The AC100 smartbook, recently announced by Toshiba, has some intriguing features, worth to blog about. First of all, it is built around Nvidia’s Tegra2 system-on-chip (SOC). The Tegra2 is a powerful, ARM SOC with two generic application processing cores and integrated media cores (AV decoding/encoding…etc). The AC100 is the most promising netbook form-factor machine with Tegra2 to date. (Of course there are a lot of Tegra2 based systems announced, but those are mostly tablets). Smartbooks already on the market (HP Airlife, Sharp Netwalker), suffer from lack of performance (due to a combination of underpowered, single-core, Cortex A8-level SOCs and/or slow RAM) and are not considered as breakthrough products (at least not in the blogosphere).
The AC100 has a chance to be a successful product in the netbook/smartbook category. Although the hardware has some weaknesses (only 512Mb of RAM instead of at least 1Gb, only one USB port, very small resolution LCD), it has a solid brand name written on it, and the Nvidia foundations are appealing.
I expect the factory installed Android 2.1 perform acceptably but I don’t think it is the ideal OS for this device. Android’s touch oriented GUI won’t shine on the AC100 simply because the machine lacks a touch-screen and Android’s software selection is simply no match for this hardware.
Laptop-like smartbooks with keyboards (like the AC100) are much better served with a full-desktop Linux due to the fact, that on these devices, buyers will expect full-fledged applications like OpenOffice, Thunderbird, Firefox…etc. Android would be very limiting for the use cases expected from a netbook/smartbook (editing complex text documents, spreadsheets, using a full-fledged browser, email client…etc). Tegra2 with 1Gb of fast RAM could run OpenOffice and other desktop software with good performance. Instead, it will be reduced to run mini, Android versions of the real stuff (what is available for Android instead of OO and such). I believe, at this point, Android is much more suitable for content consumption, than content creation. In contrast, the AC100 hardware is definitely suitable for the latter and many potential buyers will find Android as insufficient for their purposes.
I just hope that Nvidia & Toshiba get their act together and quickly release an Ubuntu variant for Tegra2 based systems because I am afraid the OS part of their AC100 offering is much weaker than the hardware. The Android 2.1 can remain the factory default but the easy install option of a solid, full-desktop OS should be provided (Ubuntu/ARM is just that). I would also suggest increasing the amount of RAM and the USB ports in order to make the product directly comparable to Atom netbooks (and not be ashamed after the comparison). With these improvements, Toshiba could create a very strong contender for the business of those who are waiting for a powerful smartbook or tablet and not willing to compromise with Apple’s offering.
Smartbooks are an upcoming mobile computing device category built around ARM’s Cortex A8 and A9 line of processors. These devices are awaited with great anticipation because they promise a mixture between smartphone features (ultra-portable, 3G connected, always-on) and the functionality of netbooks/laptops (>9″ screen, seamless web browsing, laptop-like computing performance…etc) at a price point lower than that of current netbooks (sub-$300). Some smartbooks will arrive in the tablet form factor, some of them will come in the more traditional laptop form factor. All of them are expected to be comparable to netbooks in processing power (see this and this).
It is an intriguing question whether smartbooks will widen Linux adoption and erode the often criticised monopoly of Windows on pc-like computing devices.
Since the desktop line of Windows currently doesn’t run on ARM processors, we can exclude XP/Vista/7 from the list of likely contenders as smartbook operating systems. Windows 7 successors are currently not planned to be ported to ARM and even that wouldn’t be a complete solution since Windows applications will have to be ported as well (a very wide, close-sourced ecosystem).
Microsoft has Windows CE for ARM processors. Windows CE has already been deployed several smartbook-like devices (e.g. the original Psion Netbook) so it is definitely a contender in this market. However, WinCE 6.5 currently doesn’t support multiple or multi-core processors and more than 512Mb of RAM so advanced ARM SOCs like the Tegra2 would be very much limited by this OS. Solving multi-processor support will require significant investment from Microsoft. Incompatibility with the desktop line of Windows is also a severe limiting factor for WinCE. WinCE devices cannot be sold on the appeal of general Windows-compatibility, the user will not be able to install Windows applications onto the device.
