Freescale Tosses Its Hat in the Netbook Ring

Freescale Semiconductor has entered one of the few hot markets in this messed up economy, the netbook market, with the launch of the i.MX515 processor. In doing so, Freescale enters a field dominated by Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) that also includes VIA Technologies and nVidia.

Couldn’t it have picked an easier fight?

“The way we look at the netbook market is that obviously it’s a very new market, with big growth potential,” Ken Obuszewski, director of product marketing for the multimedia applications division at Freescale told

“Today it’s primarily an x86 market. What we really see going forward and want to bring to the market is advances ARM can bring in terms of lower cost and lower power to the platform,” he added.

Semiconductor analyst Dean McCarron of Mercury Research said Freescale has its eyes on quite a prize. “We have the makings of an interesting battle, because between PCs and phones is where those two markets collide in netbooks,” he said. “The key to all this will be the software and operating environment for these systems.”

Obuszewski sees the i.MX515 going into very low-cost netbooks, selling for under $200, that are somewhere between a PC and a smart phone in terms of use.

That would be a smart strategic move, as there has been a high return rate of netbooks primarily because customers have purchased them with the wrong expectations. They were expecting the functionality of a notebook and got significantly less.

Designed for Linux

Unlike Intel’s Atom, the i.MX515 is designed for Linux, not Windows XP. Canonical, developer of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, was a launch partner. “The i.MX515 processor’s onboard graphics and performance and power consumption characteristics make it a great platform to run Ubuntu,” said Chris Kenyon, director of OEM Services for Canonical in a statement.

“The limits on netbooks with Linux is people still view netbooks as a low-cost PC,” Obuszewski explained. “Our focus is on a better user experience than you would get on a smart phone for Internet access. We don’t believe the right position for the device is as a low-cost PC.”

The new 65nm i.MX515 CPU will be able to scale from 600MHz to 1GHz and will offer advanced power management features such as a hardware-based video acceleration through two graphics chips, as well as extended battery life and low thermals, so there is no need for fans or heat sinks.

Freescale is currently offering samples of the i.MX515 processor to tier-one netbook customers, with volume production expected in the second quarter of 2009. It hopes to see products in the retail channel by Christmas.

The netbook is the first of what Freescale hopes will be many markets for the chip. The company is looking to do derivatives for other markets later this year, such as the automobile market, for things like voice recognition and high performance graphics.

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