back to article What's going to power Small, Cheap Computers?

Between the mobile phone and the laptop computer a new class of device is emerging, and control of it is up for grabs - it appears the next battle will be fought between seasoned industry scrappers and young bloods over the 'armtop'. Mobile phones are becoming more and more like computers - link one to a Bluetooth keyboard and …

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"The reality...."

"The reality is that all the popular technologies will be available on the next generation of internet-capable devices"

no, the reality is that "popular technologies" may be available - but will they be worthwhile versions?

Flash player may exist for most platforms, but on nokia phones/Wii/PSP at least the version is old and not supported by an ever growing number of websites.

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Linux

Just need to force MS to release Office for Linux....

Or tell people that crossover works (as does a plain Wine install)

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It still comes down to screen size

As you sit on the bus or train, look about and see what people are reading. Some have table-cloth sized newspapers, as much for the privacy they afford as for the content. Others have tabloids - the less said about those, the better. However the smallest sized area that people seem to be willing to read from, is a paperback for text-only content and a roughly A4 sized magazine for mixed pictures and text. There will be a few early adopters who are squinting at a postage-stamp sized screen, trying desperately to discern any details on their screens through the scuffed touch-screen protector and the glare from the ambient lighting. However these people are simply looking at pictures: a moving head here, an exploding car there - no nuances whatsoever. Absolutely no prospect of seeing any textual information. You can just, possibly, get by with a PDA - but the fuss of scrolling side-to-side and up-and-down rapidly turns into a chore and you're back to watching exploding heads, or the breakfast-time sofa again.

No, people have decided that the minimum size layout they want, for getting information without fuss, eye-strain or shifting the active area all over the place is the size that magazines have evolved into. Device makers need to learn this lesson and size their equipment accordingly. With the technology we have available, that also puts a lower limit on the power consumption of the screen and (for any realistic duration of use) a lower limit on the size and weight of the battery pack. I'd suggest that rather than looking for ways to persuade the public that "small is good" (especially when they/we get the exact, opposite, message from plasma/LCD TV makers), they should expend effort on lower consumption displays and lighter, smaller batteries.

One alternative is to move the screen closer to the user's eye. All you have to worry about then is continually bumping into things and small children mocking the fact that you look like the Borg - surely a small price to pay.

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Why people buy eee

A lot of the people around me that have bought a eee have done so because they want a small version of their big desktop (or laptop) machine to take along with them (on holiday?). For them Linux is not an option since most of them have a Vista or XP machine. That is the main reason why XP eee wil probably be 80% of the market.

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Showing your age?

"an external VDU"

I've not heard or seen the term VDU used since the 80's, thought it had died out. For me it always conjures up images of rooms full of DEC green-screen terminals.

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Flame

Flash

My ARM based Archos 605 WiFi has Flash9

At 4.3" and 800 x 480 it's perhaps the smallest useful screen for web browsing. A 2" phone screen is fairly rubbish no matter how good the browser is.

Texas, Nvidia and Samsung have ARM cored SoC that in various applications are better than Qualcomm Snapdragon. You can get in a single ARM SoC/Module what Intel needs 5 chips for.

(Modules have Flash, RAM and SoC as a three chip sandwich in a normal size SoC package with no heatsink. Not possible even with Moorestown due to heat).

Icon demonstrates Intel package temperature without a heatsink.

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Stop

It's the UI stoopid!

I agree with Pete that the size of these devices is critical. The A4 paperback is a good measure but I do think the User Interface could go a little smaller, what with backlighting. On the other hand a typical phone screen is definitely too small.

I have a Nokia 770, which has a screen about half the size of a paperback and in fact I find it quite easy on the eye - esp if brought up close.

This brings me to the eee and XP.

What many have missed is that not only do (proper) eeepcs run linux, but they also have a customised easy to use UI with great big icons and tabs of related application types. easier to use than most PCs

XP (or even the enhanced desktop of the eee) have a standard PC-like appearance where even though the screen is bigger, it is still more difficult to use.

If we go smaller then this is going to be an even bigger problem

So XP will not suffice on these tiddlers and customised UIs are needed.

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Linux

@ Dirk Vandenheuvel

"Linux is not an option since most of them have a Vista or XP machine...."

Wha? The standard Xandros Linux build in the eee is perfectly up to any office task I can think of. Networking between linux eeepc and windows also works fine

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Paris Hilton

@spegru: XP difficult to use?

FUD and patronisation alert:

"but they also have a customised easy to use UI with great big icons and tabs of related application types. easier to use than most PCs"

"XP (or even the enhanced desktop of the eee) have a standard PC-like appearance where even though the screen is bigger, it is still more difficult to use."

