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.
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.
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?). To get a good idea of how slender an Ultrabook is, check out our review of Lenovo’s Yoga Ultrabook.
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.
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.
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), but ARM-powered Ubuntu devices won’t show up until 2014.
Image Credits: Laptop via MorgueFile