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Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu founder and closest real-life equivalent to Tony Stark, announced a new breed of laptop powered by two burgeoning fields of development: Linux and ARM CPUs. These two technologies appear destined to usher in a new age of mobile productivity, as foreshadowed by the Chromebook. Soon, low-cost laptops featuring a variety of Linux distributions, will begin populating markets. For example the very first 13.3-inch laptop got announced at the $100 price-point.

Linux and ARM chips make for ideal companions. Ubuntu, as a Linux-based operating system, comes with no associated costs (although Android pays royalties to Microsoft). ARM costs very little in comparison to Intel or AMD chips. Fused together, ARM-Linux laptops will offer top-tier battery life coupled with outrageously low prices. The transition from netbook to Chromebook, however, has been a long and difficult road.

From Netbook to Chromebook Back to the Laptop

Unlike the netbook, smartbookand sub-notebook failures of the late 2010s, Chromebooks succeeded because it delivered the performance and battery life that many casual users needed. It achieved this through using a low-overhead, slim operating system and low power components. Unfortunately, the ultra-minimal ChromeOS lacks the software libraries of complete operating systems. The reason for its slim library relates to the differences between ARM and x86.

ARM Compared to x86

The two most popular chipsets in today’s marketplaces are ARM-designed chips and Intel or AMD-designed chips (which use x86). The most salient difference between the two lies in their instruction set architectures. An instruction set, among other things, defines how chips interface with their respective operating systems. For example, the Windows operating system uses only x86 while Linux uses both x86 and ARM. Many of the most recent updates to Linux in fact place ARM on the same plane as x86. The recent modifications to the Linux kernel suggest that the future of the operating system will include low-cost, low-power laptop configurations.

This difference is more than cosmetic. The RISC-like instruction set used by ARM chips, in theory at least, provide for more efficient computation, whereas x86 instruction sets provide better performance. While crude, this comparison better explains why ARM chips inhabit the mobile consumer space, whereas Intel and AMD’s chips control the desktop market. Unfortunately, software isn’t interoperable. You cannot use programs compiled for ARM chips on x86 computers, and vice-versa. Even on Linux systems, which support x86 and ARM instruction sets, a program must be compiled for ARM to use on a computer with an ARM CPU. This is the reason Microsoft elected to build a separate operating system for ARM chips, known as Windows RT. It’s also the reason RT failed miserably.

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Advantages of ARM and Linux

ARM chips provide substantially better efficiency-per-watt at low voltages compared to x86 CPUs. The lower wattage requirements of ARM also allow fanless operation, which lowers the total weight of the laptop and further improves battery endurance. Linux on the other hand allows both x86 and ARM CPUs. As open source software, Linux also doesn’t come with an associated cost.

arm CPU maker

Low Cost

While Intel’s ground-breaking Bay Trail system-on-a-chip (SoC) made inroads into the ARM ecosphere, in terms of low-wattage performance and battery efficiency, it remains substantially more expensive. ARM chips sell for an unbelievably low cost, compared to x86 chips. Even Intel’s cheapest products appear overpriced relative to the chips rolling out of Shenzhen and Taiwan.

Additionally, Linux lacks licensing fees, meaning it’s free for manufacturers to add it to their hardware. Together, ARM and Linux can create extraordinarily low-cost devices.

Better Battery Life and Fanless Operation

ARM chips require very little wattage in comparison to Intel/AMD chips. For example, the Snapdragon 800 requires half the power of a laptop operating at the same frequency. Because of low power requirements of such chips, the thermal energy can dissipate without a fan. Fans generally consume a fair amount of energy and dispensing with them this translates into substantially longer battery life.

Lighter Weight and Form Factor

Because of the lower wattage requirements of ARM chips (and also Intel’s Bay Trail design), laptops that use the technology require less internal cooling infrastructure. No fans or large heat sinks allow for a slimmer profile, even relative to Intel’s Ultrabooks (what’s an Ultrabook? What Is An Ultrabook & Can It Succeed? [Technology Explained] What Is An Ultrabook & Can It Succeed? [Technology Explained] Remember when the word laptop described virtually every mobile computer on the market? The choices were certainly easier back then (because there was simply less choice available), but today there’s a far wider variety including... Read More ). To get a good idea of how slender an Ultrabook is, check out our review of Lenovo’s Yoga Ultrabook Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 Ultrabook Review & Giveaway Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 Ultrabook Review & Giveaway The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga is a laptop/tablet hybrid with a flexible screen which can be rotated 360 degrees, turning this seemingly regular-looking Ultrabook into a tablet. Don’t be confused by its appearance, though, this 13.3-inch... Read More .