Sorry....but my old man who had never used a computer in his life until he retired got on fine all by himself with XP (and now Vista). He's even fancying one of these eee pc's with XP so he can use it on the move (eg holidays) with a vodafone dongle.

XP will do fine on these tiddlers and not some dumbed down interface designed by freetards, who lets face it, still haven't imagined up anything better in Gnome/KDE space (look at all the OSX/XP look alikes/wannabe's). God forbid they're let loose customising 'simpler' interfaces for the eee.

Give 'regular' users a bit more credit regarding their intelligence and tastes in UI.

Paris, 'cos she prefers 8.9" every now and again.

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Anonymous Coward

Availability vs performance

While badly programmed Flash adverts and RIAs can set the fan on my dual-core 2Ghz laptop going due to high CPU usage, I’m wagering that Flash performance on Atom or ARM based machines will not be great. Flex based apps can also end up quite hungry on memory.

Note : I’m not wholly blaming the Flash player, as I’ve seen sites that use Flash to implement 3D graphics that do not utilize much CPU, so I presume it is down to programming – presumably deciding that your banner add needs to execute at maximum framerate while it runs through a loop to decide if it should display the next frame of the ad.

Anyway, the point is that there is a big gap between something being available and usable (my old phone supported Java games . . . at about one frame per second) – but as we all know, bullet-points of available features count for so much more (’10 Megapixel camera – who cares if the lens and sensor are a pile of crap??’).

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Paris Hilton

@Dirk Vandenheuvel

I imagine then that most of your friends are power users. The average computer user I have found is very task-orientated. So long as they can accomplish the same tasks (surf the web, write a letter, chat to friends) with the same degree of ease most don't know or care whether they have windows, linux or any other OS.

This is why when I have shown (non tech) people my EEE in basic mode, they have liked the simple, intuitive interface and the fact that they can do everything they would want to. They wouldn't know what an OS was if I mentioned it!

Paris because like my EEE she's petite and easy...

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@ Dick

I have an eee and I am normally pretty firmly in the Microsoft camp. It does everything I need when I go on holiday as it has networking capabilities, a browser, skype and a citrix client. If I want to use a MS app then I can connect and use it via citrix so don't see the need to take my Windows laptop away on holiday and risk it getting lost or damaged.

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My wish

Is that, now that the OLPC is dying the death of a thousand backpedals, we have a EEE PC or similar that had some of the VERY worthwhile innovations the OLPC brought about:

1) weatherproof (rain on an EEE? Aaarrgh!")

2) robust (kicked an EEE while on the floor? Aaarrgh!)

3) real low power requirements (so what if you have 6600mAh, still only lasts 4h)

I'd like one to control my telescope, but a laptop (and the EEE PC and other "wannabe" products) won't handle even a small drop from a little table to the grass covered ground. They won't last a decent observing session on internal charge.

The Psion series had AA batteries (two) and ran for a day or two. OK, not massively powerful, but equivalent to the Palm et al which managed a day or two *on standby only*.

Heck, rechargeables now manage 3200mA+ at 1.2V in an AA package. Siz make up the 7V+ required from lithium and give much more stored power. Imagine a Psion with a couple of them in there...

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Boffin

A4 Paperbacks

Bloody hell you guys have big paperbacks

Surely an A5 paperback novel (or DVD case for the less literate among you) size device with a good % of that as display would be good enough?

I get your point about A4 being a great size- or rather A3 as the magazines open up two pages- but it's just not practical to carry about with you everywhere you go. In fact it sounds a lot like that ill-fated Tablet PC thing Gates was banging on about a few years ago.

I guess that until we get retinal inserts (or at the very least semitransparent displays that don't make you look like a fool/Borg) we'll never have a decent screen size on mobile devices.

Actually, as a last thought before I submit this, what about one of those microprojector dealies some researcher or other came up with a while back- mount one of those on your phone, stick your phone in a chest-holster and just hold up a white piece of paper to project onto. With some even better software the phone's camera could track the piece of paper and deform the image appropriately- rotating it, bending it around pages where possible, etc. Use two projectors and you could even have a decent page-turning effect. Hell, with two projectors with different polarisations and the appropriate eyewear you could have the news literally jumping out of the page towards you!

*Codes and solders vigorously*

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@By Anonymous Hero

It was designed by Asus not the people you so lovingly call "freetards"

"Give 'regular' users a bit more credit regarding their intelligence and tastes in UI."

Like you? Seriously... I worked with regular users... Most panic when their mail icon changes from

location A to location B(even if that is just the right next position on the left(yes I have been called out for such reasons a few times))

I'll assume you are not a regular user and that your father actually likes using his brain

to discover new things and doesn't just give up at the first sign of trouble(my mom is the same

but she is using a gnu+linux box at home) She can do everything and more that she could do

before on windows. And seriously has no issues.

