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Freescale Eyes Cheap Linux Netbooks With New Chip Design

By Chris Maxcer
Jan 5, 2009 1:36 PM PT

Freescale Semiconductor has launched a new low-cost processor, the i.MX515, that's designed to power what Freescale hopes will be new lines of Linux-based netbooks retailing for less than US$200.

Freescale Eyes Cheap Linux Netbooks With New Chip Design

There are lots of interesting angles to Freescale's efforts -- the lower price point, the technology behind the i.MX515, and a new path for Linux into the minds of everyday consumers.

First, the Price

Most netbooks retail in the $300 to $400 range, so a sub-$200 netbook obviously could generate a lot of consumer appeal. Designed for basic Web browsing, e-mail and related tasks, netbooks aren't designed to handle heavy-duty computing. Intel's Atom processors are currently featured in many netbooks, and Freescale's new processor play could give it a price edge over Intel. Companies that make the actual computers, then, could use Freescale processors to create new netbooks that undercut today's already low prices.

Consumers are expected to purchase 140 million netbooks in 2013, compared with 15 million sold in 2008, according to ABI Research.

"As was evident in the 2008 holiday season, the netbook market has exploded due to consumer demand for affordable and compact devices that allow users to conduct routine tasks like social networking or shopping on the Web," noted Philip Solis, principal analyst at ABI Research.

"The netbook market is still in its infancy, and it represents a huge market opportunity for companies like Freescale. As advanced platforms for netbooks become increasingly available, price points will drop and the market will expand," he added.

The i.MX515 Package

Integrating an ARM Cortex-A8 core and manufactured using 65-nm process technology, the i.MX515 provides up to 2,100 Dhrystone MIPS (million instructions per second) and can scale in performance from 600 MHz to 1 GHz, according to Freescale. Freescale's advanced power management features included a dedicated, hardware-based video acceleration block, which the company says will allow for extended battery life and eliminate the need for fans or heat sinks.

Freescale also notes that the i.MX515 will let original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) build netbooks that can run for eight hours with 8.9-inch displays.

On the memory front, the i.MX515 supports both DDR2 and mobile DDR1, giving netbook designers more options for configuring their solutions -- again, this is designed to let OEMs create netbooks at the lowest possible price points.

The new processor also offers both OpenVG and OpenGL graphics cores for 2-D and 3-D graphics as well as Flash, which is particularly important since Adobe Flash-based video is so widely used online. Freescale says it's working with Adobe to enable the Adobe software to run on the processor's dedicated OpenVG graphics block, which will extend battery life and keep the consumer browsing experience rich and responsive.

Working with Pegatron, Freescale has created a comprehensive netbook reference design based on the i.MX515 processor, Canonical's Ubuntu, and Adobe Flash Lite.

More Linux!

If netbooks continue to flourish -- and if they continue to run Linux -- might Linux break through to everyday consumers and gain mindshare in the consumer marketplace?

"When it comes to netbooks, I think people are buying them for the hardware and form factor of the small computer instead of the software running on it. That's to say, people will be fine with using Linux if that's the OS (operating system) on it. I'm sure they'd be fine using Windows if that was on it, too," Michael Coté, an analyst for RedMonk, told LinuxInsider.

"You can find netbooks in places like Target, which I was actually surprised to see. The price of $299 to $399 still seems kind of steep for the 'casual' type of interest I'd see driving netbook sales, but if it was lowered another $50 to $100, maybe it wouldn't be too crazy to think that people would buy them, especially if there were some compelling applications beyond Web browsing, e-mail checking, and the like," he explained.

"So, in that regard, if netbook prices are low enough to drive a large volume of sales, then sure, it'd help out with Linux adoption," he added.


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