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Can Ultraportables Grow Ultrafast?

Between the laptop and the mobile phone lies…something. Intel and Qualcomm may differ on what that something is, but both firms have determined to tap into growth — real or imagined — in the ultramobile PC space, following on the heels of device makers ranging from established players such as HP and BenQ to smaller ones like LimePC and ASUS Taiwan.

Along the way, the Intel Atom and Qualcomm Snapdragon chipsets will compete against processors from VIA Technologies and Freescale Semiconductor, both of whom make chips for ultramobile PCs already. So far, the winner looks like it will be anyone who wants a computer with a screen width ranging between four and nine inches, as new devices will flood the market. But beyond education, how large will that market be?

VIA Technologies is one of the older players making chips for these pocket PCs. The number of ultramobile PCs based on VIA processors is currently approaching 40, more than 30 of them are shipping today. Freescale has a smaller foothold; one device containing its processors is currently being shipped, and it has a partnership with Intel to provide power management chips for Atom-based devices. Intel has an older line of chips that power the ASUS-produced EEE, but its newly launched Atom processor represents its true effort to get into this market.

At a developer conference last week in Shanghai, Intel said it plans to ship Atom chips in June; it also has 25 mobile Internet devices planned around the processors from manufacturers including Lenovo, Clarion and LG. Also last week, I spoke with Qualcomm’s COO Dr. Sanjay Jha, who outlined Qualcomm’s interest in this space.

Jha said 15 device makers will use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipset for powering ultramobile PCs that range from 4 inches to 5 inches in screen width. The devices should be available at the end of this year. While he didn’t disclose the names of the manufacturers, industry chatter favors Samsung and HTC. Which makes sense since Qualcomm is targeting the smaller, 4-inch to 5-inch form factor with which these cell phone makers are experienced.

Chipmakers are placing bets on this space because smartphones and ubiquitous broadband are making it possible for consumers to rely more closely on the web for life on the go. Personally, I think improvements to smartphone user interfaces would be a better bet. In the developing world and in education, such portable PCs could find a home, but for the rest of the world, a smartphone that’s easy to use is the likely winner. That or a MacBook Air.

17 Responses to “Can Ultraportables Grow Ultrafast?”

  1. Smartphones have too small screens for the application that is the key to portables and is no other than web browsing. Nobody is sane to expect advanced games or video processing from small devices with screens below 9 inches. What holds bach progress in most countries is broadband availability at decent rates and this fact will be exposed in a grand way when the new generation of mobile devices is out this year.

  2. Stacey Higginbotham

    Steve, Qualcomm is creating “pocket PCs, and aims to have them range in screen size from 4 inches to 5 inches. I’ m not sure I’d buy or use anything that small, but am willing to check it out and see what the experience is like. Maybe it will be the Twitter of the ultraportable market.

  3. 15 device maker to use Snapdragon to power ultra mobile PC’s. Now that is interesting. It’s about time the Cortex crew starting moving into the market.
    I wonder what Qualcomms definition of a UMPC is though. 4″ is really too small for non-zoom 800×480 browsing.

    Keep us updated!


  4. I picked up a Eee PC and have had mixed results. I bought it for a number of reasons:
    First to see if the 7″ screen was big enough. Verdict: not really ,but a 9″ screen version IS coming.

    Second to see if it made a good writer’s tool. Verdict: not so much with the small keyboard. I did use it to work on a white paper and could write, but the small screen made reviewing comments difficult.

    The third reason was the unexpected “cool” factor. I had a number of people ask me about it.

    The fourth reason was to use it as a casual browsing device, because of the fast boot up, solid state drive, and light weight. Verdict: I’d rather use my iPOD Touch for that use.

  5. I have checked the Asus ultra-portable laptop….I don’t think anyone will use it other that web-surfing. This is a real confusion…it is somewhere between surfing in your cellphone and surfing in your laptop….not sure whether it is worth the money….

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