Computex 2013: And the winner is: Intel

There is not much to write about this years Computex, as almost every news has spread a thousand times throughout the web. This is thus more a personal note: Intel have finally managed to win quite a few smartphone and tablet designs, and at the same time they have managed to really lower the consumption of their performance platform with “Haswell”. Finally, thin, light, powerful and long lasting mobile computing solutions are possible. Thumbs up!

Computex 2011 – A Round Up / The Highlights

This years Computex is almost over, but I still haven´t posted anything about it. (I didn´t finish my post on Google I/O as well, but that´s another story.)

I think I am able to sum up the whole Computex 2011 up in one post, though. There weren´t many highlights that fit into a blog that is about Linux on mobile devices in my humble opinion. Android tablets have been available for months, dual core smartphones are in the electronic stores as well – and the next mayor iteration of Google Android, “Ice Cream Sandwhich” which will unite smartphones and tablets again, is still to far away to see any devices on a consumer electronics tradeshow (leaks may happen soon).

Hardware:
Intel
The Intel vs. ARM (including SoC manufaturers like nVidia, Samsung, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and many others) battle continues. Intel and partners showed off many new netbooks built around the newest Atom platform “Cedar Trail”, which will be slightly more performant and much less power hungry. The real interesting thing that Intel introduced is a new category of ultra mobile powerhouses built around Intels “Sandy Bridge” and  (later) “Ivy Bridge” platforms – devices only slightly larger than netbooks while being a lot thinner and powerful than your average netbook. Intel call these devices Ultrabooks and I´ve started a blog specifically on this new category of devices: Ultrabooknews.net

Intel was rather silent, and I didn´t stumble on any news of new Intel powered smartphones. Apparently Intel has nothing to offer that could beat the new ARM dual core superphones, “Medfield” isn´t ready yet, and “Moorestown” was spotted in some new tablets, just like “Oak Trail”.

Let´s get back to netbooks: MeeGo will run on some extra cheap netbooks like the ASUS EeePC X101 – featuring a new “Pine Trail” version, the N435 running at 1,33 GHz – and while I love the fact that MeeGo will come preinstalled on netbooks, I can´t recommend these devices: They are underpowered and most likely aren´t that much cheaper (than standard netbooks) that they´re worth buying.

ARM
Quadcores are coming and Cortex A15 designs as well – all in 2011. Graphics are one key differentiator between all these upcoming SoCs – and I actually recommend those featuring ARM Mali Graphics, if they aren´t too inferior in performance:  ARM is more likely to offer open graphic drivers than Imagination Technologies (PowerVR SGX family), nVidia or Qualcomm and have one other differentiating feature: OpenCL. Let´s get back to Computex, though.

Software:
MeeGo
MeeGo 1.2 is getting ready to roll out on netbooks. Tablets (or even smartphones) on MeeGo 1.2 will be relatively rare things, though, as at least the OpenSource UIs simply need some more time to mature (not to speak of real MeeGo apps).

On webOS and Android there were even less news at Computex, and it´s not necessary to mention that there were plenty of new not exactly Android devices on display at the tradeshow.


Competition:
Microsofts next OS, Windows 8, will, as you should already know, support the ARM platform as well. Microsoft showed off some UI teasers, which while close to Windows Phone 7´s popular “Metro UI” really looks very promising and sounds great technically (HTML5 instead of Silverlight), so promising that I am really exited about it and hope for Open Source platforms to adopt some of the features of it, e.g. the two apps aside thing. Of course “old style” apps will be supported as well on the – it´s going to run on everything.
It´s the first time ever that MSFT managed to get me really exited about their stuff.

Devices
My two favorite devices of this years Computex were shown by ASUS: The “Ultrabook” UX21 and the PadFone (which is exactly what its name suggests: A phone with a Pad Dock, much like the Motorola Atrix, only better.