Disadvantages of ARM

Although offering low cost, tiny form factors and longer battery life, mobile chipsets and Linux come with two major disadvantages: They’re relatively weak and come with much smaller software libraries than x86 processors.

Low Processing Power

Compared to Intel or AMD, chips from manufactures such as Qualcomm lack the raw processing power. Even when they offer the same frequencies, their performance isn’t totally comparable as Intel chips feel snappier and offer better performance on benchmarks. However, Intel’s mobile-optimized Bay Trail has been benchmarked on par with the Snapdragon 800. In general, there’s a direct relationship between the amount of power a CPU draws and its raw performance.

arm chip

Smaller Software Library

Linux combined with ARM chips also offer a very limited software library. As many Chromebook/Ubuntu users discovered, unless a program supports ARM, it won’t work on an ARM chipset. This means that many of the applications available in the Ubuntu software library won’t work, unless it was recompiled to work with ARM.

ubuntu

Conclusion

After years of failure and crushing defeats for ARM-powered Linux machines, 2014 will finally bring about an entirely new kind of laptop — one that combines low-cost and low-energy consumption with an entirely (or mostly) open source operating system. The final products will provide long battery life and dirt-cheap pricing. You can already get Ubuntu laptops (check out our review of the System76 Gazelle System76 Gazelle Professional Laptop Review & Giveaway System76 Gazelle Professional Laptop Review & Giveaway As an avid user of Linux, I’ve been very interested in laptops specifically built to operate Linux, as my own laptop had a few minor issues that were never resolved. This high interest led us... Read More ), but ARM-powered Ubuntu devices won’t show up until 2014.

Image Credits: Laptop via MorgueFile

  1. Guy M
    January 2, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    If I buy an older, used, laptop and put Puppy Linux or something similar on it, I've got a laptop I can do 80-90% of the things I do on my Win 7 laptop. Just a thought.

    Personally, I think the Chromebook makes an excellent 2nd-screen device, or as Vaibhav says, a device that I can take with me to do simple things while travelling and not risking my main laptop. So a similar ARM laptop would have a similar market, I would think.

  2. dragonmouth
    January 1, 2014 at 12:37 am

    We've had a $100 laptop since 2005 - the OLPC.

  3. dragonmouth
    December 31, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    We have had a $100 laptop since 2005 - the OLPC.

    • Kannon Y
      January 1, 2014 at 4:35 pm

      DM, you have a OLPC? With the Pixel Qi screen?

      I hope you don't mind me asking, but what do you use it for? The underlying technology is really fascinating.

    • dragonmouth
      January 2, 2014 at 3:19 pm

      "DM, you have a OLPC? With the Pixel Qi screen?"
      Sorry to mislead you, Kannon, but I don't. All I meant was that the "age of a $100 laptop" has already been ushered in by Nicholas Negroponte in 2005, pre-dating both the Chromebook and Canonical's effort.

      Color me cynical but all this is just to give Canonical an entry into another market segment. At least the OLPCs were created to give the less fortunate access to computers and Internet.

  4. Vaibhav Jain
    December 31, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    This would be great....I can see its potential use while travelling..During commuting, you don't want your $1000 laptop falling on the floor or something..Regarding ARM in linux, I am already using Raspbery Pi with Raspbian on it and I am quite satisfied with the softwares present for the ARM architecture..If it comes out, I'll definitely buy it.

    • Daniel E
      January 1, 2014 at 6:20 am

      And, with a decent package manager, compilation will be practically invisible

  5. Hans K.
    December 30, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    "Linux combined with ARM chips also offer a very limited software library. As many Chromebook/Ubuntu users discovered, unless a program supports ARM, it won’t work on an ARM chipset. This means that many of the applications available in the Ubuntu software library won’t work, unless it was recompiled to work with ARM."

    Yes, but recompiling programs for ARM is (in general) VERY simple to do.

    People, you must realise that we are talking about linux here. Most of the time, you will be dealing with open source programs, so you can simply download the source code and build it just as you would on any other linux computer, ARM or otherwise.

