I’ll Bet an ARM and a Leg That x86 Won’t Power Google’s Chrome OS Netbook


We’re still a good year away from the first Chrome OS netbooks that may come directly from Google, but more interesting to me is which processor will power them. Today Mike Arrington at TechCrunch says he’s willing to “bet one of our writers’ right hands that it’s ARM.” I don’t think there’s any need to sacrifice a hand, nor an ARM or a leg — my gut says that Google-designed device will go ARM all the way for a few reasons.

We already know that NVIDIA is working with Google closely on a device running Chrome OS. The company shared that news with us back in September and specifically mentioned the Tegra line of processors. Tegra — an ARM processor — is what powers Microsoft’s ZuneHD, and in my hands-on usage with the portable media player, it does a stellar job with the 480 x 272 display of the Zune HD. And that same device can pipe high-definition 720p video that looks fantastic. Clearly, the current Tegra is capable for digital audio and video and it’s not even the most current or powerful iteration of ARM out there. Inside the ZuneHD is a Tegra APX 2600 chip, which is based on the ARM11 architecture or ARM version 6. New handsets today are already running on the more powerful Cortex A8 architecture with the ARM version 7 instruction set.

And I doubt NVIDIA is sitting still with Tegra. I fully expect that at the Consumer Electronics Show, we’ll be hearing details about the next generation Tegra and maybe even get a peek at some prototypes. I actually have a pre-brief call with NVIDIA tomorrow, so it could be that I get a glimmer of Tegra’s future this very week. (Note that the call is under embargo, so I may not have info to share immediately). For NVIDIA, getting a chip to power a Google-branded device has to be on the radar. The company is fighting tooth-and-nail to get its Ion graphics chip in today’s netbooks, but essentially is at a cost disadvantage — Intel charges less for an Atom CPU in netbook if Intel’s own graphics are paired with it. A netbook manufacturer willing to use NVIDIA’s Ion with Intel’s Atom pays more for the Atom processor and has to pass that cost along to consumers. Lower costs make it possible for Google to even give these devices for free as James predicts.

Want another indicator that Chrome OS could go ARM over Intel’s x86? Just look at where Google’s consumer presence is felt in terms of mobile devices: Android. Possibly as early as 2011 we’ll see more Android handsets sold than iPhones. And every one of those Android devices is powered by an ARM processor. OK, maybe not every single one of them, but my Android on x86 effort is just an experiment. While the Chrome OS is very different than Android, both are based on efficient Linux kernels that don’t need the full power of an x86 chip. And the perfect storm of power vs efficiency might hitting by the end of 2010.

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Until recent years, computing was all about processor power and clock cycle speeds. We wanted faster processing, richer third-party client apps and the ability to multitask til the cows came home. x86 computing is great for that. But it comes at a cost in terms of battery life. If you can only multitask for two hours before your battery burns out, what good is it in this mobile day and age? And so a shift towards efficient computing took place. The devices might be slower in this case, but they can run for six or eight hours. That’s the main reason I embraced netbooks when they arrived in late 2007 — they can handle the tasks I do today for nearly eight hours on a single charge. Let’s take the paradigm further though.

Google’s Chrome OS is all about a browser and nothing but a browser. Multi-tasking is accomplished within tabs, but still in the browser. The web is your client and all of your apps are in the cloud. Will you really need the extra “oomph” of an x86 processor on this type of device at the end of 2010? For most web tasks, probably not. In fact, if you’re using the browser on a Palm Pre, Apple iPhone 3GS, Motorola Droid or Nokia N900, ARM is already powering your browser. And for streaming video with either Adobe’s Flash or inline with HTML5, a next-generation ARM processor ought to work well enough by then. I’ve watched inline YouTube vids on the evaluation Nokia N900 handset and they play well. And so does using the browser for Google Docs. Simply put, the power efficiency of the ARM architecture beats that of the Intel Atom. And the ARM platform’s processing power has matured beyond the clunky PDAs and smartphones of 2003 — by this time next year, it ought to be capable enough for a web-based device that needs to run all day on a single charge.

There’s another aspect in all this that’s getting overlooked — Google is essentially playing in the operating system space with Chrome OS. Obviously the major players here are Microsoft… and Intel. It’s certainly no secret that Microsoft is a Google competitor, but don’t think that Intel isn’t in the firing line here. It placed a stake in the ground with its backing and development of Moblin — which currently is specific to Intel’s own Atom. My first look at Moblin on a netbook show it to be very capable, but lightweight environment geared specifically for smartbooks, netbooks and handhelds. If Google is getting in this space, do you think they would put an x86 chip inside that could make it easy to swap the Chrome OS for Moblin or Windows? I certainly wouldn’t if I had plans to become a market leader in this segment.

Now Google has already said that Chrome OS will be supported on both ARM and x86 platforms. I’ve already taken advantage of that by making Chrome OS the primary OS on my x86 netbook (see a video demo below). I’m not suggesting that you won’t see Chrome OS devices running on Intel Atom about 10 to 12 months from now. But from where I stand, ARM is very likely to power a Google-designed and possibly Google-sold Chrome OS device next year. The chip is cheaper and more power efficient that Intel’s Atom, which keeps costs lower and allows for longer run-times on a single charge. And while an x86 processor with the right graphics capability might be better suited to watching 1080p video, are people going to use a web-based netbook with a small screen for that? I doubt it. The use case for this device is to embrace the web while on the go. Content creation is just as important to it as content consumption and I see no reason why an ARM processor of tomorrow couldn’t power a Chrome OS device.

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