Notebooks' next phase

Notebooks' next phase

The talk of Intel's Developers Forum being held this week will no doubt revolve around the chipmaker's soon to be released chipset code-named Banias. Although it remains unknown exactly how much the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer intends to reveal about the long-awaited technology, one thing is for certain: it stands to raise some interesting questions about the future of mobile computing.

For a start, it's said to be a brand new architecture completely developed from the ground up to address the central problems facing mobile processing. Namely, the amount of power needed by a notebook's central processing unit (CPU) and the subsequent heat this generates. Power consumption also has an inverse relationship with battery life in that the more power used, the less mobile time users have from the battery.

To date, reports on Intel's Banias chipset have been conflicting and Intel has been keeping mum about what's been made available in terms of specifications, clock speeds and architecture. However, the manufacturer has revealed the chipset will run at a slower clock speed and therefore will require less power and generate less heat, yet at the same time it will match the performance of its current flagship mobile Pentium 4 processors.

According to industry sources, it is assumed that the first Banias chip will have a clock speed of 1.4GHz but have the processing equivalence of Intel's 2.2GHz P4.

It's a significant step for Intel, considering the company has spent years convincing the market that clock speed is the defining factor of a processor's performance. Now the biggest challenge will be selling to the world the concept that more megahertz doesn't necessarily mean more power.

Laurie White, Toshiba's product marketing manager, information systems division, doesn't see this as being a major stumbling block. He argues that Intel might not face such a big challenge after all, as Banias will be targeted at SME companies and corporate users, which are traditionally more educated than the majority of retail customers.

"It's actually extremely easy for Intel because they aren't targeting home users," he says.

As for rival chipmaker AMD, the company is touting Intel's reversal as a vindication of its long-held beliefs. "We fully support the statement that megahertz isn't the telling benchmark of a chip's performance," says John Robinson, managing director of AMD Australia/NZ.

To use a motoring analogy, clock speed is equated to revolutions per minute, and just because a car engine might rev at 8,000 RPMs doesn't necessarily mean it's more powerful than an engine revving at 5,000 RPMs.

"Unfortunately there is the perception that clock speed is the be-all and end-all," says Robinson.

Instead, performance is relative to the amount of work done during each cycle plus the cycle speed. But it's not an easy metric to agree on, according to most industry pundits, as there are too many vested interests by manufacturers to come up with an industry standard and easily recognisable benchmark.

AMD's roadmap will see the chipmaker move to 64-bit technology in the first half of next year. Initially for desktops, Robinson claims AMD will have notebook versions of its Claw Hammer 64-bit processors by the end of the first quarter or the beginning of the second quarter next year.

The 64-bit technology will be "fully backward compatible" for 32-bit applications and, according to Robinson, priced as competitively as AMD's seventh-generation Athlon and Duron processors are today.

Heat is possibly the largest stumbling block when it comes to building gruntier processors for mobile computers. As a general rule, processors have become 33 per cent hotter in the past three years. It comes from the amount of power needed to run the CPU, which is rising on average 10 watts per year.

While Hitachi showcased a water-cooled notebook in Tokyo earlier this year, White claims a number of manufacturers are considering a range of cooling possibilities including refrigeration systems. Toshiba uses a thermal supercomputer to predict and measure the temperature and airflow to every square millimetre of a new notebook's specifications prior to its design.

"Rather than the look of a notebook being determined by designers, it's determined by the thermal computer," says White.

"When I work in a 40-storey building in Tokyo for a week every month, we spend more time speaking to our refrigeration guys or our fuel cell guys than we do to our computer guys."

Like heat, power management is an area where many manufacturers are trying to differentiate themselves. David Nicol, ThinkPad brand manager for IBM Australia/NZ, says Big Blue has developed technology that allows users to establish intelligent profiles based on how they generally use their notebooks.

In-built "speed steps" govern the amount of power used by certain components at any one time. If a user is connecting from their dial-up modem at home, the established profile will then disable the wireless interface card in order to conserve power.