Now it´s time for the most important part of this roundup:
The Video linklist:

Windows 8 for Tablets – detailed demonstration (Netbooknews.com)
Malata Cedar Trail netbooks (Canoe Lake and a convertible Key Lake) (Netbooknews.com)
Acer M500 MeeGo Tablet (Netbooknews.com)
ASUS UX21 Hands On by Netbooknews.com
ASUS PadFone Hands On + Details (Netbooknews.com)
ASUS EeePad MeMO (3D) Hands On (now with Honeycomb) (Netbooknews.com)
ZTE Light  2Tablet with 7” PixelQi screen (ARMdevices.net)
Solar powered PixelQi Tablet (ARMdevices.net)

First MeeGo release, tested on N900

Yesterday, not today (April Fools day) the first MeeGo release came out of the dust.
MeeGo, which is basically a mash up of Nokias Maemo and Intels Moblin and was announced on Mobile World Congress 2010 will be a powerful platform for Atom and ARM devices – a strong opponent to Android, finally.

But it isn’t ready yet, this is just an “openning of the codebase” – the first “real” release is expected in May. Take a look at this video of MeeGo on the N900.

Flash Will Remain A Problem On Mobile Devices. A Statement.

Adobe´s Flash (since Adobe bought Macromedia in 2005) is a technology widely used on todays world wide websites – still I actually dislike it that much, that I don´ t use a PC without a flashblocker. While it was used for fancy navigations, intros and other stylish stuff back in the late 1990s, it´s used for games, videos and advertisements today. This development is a nice one, of course, as websites featuring flash navigation were completely unusable without the appropriate plugin (and there is still no such thing as Flash for Linux on MIPS (MIPS is not dead, thanks to chinese developments like Ingenics´ XBurst technology or the Loongson CPU, e.g) but still this is annoying, especially on mobile devices, as Flash is a resource hog. Using an average Intel Atom powered netbook, you will soon notice, that Flash applications like those games on facebook or high-res (I am not talking of HD here) video make your little beloved netbook a noisy beast, as the fan will start screaming due to high CPU load.
In addition to that, Flash on Linux (and Mac) has not only been slower than Flash on Windows XP due to architectural reasons, but some features in rather heavy flash applications simply didn´t work – while Flash 10.1 beta actually fixes many of these bugs for me, it still shows that Adobe didn´t really care about platforms besides Microsoft Windows in the past. Now, with HTML 5 (and it´s new media tags) evolving and increased mobile internet use Adobe finally starts to do something – we will see Flash for Android and Web OS pretty soon, and as these are ARM Linux based, these are the first ARM powered, linux running devices delivering the full Flash experience – of course you could use swfdec or gnash, but as SWF v8 and SWF v9 features are only partly supported and SWF v10 features are completely unsupported, you will run into problems.

But this in not the moment to be enthusiastic. Your beloved HTC Dream or Openmoko Freerunner (or any other ARM11, XScale or ARM9 device) won´t support Flash soon, you will have to buy a new device with ARM v7 / Cortex silicon, as Adobe announced. This is a wise move, as a decent Flash experience (which you barely have on your average netbook) seems impossible on an ARM11 based device without slowing everything down, rendering the device almost unusable.

Ok, let´s assume that Adobe will make a fabulous build of Flash 10.1, running well not only on the Google Nexus One, being fast enough on significantly slower devices like the Motorola Milestone or the Palm Pre – still, there might be problems with many flash based websites (and possibly applications). It has something to do with the fact that these devices do not have a mouse pointer – I recommend you to read this text by a guy who seems to know Flash pretty well.

One of the problems with Flash in general is, that there is no OpenSource Flash Player/Plugin you would use unless you have no alternative or are a die hard free software enthusiast – another is the reason for the first one: Flash is proprietary and not an open standard. So what are alternatives? I mentionned HTML5 before, HTML5´s video tag is in a way an alternative, but as long as there is no defined video codec, this will not be a great solution – especially if this leads to websites (like the YouTube HTML5 version) start using proprietary codecs instead of proprietary Flash, it does not solve the problem. But what to use then? Ogg Theora is still in development – and there have been claims that it doesn´t work well on PMPs. This is why the FSF asked Google to free a certain video codec – but actually I doubt that Google will do this.

And video is just a part of the problem. Animations, you know. Ok, what have we got? SVG, CSS, Javascript, Java, Silverlight/Moonlight (though I didn´t run into Silverlight using websites yet, afair). There is no solution yet. But developers will find one. Probably ironically thanks to a company that closes their products quite a lot: If the iPad sell as great as the iPhone does, Flash will dissappear more and more (or at least developers will build decent non-Flash alternatives, based on HTM5 and all these technologies WebKit actually supports.