Linux on the other hand has a very good technical background on ARM. It has no limitations for processing cores and operating memory and has targeted distributions for this architecture. Android is an outstanding example but several well-known distributions – like Ubuntu – have ARM ports in addition to their x86 base edition. Also, due to the fact that most of the Linux applications are open-source, they are at least possible to port, so we can expect the full usual complement of desktop Linux applications to show up on an ARM Linux distribution when the need becomes visible for them.
Technical factors aside, there is always the argument for Linux: being free . This may be important with smartbooks due to the very low targeted price point which doesn’t tolerate even moderate OS licensing fees (like $50/unit). So unless Microsoft gives Windows CE for practically free, Linux has the advantage here.
Since Windows CE has practically no advantages over Linux on ARM (in fact quite the opposite), Linux has a fairly good chance to be deployed on smartbooks as the primary operating system shipping with the device. Now, we can get into specifics. What kind of Linux and what kind of GUI?
Google’s Android is a very special Linux distribution. It’s touch-oriented GUI is simple and usable but it doesn’t run X-Windows so lacks the usual full-fledged Linux applications (Android applications are specifically written for the Dalvik virtual machine and its APIs in Java.) With this in mind, and considering the current frenzy around Android, I expect it to be deployed heavily on smartbook tablets. This form-factor is ideal for use cases in which full-fledged desktop applications are not necessary (e.g.: a web tablet with media player capabilities). More advanced Linux users will likely be able to install a full desktop Linux onto their tablets but the average consumer will be satisfied with Android.
However, laptop-like smartbooks with keyboards are better served with a full-desktop Linux like Ubuntu due to the fact, that on these devices, buyers will expect full-fledged applications like OpenOffice, Thunderbird, Firefox…etc. Android would be very limiting for the use cases expected from a netbook/smartbook (editing complex text documents, spreadsheets, using a full-fledged browser, email client…etc). I believe, the exact GUI environment is not really important for this kind of smartbooks although some netbook specific desktop environments (like Ubuntu Netbook Remix and Moblin) may be more efficient for smartbook models with low-resolution screens (below 1024×768).
My conclusion is that every kind of smartbook device can be put to its full potential with a properly customized Linux variant. Manufacturers seem to be aware of this since most of the already announced products are known to ship with Android (e.g.: Notion Ink Adam) or hinted to ship with some kind of Linux (e.g.: Lenovo Skylight).
Regardless of how severe limitations Apple imposes on the iPad, we can expect it to be reasonably successful. I don’t think it will duplicate the success of the iPhone but due to Apple’s strong marketing and its own technical merits, it will sell in significant numbers.
How will this affect Linux and the upcoming tablets based on it?
When I say Linux, I mean Google’s Android and Chrome operating systems as well because they are all based on Linux.
I believe the iPad will have a positive effect on Linux adoption. The bigger its success will be, the bigger help it will provide to Linux. Now, I agree that this sounds controversial first, because the iPad runs Apple’s own iPhone OS which is a competitor to Linux but the logic gets more obvious if we think about the biggest hurdle for Linux adoption: compatibility with Windows.
When buying computer-like devices, people still expect compatibility with Windows and windows applications. Microsoft’s monopoly of the desktop makes it hard for alternative OS-es to make headway. The iPhone made a dent in this cornerstone because it proved that it can serve as a viable, ultra-mobile internet device, a role played by, overwhelmingly, Windows laptops before. The iPhone created a huge ecosystem of software developers/publishers completely independent from Microsoft and Windows. The iPad will continue this trend and will highlight this market in a much more meaningful manner.
People buying the iPad will be aware that their device will never run Windows programs yet they will buy it anyway. Their example will further destroy the myth that a computer needs Windows to serve useful purposes. The iPad, due to its size, is more of a “computer” in the eyes of the people than an iPhone, regardless of the technical similarities.
After the iPad successfully lowers resistance to non-Windows computing devices, Linux will have a much better chance of competing in the mobile computing market and, eventually, on the desktop.