In the end it's all up to the end user. My aunt is somewhat technofobic so she has trouble using even the simplest cell phone(no extra crap.. just calls and SMS) but she did slowly learn how to use it

in the end(she still has probs now and then). So you see it depends on people.

"anything better in Gnome/KDE space (look at all the OSX/XP look alikes/wannabe's). God forbid they're let loose customising 'simpler' interfaces for the eee."

I won't even comment on the GNOME/KDE crap it's not worth the time(since I actually agree with you on that)

But for example look at enlightenment e17 it's a lot different to regular GUIs look wise. That's what you can get from the so called "freetards" but I would have a hard time calling anyone on the enlightenment team any type of 'tard.

The OSX/XP look-alikes I tend to hate since they just bring back the same crap.

Btw did you look at the ubuntu mobile edition? It actually has an interesting UI design... Simple yet

complex. That's the type of UI I'd like to see more on mobile devices.

Anyway hope this brings some light into your obviously boring life...

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Linux

@ Dirk Vandenheuvel

By spegru:

""Linux is not an option since most of them have a Vista or XP machine...."

Wha? The standard Xandros Linux build in the eee is perfectly up to any office task I can think of. Networking between linux eeepc and windows also works fine"

+1

And +1 for Xubuntu which I now have on my eee

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Boffin

How about a keyboard on your phone?

"One alternative is to move the screen closer to the user's eye. All you have to worry about then is continually bumping into things and small children mocking the fact that you look like the Borg - surely a small price to pay."

Correct. Video glasses are the only reasonable alternative if you want a phone sized computing device. And then only if you don't want to actually enter any text.

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price?

But these smaller PCs aren't yet as cheap as they should be

If you can get a basic Dell Vostro with a screen twice as big, more hardware on board, a bigger power supply and some version of Windows included, what are the expensive components ...

If you can get 2 GB of memory for not much more than a beer ...

How come the newest eee PC is over £300?

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Stop

Displays and keyboards

While A4-sized displays are nice for reading, you won't see these in mobile devices very soon. A magazine or newspaper is thin and flexible and you can just stuff it into your bag, no matter what happens to it there (you'll throw it away rather sooner than later anyway). Totally different thing, this.

What I'd like to have: A paperback sized device with a 9" touchscreen, about 10-20mm thick. With a decent screen resolution, which is *not* used to squeeze more tiny icons and more tiny text on it, but to display a good-looking, well done user interface. Think of a scaled up iPod touch (and I don't care if it runs OS-X or Linux under it). This should be possible *today*, even with the technology that an Eee PC already has. That Asus and others instead move their products more and more back into the notebook category is plainly ironic. Keyboards and touchpads are so 20th century -- a good touchscreen with a well-done virtual keyboard and GUI does away with most of the weaknesses of such a small device.

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Tom
Boffin

I'm not afraid of Bill Ray

I think the fundamental thing here is that computing power has progressed to the point where fundamental questions are being asked about what we actually want to *do* with all these chips.

Symbian and XP are at two ends of the scale with computers: Symbian does alot with a little. XP does alot with alot. Faster, lower power chips are closing the gap between them.

None of which answers the real question everyone is asking: Why is the new EEE so expensive, and where did they lose their way?

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W

A5 paperback is good and £300+ for EEE is too much...

A5 diagonal = 257mm (=1.8357 Linguine)

8.9inches = 226mm (=1.6143 Linguine)

And so I patiently await the sub £200 ^H^H^H^H £220 Acer Aspire One with tailor-made simple Linux variant for day to day but easily switched to PC desktop mode for when any tinkering is required.

Review as-soon-as please El Reg.

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@uhuznaa

Believe me. Virtual keyboards are the pits. I have to put up with them on my Palm T|X. The big problem with virtual keyboards is that most of us are used to typing on the horizontal and reading against the vertical and receiving tactile feedback to acknowledge our actions and correct those near-misses. With virtual keyboards, you get no tactile feedback and (unless you use a projected keyboard) have to type on the same plane as the screen--very slow and uncomfortable.

I think one of the reasons screen sizes aren't too big is power consumption. Driving a larger screen inevitably requires more power to alter the LCD as well as more power on the graphics chip to render the higher resolution--especially since LCDs are not a persistent-display technology. This may change in future with further development of "e-ink" persistent displays (which are also being developed to be deformable--maybe not foldable but would you take rollable?).

