Electronic Design

Laptops, Netbooks, And E-books, Oh My!

Low-power processors and displays along with flash memory dominate the terrain of small-form-factor mobile devices.

You don’t need to wave a magic wand to capitalize on the hordes of mobile devices that are on the market these days. They’ve become bright spots in a wobbly consumer electronics industry as buyers look for new bargains.

In many instances, the cutting edge, such as the iPhone and Kindle, still carries a premium price. But the potential of lower-cost alternatives as well as the functionality provided by these new platforms is driving interest. They’re also opening doors to different markets and opportunities.

What’s really confusing is the range of names attached to today’s devices. For example, are netbooks like the 2.28-lb Dell Mini 9 little laptops (Fig. 1)? Are mini-laptops like Samsung’s thin NC20 with a 12.1-in. screen really netbooks (Fig. 2)? Are ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) dead or just another form of netbook? Are netbooks also e-books? Are e-books only for reading books? Are they all mobile internet devices (MIDs) like the Archos Internet Media Tablets (Fig. 3; see “Archos 7 Mobile Video Player)? And can any of these gadgets complement, augment, or replace a cell phone, telephone, or Internet phone?

I won’t make any proclamations here. Rather, I’ll try to explain the range of options and technologies being employed. It’s a very exciting time akin to the emergence of the PC because designers and users are trying to use these tools in places they weren’t intended.

The variety of options when it comes to design is significant. Designers can choose flash memory or hard-disk drives, or both. There is a cornucopia of processors to pick from. Even display options are growing, not to mention finger pointing.

So what are some of the more intriguing trends as these products hit the market? One is keyboard size. Myriad netbooks, MIDs, and other mobile devices have come out with smaller versions of the standard-size keyboard, though they haven’t been too successful for devices designed to replace a laptop. This is one reason why netbooks are turning into little laptops with at least 10-in. screens and real keyboards to match.

It all has to do with the average size of the adult finger, which affects more than keyboards. It’s equally applicable to touchscreens, as highlighted by the Apple iPhone. One of the challenges faced by UMPC vendors was that a stylus often had to be used to match the small menus presented by PC applications. Functions may have been workable with the stylus, but utterly impractical for any normal size finger.

This is actually a two-part problem: hardware and software. Features such as multitouch where multiple fingers can hit the screen at the same time are addressing the hardware side. The iPhone interface shows how this is an advantage rather than a problem, but it required a significant effort on the software side.

Another key (pun intended) input parameter comes from accelerometers, which are quickly moving from anomalies in implementation to standard fare in mobile devices. Falling prices, improved performance, and more digital implementations like Freescale’s MMA7660FC 3D accelerometer (see “Accelerometers Shake Up The Old Ways To Play) make alternate input scenarios such as shaking, tapping, or turning a device common (Fig. 4).

Again, the software must exploit this feature. The challenge is coming up with standard frameworks so application developers don’t have to incorporate device-specific code to take advantage of these features.

This isn’t to say that small keyboards or even on-screen keyboards aren’t a viable alternative. Rather, the primary applications for a device must not place heavy requirements on a keyboard. For example, a short response to an e-mail is manageable on a small or onscreen keyboard. Word processing places heavy demands on a keyboard, but not so with editing and annotating. The trick often is not to preserve the keyboard as some tablets or cell phones have. Instead, figure out how to provide alternatives with unique designs.

Keyboards also have had an effect on alternate form factors. The Always Innovating Touch Pad, an OMAP3530-based netbook, turns into a touchpad by simply separating the keyboard from the display (Fig. 5). For most laptops and netbooks, the processing and storage guts are under the keyboard. Always Innovating ignored conventional wisdom and placed them behind the display.

This change of design does present some interesting implications. For example, the power and peripheral connections such as USB are found on the perimeter of the display. The system is still fully operational with its touchscreen interface.

E-Ink’s displays have made e-books possible, but their flexible nature can also release designers from conventional constraints. Polymer Vision’s Readius rolls the display up into a very compact package that’s about the size of a cell phone instead of a typical e-book or compact tablet (Fig. 6). Its expanding plastic frame holds the display rigid during use.