For OpenSource guys this will not be as cool as it could be. Flash will be most likely replaced with H264 and all its patent and licensing issues – but hey, at least that would be a different problem, so things won´t become to boring.

2010. What to expect?

2010 is approaching pretty fast and it will be another interesting year for mobile devices, we will know that for sure after CES.

Why? First of all, the financial crisis did not really affect the sales of mobile devices, the industry sold lots of smartphones, netbooks and notebooks – and this will go on, thanks to innovation on both sides, hardware and software.
Let´s talk about hardware first – several devices have been rumored or even announced, and besides this, there are some trends. In terms of computing power, we will see more and more smartphones with Cortex A8/A9 SoCs (Snapdragon (2), OMAP 3/4, Tegra 2), running at clockspeeds up to one gigahertz or even more – an example device we already know is the Google Nexus One, which will be sold by Google, supported by HTC and use the T-Mobile network – in the US, at least – I am not sure, if (or when) it will be available in Europe or Asia as well, but as it is supposed to be launched in early january, we won´ t have to wait for too long – as Google Voice is US only currently, I do not expect it to come to europe too soon.
Besides these fast ARM based SoCs that impress with their speed for applications like web browsing and will be built into Smartphones, PMPs, MIDs, slates/tablets and Netbooks (“Smartbooks”), there will more devices using SoCs that are slower on applications, but have decent video (1080p) capabilities – like the nVidia Tegra or the Telechips TCC8900, which will sell at cheaper price points than those that deliver more speed – let´s hope that these Tegra1 and TCC8900 devices will vanish in the second half of 2010 (at least in terms of market entrys). Basically I expect devices that are (HD) video focussed, and others that are not (but are faster on other fronts) – those that do not aim at multimedia will likely run on Intels new Pinetrail platform, which does not allow high resolutions or digital video outputs – if you want Intel only (there will be video accelerators for Pinetrail by Broadcom and nVidia (Ion2)) and HD Video, you will have to get a Moorestown or CULV (e.g. based on the new Calpella platform) powered device. Actually Pinetrails graphics weakness might help VIA a little bit, maybe we will (finally) see some VX855+Nano (3000) powered netbooks/subnotebooks on western markets.
On the software side there are some big unknowns, especially concerning the ARM space: Will Android be used on slates/tablets, or rather other solutions? Will Jolicloud make its way to netbooks? What about Windows CE and Windows Mobile 7?
What is likely is that we will see some subsidized solutions offering special services up to netbooks – we will see netbooks with GPS, and we hear that e.g. ASUS is therefore partnering with RIM and Garmin to offer push e-mail and navigation on their ARM powered netbook devices – and as “Pine Trail” is even more power efficent than the previous “Diamondville” platform, we can expect similar things for the Intel powered part of the mobile device market, where Moblin will be finally ready to ship.
(More after CES.)

Netbooks, MID, UMPC, PDA – WTF? (Mobile Computing – The Hardware)

Some (personal?) thoughts about the different classes of mobile devices

Introduction

First of all, what do I mean when I say mobile devices? I personally believe that being mobile isn ’ t being mobile. There may be some guys out there, saying that a 18.4” notebook is still mobile – i don’ t agree to that. I believe that a 15.4” 3kg heavy notebook is certainly the end of mobility, to name the upper end (and this isn’t comfortable but training, if you ask me). Now what’s the lower end? Well, considering just mobile devices, i ’ d say it can be dead small, as long as you are able to use it, but considering mobile computing I would say it is the screen size of the Openmoko Neo FreeRunner, 2.8”, and in fact I would d love it even more if it had a slightly larger screen, like the 3.5” of the HTC Universal – even though this certainly makes a device less pocketable.