"If you manage power correctly then it will give you longer battery life," he says.

Also driving the development of next-generation chipsets, including Banias, is the integration of more functionality directly into the CPU. Connectivity has become somewhat of a mantra for mobile computing and the integration of wireless functionality in Banias means the less number of discrete chips needed in notebooks and the less heat generated overall.

With the integration of Compaq's mobile computing division in full swing, Hewlett-Packard will be refreshing its notebook product line in the second quarter of next year.

The move will follow the release of Intel's Banias chipset. Silvia Vasas, market development manager for commercial notebooks at post-merger HP, says the integration of wireless connectivity directly into the chipset will be a big factor in the next generation of notebooks.

"Naturally with integrated wireless people will become more used to mobility," says Vasas. "Wireless is synonymous with mobility; the two drive each other."

She claims that the combination of new technologies such as Banias with people's increased familiarity and dependence on mobile computing will drive the "continual evolution" of new form factors and hybrid machines.

And there's no shortage of hybrid machines on the horizon. When Microsoft launches its Tablet PC operating system on November 7, four manufacturers will have models ready to go, while in Taiwan, Eclipse Computer Systems (ECS) has done the inevitable and coined the world's first "Desknote", a combination desktop and notebook computer.

The desknote is a low-cost notebook in that it's light, portable and can run most applications found on mobile computers. The only difference is that it doesn't have an internal battery or fuel cell. Instead it has to be plugged into mains or run on an external battery.

Most agree the concept is a good one in that roughly 80 per cent of the notebooks sold are used primarily as desktop replacements with users taking them from home to the office or vice versa and plugging them into a wall socket anyway.

As mobile computing becomes more pervasive, so too does the way in which these machines are used. Toshiba's Laurie White says the next generation of mobile computers bodes well for resellers as it allows them to address previously untapped customer markets.

One of the biggest markets will be not in the corporate space at all, claims White, but from empowering employees such as mobile field staff.

"For resellers it gives them the opportunity to talk to field service people like truck drivers and delivery drivers. Typically these [people] have been limited to proprietary devices. Resellers today tend to focus on the office space, whereas [mobile computers], like Tablet PCs, take it to the next level."

White's vision is one of "re-tasking" field staff to become not only delivery agents but also mobile sales staff that can process additional orders, check invoices and track an order's status with wireless connectivity back to head office, all from a customer's premises.

"Some people think of converging technologies as converging products. I think of converging technologies as diverging products as there are going to be all these different form factors out there, all being able to connect with each other," says White.

HP's Silvia Vasas agrees. One such application specific to the tablet PC, says Vasas, is the replacement of paper-based charts at the foot of hospital beds. Instead, the idea is for doctors to walk from patient to patient updating status checks instantly via a wireless local area network (WLAN).

For the channel, the next generation of mobile computing signals a significant opportunity to target new customer bases. But Vasas believes resellers will also have to adapt and change in line with technology developments.

"The channel has to do more than just pass on the product to the customer. [Resellers] have to provide an additional value along with the product that is recognisable by both the customer and the vendor," says Vasas.

This additional value can come in the form of developing applications for particular customer sets based on certain mobile computing platforms or identify and acquire certain skill sets needed to differentiate their offerings from other resellers.

One reseller eagerly awaiting the Banias initiative is Neil Hancock, managing director of Portacom. His company is possibly Western Australia's largest and longest-serving independent mobile computing reseller.

The future of mobile computing is a topic Hancock is also well qualified to discuss. A few years ago, he along with a couple of other Australians were instrumental in putting a small touch pad into an existing notebook chassis as a mouse replacement.

The idea received a lot of interest at Comdex and other roadshows in the US and Asia before becoming commercialised. They are now used by just about every manufacturer of notebooks in the world.

Hancock claims the Banias chipset should address one of the most prevalent and damaging issues currently facing the notebook market; namely the use of desktop chipsets in notebook machines.

