The Future of the Laptop According to Intel

By Rob Enderle  |  Posted 2004-02-24

The Future of the Laptop According to Intel

As I write this column from the Intel Developers Conference, I am connected wirelessly, making it easy to forget that most still have yet to experience what it is like to be connected to the network almost every place you go without the use of the modem.

At IDF, Intel showed not only the technical advances the company will be bringing to the laptop market over the next year but the industrial designs that are coming as well. This is one of the differences Wintel users have over the Apple folks: Wintel folks get to see what is coming and vote on potential designs; Apple folks have no such vote. Historically, though, Im not sure that this has been much of a benefit to the Wintel side because the creativity advantage has always been with the Apple folks.

I tend to be more interested in the industrial designs, and one of the more interesting ones was from Lenovo (the new name for Legend, the largest PC manufacturer in China). This has an elegant and creative hinge design—in other words, a clamshell tablet design. It also sports a lid-top display, which, much like a dual-display cell phone, showcases time-sensitive information such as incoming e-mails and instant messages.

An Intel design that was also showcased features the combination of smart card and fingerprint security (this combination is considered vastly more secure than one or the other because the fingerprint authenticates the smart card and smart cards can be left in machines, and fingerprints, once compromised, cant be easily replaced). This box, which comes with a 15.4-inch screen, has a built-in camera and array microphone, anticipating that the need to visually connect to remote employees will increase as will the capability that comes from the proliferation of wideband wired and wireless networks.

The final design showcased at the San Francisco show is targeted at the rapidly growing consumer mobile space. The design represents the natural evolution of the mobile Media Center PC. It boasts a 17-inch panoramic display and a removable wireless keyboard with integrated pointing device (using Bluetooth) and is tuned for high levels of graphics performance. It also has PVR capability built-in and complies with the Universal Plug and Play specification for connection to other household appliances. In addition, it has a built-in array microphone and camera for VoIP videoconferencing.

Next page: On the technology side ...

Page Two

On the technology side, the core messages at the show were more power and longer battery life. Toshiba showcased a new display technology that, at 14 inches, looked a little out of date, but this display uses about one-third less power and should show up in more forward-looking sizes within a few quarters.

Intel, meanwhile, once again promised that a new version of the Pentium M (Dothan) will be available in a few short months that will improve performance over the existing design. A few months after that the company will be increasing the front-side bus speed by a little more than 25 percent, to 533MHz, removing one of the existing system bottlenecks.

The company also confirmed that it is shipping the new Centrino bundle, which supports 802.11g (g is backward-compatible to 802.11b) and will be shipping an 802.11g/a part by the end of the year. The new "g" part uses 19 percent less power when actively transmitting and receiving and saves a whopping 67 percent when active and idle.

This will come together in the second half of this year with a number of additional integrated features. Hardware-based encryption takes the load off the processor, and it both increases performance and improves the value proposition for actually using encryption. The platform moves to eight USB ports and gains four PCI Express (ExpressCard) ports (not all systems will implement all of these due to real estate limitations but we will see more on most designs and ExpressCard opens the door to very high bandwidth accessories like graphics cards for laptops for in-office multidisplays). They will be supporting a much stronger audio standard called "Intel High Definition Audio."

By the way, ExpressCard technology will provide an interesting benefit for desktop computers as well because it should eliminate the need to open the case to upgrade a card. In other words, it can be implemented in a way that could easily make internal slots obsolete. Well cover this at length in a future column (as soon as I can run down pictures of these future systems).

I estimate that the total benefit should provide the rare combination of battery savings in the 10 percent to 20 percent range and performance increases, with some systems exceeding a 20 percent increase due to the elimination of the bottlenecks.

This is a powerful improvement, assuming everything arrives on time, and should make the fourth quarter a good time to look at buying that next laptop computer.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.

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