  6. jasray
    December 30, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    Price range is a guess, but if Dell's new 11" 3000 (and a tweak to allow at least 4GB of memory) would sell without an operating system for around $250, I figure the company wouldn't be able to keep up with the demand.

    • Kannon Y
      December 31, 2013 at 4:45 am

      Nice! That would be a killer price. At $375, I feel they're asking a bit much for a Celeron and low RAM device. It's Chromebook specs at laptop pricing.

  7. Matt S
    December 30, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    I don't think it will happen in 2014, but I think a $100 laptop is just a matter of time. There's really no NEED for anything beyond a moderately capable ARM processor and a 12-inch 1366x768 display if you just want to browse the web and send emails. And I think there will continue to be a sizable number of people whose desires don't extend beyond that.

    From an industry standpoint, though, it may not matter. Dell can't get by selling $100 laptops to luddites. Most likely these will be sold using the Android/Chrome OS model, where the laptop is an access point to some larger ecosystem that makes decent money for the company.

    • Kannon Y
      December 31, 2013 at 5:19 am

      Good analysis. ChromeOS is infinitely better suited to the general public who don't really understand that the browser isn't the Internet/Google/Yahoo. From that perspective, all a device needs to run is a browser for it to meet their needs.

      An Ubuntu ARM laptop is definitely a niche product, for individuals who want to crunch code on the go, word process on a real word processor or perhaps want a complete system for various reasons.

      The $100 laptop is supposed to happen this year, but I imagine it will end up costing more like $200. The last times someone wanted to build a $100 laptop, it ended up costing quite a bit more.

      http://one.laptop.org/

  8. Tom S
    December 30, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    I think were are in the age where great and useful computers are becoming less expensive. I remember my first PC cost me an arm and a leg. Now, I do all my computing needs on a Chromebook.

  9. Joel L
    December 30, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    They're making the same mistake as Chromebook: only being able to support a specialized library of apps. I overlooked Chromebook because the variety of web apps weren't enough. If these laptops supported most Linux-capable apps, I'd be all over it. If I need to recompile everything for ARM, that's just too much hassle.

    Then again, if I could get one of these for $100 (skeptical about it like Matt is) and it supported web browsing, text editing, and some simple apps for e.g. FTP, I'd probably give it a try.

    • Kannon Y
      December 31, 2013 at 5:08 am

      Unfortunately recompiling x86 software for ARM appears to cause a large number of bugs. At least, that's what I've been reading regarding attempts to port LibreOffice into the ARM software library. I'm not sure if that's because of Java or what, but ARM for Linux is going to have a smaller software library than x86 for Linux. I would imagine this is particularly true for anything that requires 3D rendering.

      But, yeah, you're absolutely right. Linux has not had much luck penetrating consumer markets because of the issues with app availability. But in a relatively short time a lot of the apps available on Ubuntu x86 will also be available for ARM, mainly because it's a development priority.

  10. Matthew H
    December 30, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Consider me to be a sceptic. I imagine we will see ARM laptops a great deal more in the future, but I don't think they'll hit the $100 price point and still remain economically viable to produce.

    Or, they'll just be crap.

    • Kannon Y
      December 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      You have a point. There's a direct correlation between the cost of a laptop and its quality. But we've reached the point where ARM CPUs are "good enough" for most daily functions, and even some tasks that before fell into the domain of the workhorse computer.

      I kinda of dropped the ball on introducing this article with context. Prices on screens and chips have been coming down. Many of the Chinese/Taiwanese CPUs are quite good and ridiculously inexpensive. But they've lacked Linux support. That's changing as we speak.

      Mark Shuttleworth announced Ubuntu on a much wider range of devices, not just ARM laptops. Why is this important?

      We're slowly entering the age of embedded Linux on consumer laptops. So imagine a kernel that's been recompiled to work specifically on just one kind of hardware along with custom-built bootloaders, schedulers and governors. In terms of performance, we should see dramatic improvements in Linux performance. The sort of performance that we've seen on Chromebooks is coming to Ubuntu/Debian (etc), but without the overhead. I think Windows and Intel chips run up prices by about $100-200 per unit.

      If the lowest end Celeron 847 machine costs around $300, an ARM machine could come in costing around $100-200. It could displace the low-end for many laptop manufacturers.

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