When you worked with such a small device on a table like you would do with a notebook, you would become tired soon, as such a solution isn’t very ergonomic (if you had a keyboard on your table and the display somewhere close to your eyes, like mounted to your head, it might be not that bad., btw..). So there are devices beyond this PDA class, Intel calls them MIDs. I have to admit that I never had a longer hands on with a MID, only some short ones on CeBIT. More powerful MIDs running Windows XP or Vista are called UMPCs, and then there are mini notebooks, called netbooks by Intel. The first one of these was the ASUS Eee PC 701, and we have seen many following since then. Compared to UMPCs, mini notebooks are a lot cheaper. This and the fact that they look familiar to notebooks (and that you use them basically the same way, besides they’re smaller, made these devices a huge success on the markets, even (or exspecially?!) in times of a economic crisis.


Netbooks or mini notebooks – 7”-10” (12”)

While I was fascinated by all these mini notebooks first (I liked the Eee PC 701 a lot, and the OLPC even more, before), I dislike the fact that while they were first 7-9” devices, they are now in a 10”-12”range (looking at the announcements, at least). This makes netbooks just a kind of cheap subnotebooks. The often heard argumentation for this screen bump (which has the positive side effect of bigger keyboards) is that people would request it – and I believe that there is a mayority that really does so. But nontheless, I don’ t like this trend, as the devices arent only bigger, but heavier, too – they are still mobile but in no way you can continue calling them ultramobile. And anyway: Calling a 12” device a “mini notebook” or “netbook” is just marketing bullshit, we’ve had those around for a long time, they were called subnotebooks and that is, what these devices are.

Writing and editing for a netbook site since two weeks, I really start hating some of the announcements you have to publish if you want to cover everything: Most devices are just the same. 10.2” or 10.1” screen (sometimes LED backlit), Intel Atom N270 (or N280, isn’t that different) processor, two chipsets, that’s it. Of course, minor differences in build quality, keyboards, screens (glossy or not), time they run on battery and thickness. My bad, I was close to forget that some have Bluetooth, while others don’t and that we have some with 802.11 b/g and some with 802.11 b/g/n. And I shouldn´t forget to mention that there are different designs and brandings ;)

List of todays “netbook”-platforms (seen in device announcements or real devices (except NVidia
Ion)
x86:


MIPS


ARM (we will see ARM11 and ARM Vortex A8/A9 SoC´s in various flavours)

I almost start to feel happy when I see a device using a Intel Atom Z-series + “Poulsbo” chipset combination and I am close to freak out when I see a VIA Nano / C7M + VX800 / VX855 combination or a so called “netvertible”. Of course there are some “outsiders” as the Loongson 2F powered Emtec Gdium netbook, which uses a USB-Stick and has no inbuilt SSD/HD. Or that small 7”, 128MB, 400MHz Ingenic-MIPS device, marketed as “Letux 400” in Germany, which might be a nice “mobile companion” (remember the cancelled Palm Foleo ?), if would have a more modern operating system (among the software it ships with is a beta version of Firefox 2.0). Maybe you could call the OLPC XO-1 a special netbook, too.

6”-8” – Mobile Companions?

I have to say that I like these “smaller than normal netbooks” range, as long as such a device has still a keyboard I am able to type on with my fingers (like my Quanta IL1 based “One A120”, its keyboard measures 21 x7.8 cm), or one that is really thumb typeable, though these devices are usually a lot smaller – so let’s go down slowly and think about devices like the Letux 400 for a second, as it is still wide enough for a keyboard not much (sizewise) worse than the one of my current mini notebook.

Of course a device with a 400MHz MIPS CPU and a 128MB RAM is not a great performer, more like a PDA (and I believe that there are more powerful PDAs). But think of a device like that with a fast ARM-SoC (like the TI OMAP 3 (or OMAP 4 in the future)) and 256MB or more RAM. Or imagine it at a form factor similar to the Psion netBook (Pro).

