Freescale Entering Netbook Market with System-on-a-Chip Design

Freescale Semiconductor is planning to enter the "netbook" market with a new reference design that uses a systems-on-a-chip platform that is based on an ARM Cortex-A8 processor. The new Freescale reference design, called the i.MX51, is scheduled to debut at the 2009 CES expo in Las Vegas. While Freeescale plans to enter the netbook market later this year, company executives believe that instead of competing against Intel and its x86-based Atom platform, the Freescale netbook platform is designed to compete against similar offerings from Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

Freescale Seminconductor is planning to enter the "netbook" market later this year with a system-on-a-chip design that uses the next-generation ARM Cortex-A8 processor, which should lower the cost and reduce the power consumption of these laptops.

At the 2009 CES expo, which starts the week of Jan. 5 in Las Vegas, Freescale will show off its i.MX51 SOC design, which forms the basis of the company's netbook platform. The SOC is based on the ARM Cortex-A8 processor, a low-power processor with a clock speed that can range from 600MHz to 1GHz.

The new Freescale netbook platform will hit the market later in 2009.

While Intel and its x86-based Atom platform have come to define the nascent netbook market in the last year, a number of other vendors have now begun offering other designs and new technology for this class of inexpensive laptops. In addition to Freescale, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm each have platforms for netbooks that do not use x86 processor architecture.

In addition to these companines, Advanced Micro Devices is expected to release its new "Yukon" platform for mini-notebooks soon, while Nvidia is offering a new chip set that combines its own graphics with the Intel Atom processor.

Glen Burchers, Freescale's director of Global Consumer Segment Marketing, said the goal of the new i.MX51 design is to offer consumers a netbook that costs less than $200, offers better battery life, creates a simpler user interface and has the ability to run a Linux operating system and support Mozilla's Firefox Web browser. (Freescale plans to test Google's Chrome browser later.)

At the same time, Burchers believes that Freescale is not competing with Intel's Atom chip and platform, which is based on x86 architecture and allows a netbook or mini-notebook to run Microsoft Windows and some other basic business applications. The Freescale i.MX51 SOC design is more akin to the Web browsing experience that Apple offers though its iPhone, said Burchers.

"I'm using the term netbook to designate a product that is not a computer because it's really not designed to run productivity applications," said Burchers. "Its primary function is to access the Internet. That's the distinction Intel-based platform and the ARM-based platforms."

While netbooks are designed for consumers, the growing popularity of these types of laptops helped the PC market grow in 2008, according to IDC. At the same time, low-cost mini-notebooks and netbooks are helping to drive down the overall cost of PCs, which could have an impact on the enterprise in the coming year.

At the 2009 CES, Freescale plans to show off its netbook platform, which consists of the i.MX51 SOC design, a power management chip as well as an audio codec.

The i.MX51 SOC includes the ARM Cortex-A8 processor, which is built on a 65-nanometer manufacturing process. The SOC design also supports DDR2 (double data rate 2) memory up to 200MHz, high-definition video playback, and OpenVG and OpenGL graphics cores for 2D and 3D graphics.

Besides a lower-cost netbook, Freescale is also offering a design that can consume less power and extend battery life. The new Freescale netbook platform consumes less than half a watt of power. By comparison, the Intel Atom N270 processor has a TDP - an Intel term that refers to how much heat a chip has to dissipate - of about 2.5 watts and the remainder of the Intel chip sets adds to the overall power consumption total.

While Freescale will offer a sneak peak of the i.MX51 SOC design and its netbook platform at this year's CES expo, the company will not announce any specific design wins at this point. However, Burchers said Freescale is in discussion with several OEMs.

At CES, Pegatron, the ODM (original design manufacturer) company that Asus spun off when it started making its own PCs, will show an early netbook design that uses the Freescale platform. In addition, Burchers said Freescale also has a deal with Canonica that will ensure that a new version of its Ubuntu operating system can support the i.MX51 SOC design and platform.