ultra mobile PC world I know about size compromises. Smaller can be more mobile but when there’s typing to be done, nothing substitutes a near full-size keyboard which means a relatively wide layout. A 1024×600 screen needs space too. Going any smaller than an 8.9 inch screen means major compromises for people that want to use smartbooks for typing and browsing the web. Netbooks and Smartphones face the same industrial design challenges.

3G. The always-connected scenario is one element of smartbooks that many have been talking about. There are two problems here. 1) Power drain 2) Cost. It’s possible that the 3G is there to tempt carriers into channeling the device to customers which, based on the excitement I’ve seen over subsidised netbooks, might be a problem. In many parts of Europe users are switching to pay-as-you-go data plans and in the U.S, the data plans are simply too expensive. A purchase price that includes data might be interesting but there again, it will push the cost of the smartbooks up. The cost of the 3G module will also have an impact on the device. A module may only cost $10 or $20 but when the total bill of materials needs to be under $100, that doesn’t help!

Weight. Based on my size argument above, there’s not much advantage that a smartbook has over a netbook. Take a look at what was done with the Sony P-Series. It’s a full PC in 600gm. Intel’s Moorestown will make that even easier. I would expect a small reduction of 100gm in standard size netbooks based on a reduced battery and motherboard size but smartooks use the same radio, screen, storage and construction techniques that every netbook manufacturer has access too so the difference between a credit-card sized motherboard and a postcard-sized one is minimal.

Instant on. The smartphone platforms used by the smartbook manufacturers do have an advantage here. They can go to sleep (or even ‘active’ sleep) well. There is good potential for an always-connected device here and this is one area where I’ll put my hand up and say ‘me want.’ Smartphones using the same platforms just don’t have big enough batteries to offer this feature so I’d be interested in something that connects to Skype, Gtalk, Twitter and stays connected all day.

Video. Given the right operating system it’s possible to get some really nice video playback performance out of the smartphone platforms but don’t forget that there are netbook platforms that have similar, and in some cases, exactly the same (ref: Intel GMA500) 3D and video-decoding capability. The issue is software, drivers, OS architecture and licensed codecs and that’s not an area where the smartbook manufacturers have exclusive control. Again, the same challenges occur here as for netbook manufacturers.

If smartbooks are done well they will be lightweight, attractive, value-for-money devices that will be a joy to market but just because they run on the ARM platform doesn’t mean they have an automatic all-round advantage. Waiting until the next generation of ARM platforms and operating systems (and trade-show seasons) are ready is probably not the best option so I understand why the manufacturers need to start now. I just hope that those marketing teams keep things in perspective. Everyone is in the same boat right now and will have to continue to work on their radios, battery technology, screen technology, OS, applications and the developer community.

Related Article: What Moorestown means for consumers.

[*1] In Germany, Smartbook is a trademark of

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