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Happy

Lightweight Cheap computers (small if you want)

What people really want is a usable lightweight (sub-kg) computer that doesn't cost a packet, and is cheap enough to be covered on one's household £500 all-risks insurance. The Eee 901 screen is big enough to use on the go, the keyboard just about big enough to type on. (Some will prefer the 10 inch model when it ships and I'm sure someone will be working on 11in or 12in ones).

With an Eee at home or work just plug a proper big monitor into the VGA port and a proper keyboard and mouse into the USB. Buy a USB DVD burner if you need it often, borrow one or share one around the office if you don't. It's the ultimate thin client!

I'm operating-system agnostic. A friend has a somewhat-upgraded Eee 900, with 2Gb RAM and 20Gb solid-state disk. It runs Linux native and XP in a VMware VM, simultaneously, and acceptably fast. Heaven!

Poor Microsoft. One thing it'll never do is run Vista. (Quicker to boot Linux, VMware and XP-VM on his Eee, than to boot Vista natively on a top-of-the-range Toshiba laptop).

BTW for a system that allows users near-unlimited choice of apps, a chip with virtual memory management is essential. ARM doesn't have it. So however good it is for phones and suchlike, it'll never break into the general-purpose small computer market.

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Dead Vulture

@Anonymous "Hero"

Bear in mind that most people think of Windows XP being any good is because their other points of reference are Windows 95/NT (or God forbid, Windows 3.1), which is a bit like saying herpes is good because it is a vast improvement over having syphilis.

I use Windows XP on my work laptop, which when docked is useable(-ish) at 1280 x 1024 resolution on a 21" screen. Undocked, in widescreen 1280 x 800, is just a lesson in frustration (and it's not just the number of pixels, but the physical size of the screen).

If you think that the UI experience of Windows XP will scale pleasantly to a 9" screen (or less), then you are smoking crack.

... and if you are'nt going for the Windows XP UI experience, why on earth should the operating system underneath matter at all?

... unless you are a manufacturer trying to integrate and optimise said operating system onto your hardware for maximum battery life and performance, at which point it really is much more convenient to have the source code*.

The above is presumably why the Intel MID platforms (running on Atom) have so far had wierd and wonderful UIs, with linux underneath.

* Bear in mind these will be price conscious devices: having access to (and the ability to change) the source code of the software the system you are designing means you can optimise it to run on your hardware... and then you can optimise that for performance, power consumption and cost. This is the opposite of what happens on the desktop- where hardware is designed in order to have the resources to run a "one size fits all" OS that is largely ignorant of the specific hardware features it is running on.

Dead Vulture: because that's what Windows XP experience will be like if it ever gets compared to a UI and OS actually designed for these form factors...

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Alert

to Nigel

You said:

BTW for a system that allows users near-unlimited choice of apps, a chip with virtual memory management is essential. ARM doesn't have it. So however good it is for phones and suchlike, it'll never break into the general-purpose small computer market.

Uh... ARM has had virtual memory management since ARM1/MEMC1 days. ARM has *always* had a memory management unit. The only ARMs that don't have one are the ones that have had it taken out (for example, the tiny ARM7s that control toasters, or the ARM946 in a Nintendo DS).

ARMv6 (ie., ARM1136 and all those processors now going into cellphones and N810s and such) and later even have physically tagged cache, so they don't waste memory bandwidth running OSes that map all applications to the same address (like Linux, for example.)

So, uh, you're completely wrong mate. Sorry.

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It's the next generation of Atom that will really compete with ARM

Atom uses ten times the power of ARM today, but in about two years time they will be in the same range for power and performance. I just gave a talk at Usenix on the future of pocket computing, you can track the details in my blog at http://www.millicomputing.com and the slide deck is at http://www.slideshare.net/adrianco/millicomputing-usenix-2008

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@Pete

"Absolutely no prospect of seeing any textual information. You can just, possibly, get by with a PDA - but the fuss of scrolling side-to-side and up-and-down rapidly turns into a chore."

I'll tell you a secret. You don't HAVE to read ebooks or magazines in a fixed format such as PDF. Many formats lay out quite handily on a small screen, so you only need to scroll down (and rarely up) except for pictures - which are rare in things like novels. The number of words per line is close to what you find in the average newspaper.

My PDA is a cheap model, screen roughly 5cm x 5cm. I can read a screenful of text (around a hundred words) quite comfortably and page down, reading at a speed comparable to a paperback. Except the PDA fits over a dozen novels into an item smaller than my wallet.

It's unlikely that I'll ever buy something like the Eee PC, simply because there's no way it will fit comfortably in my pocket. Paperback size is just too big to carry around when you want to keep your hands free. It's the same core reason why the iPod was such a success: small enough to fit in your pocket, large enough to be useful.

...Ronny

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