Unlike LCDs that must be rigid, the E-Ink displays are created in rolls, so it’s not too difficult to imagine even larger rollable displays. Larger displays are already being delivered, like Amazon’s Kindle DX and Sony’s PRS-700. These devices can handle newspaper and textbook presentations, which tend to be a challenge for their smaller-screen predecessors (see “Hot Cellular Market Can’t Escape Icy Economic Winds).

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The monochrome E-Ink displays have been a success for e-books. But there seems to be a requirement for color should these displays land in other applications. It’s too bad, since the battery life possible with these types of displays would be very handy for basic browsing and e-mail. Video update performance, which is slower than conventional LCDs, represents another challenge. This is likely to change, though, making these flexible displays a preferred, colorful choice.

LCDs hold the edge for now in all but the e-book arena. Likewise, LCDs are the only choice for the MID through laptop categories. They may be dominant, but the technology isn’t standing still. Interesting features on the horizon include 3D, such as those displays previewed by 3M and Toshiba Matsushita (see “3M Film For Viewing 3D Films). These displays are easier to implement in smaller form factors without special glasses. Lower costs in displays can lead to some interesting applications. Sharp’s Mebius adds a display to the multitouch pad. It’s a natural combination since fingers are already in the area. Likewise, it can present contextsensitive menus.

Higher resolutions, lower power requirements, and faster response times are being delivered to address increasing demands for features such as high-definition (HD) video, which is part of the equation for many mobile devices. Encoding and decoding can be accomplished by kicking the main processor into overdrive, though this tends to push the processor’s performance and power requirements. That’s why audio and video accelerators or coprocessors are the norm, especially when coupled with low-power processors.

The CPU inside these devices is what really makes this market space interesting. It’s where Intel, Via, and AMD are almost going head to head with Arm and other alternatives. That trio has an advantage if the target operating system is a Microsoft Windows variant. But these platforms also run Linux, which spans the gamut of platforms.

Intel’s Atom and other low-power x86 chips have significantly reduced their power usage. Hefty heatsinks are often the norm, but the move away from fans is clear. Some x86 systems use no fans at all, yet the push for performance always seems to raise the requirements for power and heat dissipation.

Some of the first products in the smaller-form-factor arena utilized Arm architecture processors. The Atom has proved to be a challenge in the netbook area. However, its low-power characteristics don’t extend down as far as the Arm and MIPS solutions that are popular in the cellphone form factor.

The high performance-to-power ratio of these embedded processors is ideal for mobile applications. Likewise, even higher-end processor architectures such as Arm’s ARM 11 and Cortex-A8 fall in the 1-W power range, allowing four- to eight-hour operation using only a pair of batteries. And this is without resorting to low-power displays like those found in e-books.

The rising popularity of Linux also factors into the use of nonx86 platforms. Linux isn’t alone in this arena, though. Windows CE and a host of other embedded real-time operating system (RTOS) solutions are applicable in this space. But these options tend to be utilized in more special-purpose solutions, like personal navigation devices.

Nonetheless, Linux offers a popular platform for applications. There’s also a move to versions tailored for this product category, such as Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix and Mobile version. Moblin and Android are Linux flavors, too.

Windows Vista plays a major role in the netbook space. The arrival of the leaner, meaner Windows 7 will easily displace Vista, but it could also have an impact as platforms like Atom continue to cut their power consumption (see “Holding Out For Windows 7: A Wise Move?).

In general, the challenge for this class of machines is to consider the range of resolutions, input options, built-in peripherals, and communication. At this point, it’s quite a chore to even address a subset of platforms. For example, interfaces that work well with a mouse or stylus are frequently very ineffective or even unusable with fingers.

Finding home is a snap with a GPS. Much like accelerometers, falling prices, shrinking sizes, and lower-power solutions are significantly extending the range of builtin peripherals. Digital camera sensors are often part of the equation, especially since video encoding is a nice complement to decoding hardware.

Wireless support is also moving from a single-function module to multifunction RF modules with options such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi (many flavors), WiMAX, 3G, and 4G. Another item coming into play is 802.15.4/ZigBee. RF4CE is a standard based on 802.15.4 that’s being used as an RF remotecontrol protocol in consumer electronic products starting with HDTVs. Incorporating this type of support into these types of mobile products turns them into control systems.

Price remains a major issue. For the low end, $200 looks to be the magical boundary, while netbooks seem to be hitting $400 and above. It will be interesting to watch how the mix of features will complicate consumer choices compared to products like digital cameras, where megapixels dominate.

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