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The notebook vs. tablet battle enters a new phase

by Scott Bicheno on 4 January 2011, 18:07


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Not so fast

There's no question that a new form factor trumps a new component in terms of excitement, but the latest CPU architectures unveiled by Intel and AMD in the past couple of days are commercially far more significant than any shiny new tablet.

Our first impressions of AMD's Fusion APUs and Intel's Sandy Bridge generation of CPUs with integrated graphics is that they'll revolutionise mainstream computing by making acceptable performance available for less money, in smaller form-factors and with longer battery life.

This decade is unquestionably all about mobility in technology. At one end we have notebooks, dominated by Intel and AMD's x86 processors and Microsoft and Apple's OSs. At the other end we have smartphones, currently owned by the ARM ecosystem of SoCs and with a much more heterogeneous OS environment, currently led by Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

But the two extremes have been gravitating towards each other for some time. In 2008/9 the hot form-factor was netbooks, enabled by Intel's lowest power PC processor yet - Atom. Then last year Apple brought the smartphone fight to PCs with the launch of the iPad, which used a smartphone chip, OS and UI, but in a ten inch screen.

All the early buzz around this year's CES is around tablets, and with good reason as this is where a lot of the innovation and growth is happening. But Fusion and Sandy Bridge are no less innovative; it's just that they will be used in form-factors that have been around for years.

That's not entirely true, however. The lowest-power Fusion APUs - codenamed Ontario - operates at a power level of 9W. This is not much more than Intel's Atom and half the power of the lowest voltage Sandy Bridge variants. With a lot more computing power than Atom, AMD has the opportunity to redefine the ‘thin-and-light' category, which could be considered the PC industry's best answer to the tablet.

Meanwhile Sandy Bridge and the more powerful AMD APUs will ensure the £500 notebook you buy this year will give you the performance and battery life you would have had to pay hundreds of pounds more for just a couple of years ago. We understand the integrated video transcoding capabilities of Sandy Bridge alone make it worth considering.

We're as excited about tablets as anyone, and sincerely hope that market ends up being as competitive as smartphones already are. But to put the tablet market into perspective, let's have a look at some ballpark estimates for volumes of the various mobile computing products expected to sell this year.


Device category Estimated 2011 sales
E-readers 11m
Netbooks 38m
Tablets 50m
Smartphones 160m
Notebooks 250m


As you can see, tablets will probably constitute around a tenth of all mobile computing devices sold this year. While this is enormously disruptive given that market share was effectively zero a year ago, and is clearly a bigger phenomenon than netbooks ever were, there's still 90 percent of a rapidly growing mobile device market to play for.


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