We can safely say that the Apple iPad is received with mixed feelings by the IT-savvy community. The main problem is that the tablet is just not as revolutionary as many expected it would be. It keeps many of the limitations of the iPhone (no multitasking, tightly controlled app-store) and doesn’t provide impressive new features which could keep the balance.
Let’s compare this tablet to one of the more promising Tegra 2 tablets on the way to the market: the Notion Ink Adam. Admittedly, the Adam is not on the market yet, while the iPad is quite sure gets there soon. Nevertheless, we give the benefit of the doubt to Notion Ink (especially, considering how badly Nvidia wants to start the Tegra 2 device line). In my comparison, the Adam runs Ubuntu Linux with the Mobile Edition which has a touch oriented user interface. The first version of the Adam is expected to come with Android but since Nvidia officially supports Ubuntu on the Tegra 2, we can expect a fully working Ubuntu edition on the Adam soon enough. Moreover, for such powerful hardware as the Adam, even Android seems limited to me.
Screen technology and diplay features
Both the iPad and the Adam have ~10″ LCD displays with capacitive touchscreen technology. However, the Adam features PixelQi technology which means lower power consumption, direct sunlight readability and higher contrast when switched to BW mode for reading. The Adam will have a hardware switch for easy mode-changing (BW/low-power colour/full colour) which will help lowering the power consuption (like a wifi or 3G radio shut-off switch). The iPad doesn’t seem to have any hw switch, not even one for adjusting the brightness of the screen (meaning: unless there is an ultra-easy touch gesture for it, nobody will adjust the brigthness for ambient light conditions). The iPad specs page lists an ambient light sensor, so the OS may be able to automatically turn-down the backlight when not needed but this won’t save you as much as the power saving modes of the PixelQi screen. All-in-all, the screen of the Adam seems to be more versatile and power efficient.
The custom Apple A4 processor of the iPad runs at 1Ghz and is a single-core ARM Cortex A9 solution. The Tegra 2 of the Adam features 2 Cortex A9 cores running at 1 Ghz. Due to the exact same technology platform, I expect the Adam almost two times as powerful as the iPad and this should be very much noticable in the more important applications (e.g. web-browser). The iPad has the stock ARM Mali 50 graphics core, while the Tegra 2 includes a Geforce 9 level graphics core. Although, I am not very familiar with the capabilities of these cores, I expect the Nvidia core to be more powerful since this is where Nvidia has strong competency. Some say the Mali core is not even in the same league as the Tegra 2 graphics core but this remains to be seen. (Disclaimer: it is possible that current reports about the inclusion of the Mali are inaccurate and the iPad uses a PowerVR graphics core like the iPhone).
The iPad runs the GUI environment of the iPhone OS (an OS X derivative), while the Adam runs Ubuntu Mobile (at least in my comparison). The Adam may not support multitouch in the short term but already has support for gestures (e.g: a swipe for moving to the next image in the image browser). The iPad supports multitouch and a wide array of gestures. I expect the iPad GUI easier to use and more refined (at least for the time being, since Ubuntu Mobile is quite a young project).
The “desktop” is easy to use in both environment, very similar application startup and indicators. The Ubuntu OS will run several applications in parallel while you will be able to use only one app ata time on the iPad. (see about this later)
The iPad doesn’t run Flash but said to render normal webpages snappily in its custom Safari browser. Youtube is supported just like on the iPhone but no Flash games and no Java applets in webpages (see about interpreters later in the application section).
The Adam will run full editions of Firefox/Chrome/Opera and expected to have an optimized Flash version (Flash 10.1 coming soon) so it will be good for running web-pages with video streaming and Flash games. Java applets (rare nowadays) will work too.
Playing video / Listening to music
The iPad has no HDMI output (has a simple VGA output, max res: 1024×768) and is rated for decoding 720p videos. This is a far cry from the 3 simultanious 1080p streams of the Tegra 2 and built-in HDMI port of the Adam. The Tegra 2/ Adam offering is far more powerful and makes the Adam a viable HTPC if you want to play the movies from your tablet onto your HDTV screen.