And let´s think of more innovation, or something you could call so in our boring PC worls, and think of such a mobile companion, which is a convertible (netvertible) and uses display technologies developed for the OLPC (PixelQi) – as long as it is rather lightweight (HTML5 (even though it doesn´t include Ogg Theora) we will see less (Adobe) Flash video on the web, the system has to be powerful enough to play these videos in order to give the customer a rich internet experience.
In fact I believe that watching Flash videos is one of the most common power hungry applications in a world of cloud computing…

UMPCs – 5-7”

Now forget my mobile companion dreams and let´s head over to UMPCs.
Wibrain B1 UMPC (CC) VIA Gallery
Actually I have to apologize first, that I am not that much into UMPCs. First of all, UMPC is a term describing a certain device class introduced by Microsoft in 2006. UMPC stands for Ultra Mobile Personal Computer, as they run “Origami” enriched Windows systems (like XP, Vista or “7”) you might be able to guess, that we talk of x86 based systems


List of common UMPC hardware platforms:

  • VIA C7-M ULV + VIA VX700

It must be due to the higher price tags of UMPCs and the fact that they have to run Windows, to be called that way that I am not to much into that.
But there are some devices, that look almost the same, but don´t have to run Windows: MIDs.

Mobile Internet Devices – 3.8” to 6” (estimate)

Mobile Internet Device (MID) is a term used by several vendors to describe a multimedia-capable handheld computer providing wireless Internet access. It is designed to provide entertainment, information and location-based services for the consumer market (rather than the enterprise). The MID is a larger form factor than a smartphone but smaller than the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC). As such, the device has been described as filling a consumer niche between smartphones and Tablet PCs.

Wikipedia

Looking at possible MID hardware platforms, it´s a mixture of what I listed up for netbook hardware, remoUMID mbook M1 (CC) UMPCportalving the Diamondville and the VIA Nano and the more power hungry C7-M versions, but adding some ARM11 based SoCs, which are used in the Pocket PC/Smartphone range as well. As these devices are too small to feature “real” keyboards, some feature hardware thumb keyboards, others just feature a softkeyboard – I believe that the MID range, that I see as the range of devices between small netbooks and “really pocketable devices” is a somewhat “gadgety” one. You wouldn´t usually use a MID to work hard, and it hasn´t real advantages over a netbook while seated (unless you are the kind of girl/guy that types faster with two thumbs than with two hands). But when you want to be online on the go and even thinking of reading a longer text or watching a video on a sub 4” screen makes you feel pretty tired, they are just the right thing for you. Depending on the horsepower you imagine to require, your MID might be called UMPC, at least if you want to use Windows (and I admit that there might be some reasons (e.g. business software, fun with malware ;) ) for doing so). Of course you might consider using your MID like a netbook / mini notebook / subnotebook, using a “pocketable” keyboard ;) And we shouldn’t forget the “Pandora” gaming handheld, which features a MID like form factor.


Finally: “Smartphones” / “internet phones” – 2.6” to 3.8”

After a long walk on the “mobile devices” countryside, I finally have to find my keyring to open my home’s door. And guess what: Finding the key isn’t that easy. Well, first of all I want to define what I call “internet phones”. As you might realize looking at the screen size, I talk want to have some screen size, and additionally you should start thinking of touchscreen devices, at best running a software that fits to your fingertips. A classical PDA/Pocket PC form factor. Most likely it uses a WebKit based browser to show you the web (iPhone (OS), Palm Pre (WebOS), Android & S60 phones, they all use WebKit as default rendering engine and there is a WebKit browser for Windows Mobile as well, TorchMobiles “IrisBrowser” – so as long as you use a platform that is expandable beyond J2ME (and as this is still about “Mobile Computing” I would really recommend you to do so). I have to say that I need a QWERTY hardware keyboard on such devices – as “mobile computing” implies to me that you are able to write longer texts, e.g. for finishing your first book or just for editing office documents.

Today these little computers are almost all running their operating systems on a variety of ARM (9,11, Vortex A8) SoCs – low power consumption, but good performance and faster than all PCs we had 15 years ago. As I described above, you won’t use such a device (even if you are able to connect a keyboard over Bluetooth or USB host mode) as a real computer for work tasks unless you are a real enthusiast, just because the screens are too small. But imagining little projectors in these devices or foldable screens, they can become more and more usable for more than just typical SMS, browsing, twitter and phoning stuff. And all this while keeping their nice and pocketable form factor – but we enter the future now, I will stop.

See you again soon for “Mobile Computing – The Software”

Image sources:
Picture of the Wibrain B1 UMPC: (CC) VIA Gallery
Picture of the UMID mbook M1: (CC) UMPCportal