Mini-notebooks are certain to drive NextGen SFF technologies

While it's unlikely the boards embedded into mini-notebook laptops will ever find their way into the general market, the market for these almost toy-like devices will surely grow.

When I first created our internal-only Small Form Factor (SFF) list several years ago, it included more than 50 sizes of stand-alone SBCs, carrier boards, mezzanines, and Computer-On-Module (COM) daughterboards. It soon became my goal to turn this magazine and its website into the industry’s de facto resource for all SFFs, so we changed the name to PC/104 and Small Form Factors. Recently, editor Don Dingee updated the list and reported an astounding increase to upwards of 80 SFFs, which we've now posted online for industry feedback (see: www.smallformfactors.com/list). And we're encountering new SFFs every month.

One example among this "viral proliferation" of sizes and shapes is the consumer mini-notebook laptop category. While it's unlikely the boards embedded into these mass market products will ever find their way into the general market (nor is it likely manufacturers would ever choose an open standard size, simply due to the sheer volumes involved), the market for these almost toy-like devices will surely grow. According to IDC as reported by InformationWeek in May 2008, the "netbook" market will increase from 500,000 units in 2007 to more than 9 million by 2012 - a notable 5 percent of the overall laptop market. These are the kinds of numbers that drive all SFF technology, especially because the most significant features of mini-notebooks are 1) small size, 2) low cost, and 3) ultra-low power consumption.

Mini-notebooks aren't new; examples such as Toshiba's Libretto and Gateway's HandBook 486 date back to the early 1990s as the business laptop market prepared for Windows 95. These machines sometimes ran Windows but more often used a proprietary Operating System (OS) optimized for the platform's hardware. As recently as five years ago, the OQO represented the state of the art in mini-notebooks and inspired Microsoft to create the overhyped Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) category that (mostly) relied on mainstream notebook technology. But CPUs and chipsets from AMD and Intel proved too costly and way too power hungry. National Semiconductor's Geode and VIA's C7 were x86 compatible, more integrated, cost less than the mainstream CPUs, and consumed significantly less power - until recently making them ideal for "all-day" battery-powered mini-notebooks.

One modern mini-note is Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) educational device, which is powered by a 433 MHz, 0.8 W AMD Geode1 that draws power from a NiMH battery that can be recharged by a built-in hand-cranked generator. The OLPC's original design target price of $100 was never achieved using myriad custom components, but it's not far off of today's mainstream mini-notebooks from Lenovo, HP, Acer, and Asus, which all start at about $399. With off-the-shelf 7" and 8" LCD screens, Wi-Fi, Solid-State Disks (SSDs) or 2.5" Hard Disk Drives (HDDs), and 4-hour batteries, the guts of mini-notebooks have fallen far enough down the price curve to create a self-sustaining ecosystem for SFFs. That is, as consumers (students, business people, and vertical market users) choose mini-notebooks as lightweight, all-day replacements for regular Windows and Mac laptops, demand increases and bill of materials prices decrease, further reflecting lower ASPs and hence higher demand.

Up until Intel's announcement of the SFF-sized Atom processor, VIA's C7-M was the CPU of choice. But with a Thermal Design Power (TDP) of 0.65-2.5 W, the Atom is migrating beyond COM, nanoETXexpress, and Sumit SFFs and into the mainstream. ASUS's hugely popular Eee PC now sports an Atom, as does the new MSI Wind NB mini-notebook. Though most of these machines start at $399 and include Windows XP, market analyst Rob Enderle predicted during a recent podcast edition of Cranky Geeks that buyers really want an OS that's not a step backwards. (Does he mean Windows or Vista? Hard to say.) This points to an OS X-like Linux distro whose killer feature would be instant-on - just like a radio or light switch.

This isn't possible with any notebook version of Windows, and developing such an OS for the mini-note market might finally break the ties to x86 architectures. That might further open the door for countless other low-power SFF processors, such as ARM or even the new System-on-Chip (SoC) PowerQUICC-like ASSP from Freescale called the MPC5121e "motherboard-on-a-chip." According to sources at Freescale, the highly integrated MCU is already designed into at least one super-cheap Chinese mini-notebook that's targeting the ASUS Eee PC.

As I write this in August, I just returned from a trip where a 2-pound mini-notebook would've been mighty handy. But even more compelling is how the guts - Atom, MPC5121e, low-power always-on Wi-Fi, low-cost SSDs, and others - will find their way into the SFF market. The ICs are already available and getting cheaper. Add to that instant-on Linux OS, and more SFF viral proliferation is a certainty.

Chris A. Ciufo
cciufo@opensystems-publishing.com