Both have a 3.5 mm jack and speakers so hw-wise, listening to music should not be a problem. Ubuntu has powerful music player applications which are on par with iTunes of the iPhone/iPad.
The Geforce graphics core of the Tegra 2 in the Adam will be quite sufficient to play 3D games. The performance of the Mali 50 is not widely known at this point but is not expected to be worse than the graphics core in the iPhone 3GS so it is likely able to run 3G games like the demo based on the Unreal engine. I expect the Tegra 2 graphics core of the Adam more powerful.
Camera / video chat / VOIP
The iPad doesn’t have a built-in camera which is a glaring omission. The Adam will have a 3Mp built-in camera, which is more than enough for Skype videophoning. Moreover, the Tegra 2 supports real-time hardware encoding of 1080p streams to H264 so, properly written video-chat applications should work extremely well on the Adam. Ubuntu should run any Linux VOIP app compiled for ARM. I expect Skype and other open/closed source software work well on the Adam in the short-medium term.
Apple has recently lifted the restrictions on Skype and other VOIP apps in the iPhone app catalog so the iPad will have the voice part OK but you will need an external cam for video chats and currently there is no information on the video encoding capabilities of Apple’s A4 SOC.
The iPad is rated for 10hrs of use (wifi browsing). The Adam is specified to have 16 hours of wifi browsing. The Adam looks like the winner here but the iPad’s 10-hour runtime is also quite good.
The Adam’s PixelQi screen supports this activity much better especially in sunlit places. Ubuntu runs FBReader (my favourite ebook reader software) and has viewers for every kind of complex-document formats (most of them will be displayed in Evince, in case of Ubuntu). The iPad has a new reader application which is too early to write about but expected to be an intuitive reader-app (if the track record of Apple is any indication).
Both devices include GPS units, so navigation software should be available for both. Google Navigation will certainly run on the Adam, I just hope it doesn’t get blocked from the iPad app-store.
Other applications, Multitasking
While the iPhone has a huge selection of applications in Apple’s app-store, most of them will have to be tailored for the iPad for full potential. This will surely happen if the iPad becomes successful but it may happen slowly if the device proves to be less than a clear success. Application-wise, I expect the Apple iPad to be as closed as the iPhone, so you will be able to install only Apple-approved applications from the official app-store.
Ubuntu on the Adam can run any full-desktop or command line Linux/ARM software from the Ubuntu ARM repositories. This is a huge selection of software and includes powerful applications like OpenOffice, GIMP and others. These may not be optimized for the touchscreen interface but the Adam’s backside trackpad can help using them in tablet mode and in docked mode you will be able to use a USB mouse and keyboard just like with a netbook. Moreover, Ubuntu is completely free of limitations so you will be able install whatever software you want.
The iPad currently has multitasking disabled so you can run only one application at a time. The Adam has the full multitasking of Linux. The Adam’s dual-core hardware should run several applications efficiently in parallel. A good use-case for this: a Bittorrent download running on your Adam while reading an ebook (I do this quite often on my OLPC XO-1).
Apple doesn’t allow applications running in interpreters so you will never run a Flash/Java/Python/.Net-Mono application on the iPad although the hardware is sufficient for them. The Adam’s Ubuntu will run any of those applications without any restrictions. Flash 10.1 is expected to be optimized for ARM SOCs and Java 6 has an optimized version for the Cortex A9 processors so the Adam should run apps based on these technologies well. Desktop and Webstarted Java clients are quite common in the enterprise IT world so the Adam may get some love from there.
It is not yet known how much RAM the iPad or the Adam has, but based on the Tegra 2 development board, the Adam will have at least 1 Gb of RAM which is quite sufficient for running even several complex applications in parallel.
The Adam will have expandable storage by a microSD slot, while the iPad seems to have no storage expansion slot at all.
The cheapest version of the iPad is announced for $499 in the US. The Adam is expected to carry a sub-$400 pricetag ($320 is a current estimate).
The iPad hardware seems to be seriously lacking when compared to the Adam’s Tegra 2 foundations, PixelQi screen, trackpad and other features.