Toshiba drew the ire of the US Supreme Court for the practice but it's a well-known occurrence that Hancock claims certainly isn't limited to Toshiba or the US.

The practice of putting desktop Intel P4s into a mobile computer is a reliability nightmare, according to Hancock. A notebook cannot disperse the additional heat generated by a chip designed for larger fans used in desktops. Once the chipset reaches a certain temperature, the performance can drop by as much as half, not to mention the additional drain on battery life and the chip's life expectancy.

Hancock says there is a lot of deception in the market regarding this practice, with customers unaware of what they're buying. "Most manufacturers have P4s in notebooks in Australia," says Hancock. "We're just waiting for problems."

Poor reliability, combined with the fact that warranties have dropped over the past few years from a standard three years to one year, is a major stumbling block for the future of mobile computing.

"Manufacturers say they might have a failure rate of 1 or 2 per cent. I can tell you the failure rate is more like 25 per cent.

"That's not just the way they're designed, it's the way these things are used. I mean, once you start walking with your notebook the componentry is subject to an electrical charge from static."

What's more, Hancock has reason to believe that a number of manufacturers have struck third-party manufacturing agreements with companies outside Japan instead of their own manufacturing facilities. He says this has led to a "major drop in quality" and a noticeable increase in notebook failure rates.

Meanwhile, the performance of notebooks has settled down across most vendors, according to Hancock, with mobile PIII CPUs fairly comparable with P4 CPUs. What concerns him is the use of "big numbers" in specifications describing screen resolution and clock speeds to confuse customers into thinking certain models are better than others, when often a less expensive model would suit their needs more appropriately.

As a result, Hancock notes the trend that larger component-laden mobile computers are being purchased by first-time notebook buyers, while ultra-light models are tending to be purchased by existing and previous notebook owners who recogise what features they want in a notebook and those they don't need.

From a retail standpoint, Guy Richards, owner and manager of Laptop Land Australia, says in the small office and consumer market the processor is not driving the purchasing decision. Instead, it's a combination of features and price.

"I think the purchasing decision differs largely for large corporates and small office, home office customers," says Richards. "Components like DVDs and the number of ports a notebook has drive sales for the majority of small businesses. They usually don't need a large processor.

"Generally for us that's the differentiator."

Intel cooks up chip fest

Intel will reveal details of its forthcoming mobile Banias and 3.0GHz Pentium 4 processors and will tout plans for sophisticated communications devices at its semi-annual Developer Forum conference, which begins September 9 in San Jose, California.

The architecture of the Banias chip, scheduled for release in the first half of next year, will be revealed this week during keynotes from Paul Otellini, president and COO of Santa Clara, California-based Intel, and Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobile platforms group, on Monday, September 9, and Tuesday, September 10, respectively.

"Banias is the first time we've developed an architecture from the ground up," says Frank Spindler, vice president of the Intel corporate technology group.

Ron Smith, senior vice president and general manager of the wireless communications and computing group, will discuss new the capabilities of its XScale processors, which are based on a core from ARM. The XScale was introduced in February and is found in products such as Hewlett-Packard's iPaq PDA.

The convergence of communications and computing will be the focus of Wednesday's events.

Computers and communications devices such as cell phones are converging, Intel officials stressed. "Those are becoming more indistinguishable," Intel's Spindler says.

"Increasingly, the technologies that are appropriate for one industry are moving to the other industry," adds Anthony Ambrose, director of the Intel communications group.

Mike Fister, senior vice president and general manager of the enterprise platform group, and Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel communications group, will address the crowd at the conference on ways to access information stored on corporate networks and the Internet using new technology.

The last day of the show will consist of a keynote from Patrick Gelsinger, vice president and chief technology officer of the corporate technology group, and Sunlin Chou, senior vice president and general manager of the technology and manufacturing group.

Gelsinger and Chou will discuss the future of Moore's Law, the law developed by Intel's co-founder Gordon Moore that states the number of transistors on a chip will double every couple of years. Sunlin also plans to discuss Intel's 90-nanometre process technology.

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