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Tuesday, 15 July 2014 09:16

Microsoft partners target Chromebooks with cheap notebooks

Written by Peter Scott

But MediaTek and Rockchip want to make them even cheaper

Chromebooks have all but killed the netbook and now they are taking on cheap notebooks and other form factors based on Windows.

The price difference is significant. Many Chromebooks retail for $249 and even cheaper devices are expected. Microsoft is trying to counter them by cutting Windows license costs.

Many PC vendors are interested in cheap Windows 8.1 notebooks, hybrids and tablets. Intel has been promising $99 tablets based on its SoCs for roughly a year. As for notebooks, HP is planning to reveal a $199 SKU for the holidays, according to the Verge

The chip conundrum


Chromebooks have a few things on their side.

Most importantly they don’t have to be based on x86 chips and they feature a free operating system with a tiny footprint, thus eliminating the need for a lot of storage. Therefore they can be based on relatively cheap ARM SoCs, with little in the way of RAM and a small SSD.

However, Intel is closing the gap with x86 SoCs of its own and AMD is not far behind with its second generation entry-level APUs. However, Windows bloat remains an issue and ARM SoCs aren’t going anywhere, either. In fact, they are evolving and they can be easily tweaked and customised for a wide range of applications.

Intel is trying to broaden its portfolio and as a result it will have Core and Atom processors capable of covering practically every form factor. Atoms and Core Y-series parts are targeting tablets and detachable. Core U parts are going after convertibles and clamshells, while Core M and H processors power anything from clamshells to mobile workstations.

A substantial number of these chips can be used in Chromebooks.

More frugal ARM parts are coming


The ARM camp isn’t sleeping, either. MediaTek and Rockchip have already made a name for themselves in the smartphone SoC and tablet SoC respectively. Both companies offer a wide range of SoCs and they have spent the last few quarters expanding to new markets and broadening their portfolio.

Rockchip has already demonstrated a Chromebook based on its RK3288 SoC (Cortex A17) and MediaTek is looking at Chromebooks, too. However, MediaTek has submitted an experimental board based on ARM Cortex A7 silicon

The Cortex A7 is a cheap and extremely efficient CPU core, but compared to A17 or A15 cores it is woefully underpowered. However, MediaTek has a habit of using the A7 in an unconventional configuration, as a building block for affordable octa-core processors. We took a closer look at this approach and concluded it offers potential long-term advantages, but OS support for octa-core ARM SoCs is still far from ideal.

However, in theory an octa-core based on Cortex A7 or Cortex A53 cores could offer sufficient performance for low-end Chromebooks, while at the same time delivering exceptional value and battery life. 

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