Application-wise, the playground is more leveled but for Linux-savvy people the choice is a no-brainer. The iPad will certainly appeal to people who want devices which “just work” and accept the serious, artificial limitations imposed on their device.
According to this faq-like post on the official Nvidia Tegra developer site, Ubuntu Linux is supported as an operating system for Tegra 2 based devices.
This is extremely important for both Nvidia and Linux in general since a lot of IT-savvy people find Android insufficient for the netbook form factor and ask for a “real” Linux on these very promising devices.
I tend to agree with this view primarily because Tegra 2 @1Ghz is a powerful SOC for a smartbook/netbook/tablet which can run a full desktop Linux with decent speed. I see no reason to limit Tegra 2 based systems to inferior operating systems like Android or Windows CE (bah). As an example, Windows CE 6.0 supports only 512Mb RAM and only one processor. Since the Tegra 2 has two Cortex A9 cores,Windows CE will not be able to utilize both. Android has no X-Windows on it so it cannot run normal Linux software, only software directly written for Android. In contrast, Ubuntu for ARM supports multiple processors, any reasonable amount of RAM and most of the popular Linux software can be installed readily from the Ubuntu ARM repositories, and even the more obscure sw likely requires only a recompile.
A simple Gnome desktop or Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix user interface may not be perfect for a touchscreen operated tablet but is very useable with the traditional laptop form factor. Some of the Tegra 2 tablets will add a pointer device as well, in addition to the touchscreen (like the Notion Ink Adam) so these machines will be easy to use with a customized, full Linux desktop.
The list of currently known Tegra 2 tablets/smartbooks.
Some performance comparisons between Cortex A9 (like the Tegra2) and Intel’s Atom:
Earlier, I wrote about the relative performance of Intel’s Atom and the upcoming smartbook processors based on ARM’s Cortex A9 here.
Continuing this line, I have found a demonstration video which shows a 1.6 Ghz Atom (likely the 270) and a 500Mhz Cortex A9 development board side by side. Both of the machines run at the same screen resolution, same memory and same operating system (looks like a stock Ubuntu with Gnome).
The video demonstrates web browsing performance with typical websites. The Cortex A9 board seems a little bit slower but not significantly, and at still a perfectly acceptable speed.
Now, the most astounding part is, that the A9 board runs only at 500 Mhz which means that its performance is throttled back for ultra-low power consumption. Cortex A8 level SOCs – the current generation – are known to run at 1 Ghz (Snapdragon, OMAP3, Armada) and the Cortex A9 Sparrow demo chip runs at 2Ghz (produced on the 28nm GlobalFoundries process).
This means that a completely doable Cortex A9 at 1.5 Ghz would have about 3 times the performance of the demo 500Mhz development board and still consume much-much less than the Atom. It would definitely leave the Atom 270 and N450 in the dust.
Moreover, the development board had no graphics accelerator at all, while finalized OEM SOCs will definitely have GPUs built-in (for example the Tegra 2 will include a Geforce GPU coupled with the two A9 cores).
The Cortex A9 at 500 Mhz is an ultra-low-power configuration and it is safe to say that it would take 1/10 – 1/5 of the consumption of the Atom which means much-much better battery runtimes.
In theory, the 1.6 Ghz Atom puts out ~4000 DMIPS and the dual-core, 500 Mhz A9 puts out only 2500 DMIPS raw power. This means that the A9 also has an architectural advantage somewhere. This may be the two real cores of the A9 versus the one-core-with-hyperthreading of the Atom. Since web browsers are by nature heavily multithreaded, the dual-A9 may support this type of application much better.
I can’t wait to see some prototype A9 devices displayed at CES.
Freescale has come up with a tablet reference design which they expect to be selling for under $200. It is not entirely clear whether they meant end-user prices or OEM production prices but $200 for a production price would be way too much for a Cortex-A8 category tablet, so I assume they meant end-user prices.
What is interesting about this design, that they have created a special, simplified user interface, which may be appealing for the target audience.
The operating system is a Debian derivative.
This machine would be ideal as an ultra mobile browsing/emailing, video/music playing device at home or when traveling.
The 7″ screen may be too small for some but it definitely makes the machine more portable.
More information here.