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ARM has legs

Laptop 'Revolutionary times' might be an over-used expression, but as far as personal mobile computing goes, it's not far off the mark.

Since the early 80s, the personal computer, the PC, has been the dominant example of how we've interacted with computers. Now we have phones that are smart enough to browse the web and do our daily sums, and small enough to slip in the pocket. ‘Always-on' is the buzzword, meaning they're ready for calls and communication, even when sleeping and not in use.

Meanwhile, set apart from mobile phones, we've seen an evolution of laptop technology, with netbooks rising to prominence in just 18 short months. They fulfill the need for a bigger-than-phone screen and a touch-typable keyboard. Plus they're relatively cheap when set against full-size models.

Soon, many more portable computers will be able to boast ‘all-day' computing, at the very least.

Meeting today with ARM's director of mobile computing, Bob Morris, PC Advisor was given some insight into a new convergence between these two categories of devices. This is epitomised in the way that the ARM (Advanced RISC Machine, nee, Acorn RISC Machine) processor, practically ubiquitous on mobile phones, is now reaching up to power the next generation of netbooks.

The advantages are plain to see. Set against the relatively hot and hungry x86-style CPU - and all the associated controllers and graphics processors - seen in today's version of the IBM PC, a typical ARM processor solution is very efficient. Cool-running with great fuel economy, that's part of the reason why a traditional laptop's battery life is measured in hours, while a mobile phone's is in days.

Look out for ARM-powered products around the end of this year. We were shown a Pegatron-branded netbook, superficially little different to the 10in MSI Winds and the Eee PCs doing the rounds right now; but this one is powered by an ARM-based Freescale processor. With but 2-cells to its battery, it still promises 8 hours of battery life.

And most remarkably, it's using the same ARM Cortex A-8 processor platform as the new Palm Pre smartphone.

Pegatron Palm Pre

Pegatron netbook and Palm Pre: both fully-ARMed

With Intel looking to Linux for its Moblin operating system solution for portable device, the Wintel alliance between Microsoft and Intel - which has long had the stranglehold on personal computing - is showing signs of weakening.

Of course Windows XP/Vista/7 will not run on an ARM processor, so this next generation of devices will see some interesting, not to say overdue, diversification in user interfaces. At the core of many if not most devices will be Linux, skinned with something a bit more approachable than a geeky command-line interface. Maybe even more user-friendly than the current ‘best fit' of Ubuntu Linux that we saw on the Pegatron.

While Ubuntu is a reasonable clone of the Windows desktop paradigm, in order to make personal computing a truly easy ride for all generations of the family, we should see some interesting graphical interfaces appear on new ARM/Linux mobile internet devices.

And rumours abound about a maybe-forthcoming Apple netbook, maybe to be seen later this year too. Chances are it will be a 9-10in screen tablet, with a touchscreen-only interface, and quite possibly - like the iPhone - based on ARM. If so this would be another reprise of the kind of core processor architecture, RISC, that Apple sidelined when it migrated Mac OS X from G4 and G5 PowerPC chips to Intel's x86 in 2002.

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