Ultrabooks: Thin Is In

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You may not know it yet, but notebooks will be going through a revolution in the next 12 months. A new class of mobile PC will emerge: thin, light, style-focused and high-performing.

A women measuring her waistline

We've been concerned about our waistline for years and now it seems we also want thinner notebooks.

Fuelled by advancements and competitive innovation from both AMD and Intel, notebooks have ramped up in performance and specifications, but with the exception of a few, haven’t really shed their traditional notebook dimensions or basic characteristics such as boot up time and battery life. At the same time, tablets have become a mainstream product that can replace a notebook for some tasks.

The Ultrabook range, coined by Intel, addresses some of these issues affecting the notebook market. Although netbooks were the more mobile and lighter version of its notebook sibling, they are limited to a smaller screen and fitted to more basic PC tasks. Ultrabooks are designed to deliver the full PC experience, with the core propositions of “thin” and “light” manifesting themselves in stylish, eye-catching designs.

Ultrabooks will be the portable PC you want to use, and be seen using. The casual look-at-me email or Facebook check at a café will never have been more popular once these machines start making their way into the market.

There’s no doubt that notebooks are the best value they’ve ever been, and from a “bang for buck” perspective there’s never been a better time to upgrade if you feel the need to. But with longer battery times, an “always on” state similar to tablets, and a burning desire to reveal your sleek Ultrabook at every opportunity, you may find the attraction too hard to resist.

Intel are predicting that Ultrabooks will make up 40% of the consumer notebook market by the end of next year, with each successive Intel chip development driving even greater performance. The first range, due out in October, will make use of a low-voltage variant of the Sandy Bridge processor.

Acer will be the first PC manufacturer to reveal their Ultrabook lineup in Australia later this week, and we’ll be there to take a close look at their offering.

The revolution starts now.

Cloud Connected

Last year, I nominated cloud computing as an important topic to monitor, as I can see it becoming more and more relevant to the way we use our online devices. The events over the last couple of weeks have highlighted some of the issues relating to security and possibly consumer confidence.

At a recent Samsung showcase, they presented a monitor that had no hard drive or processor – just a direct wireless network connection. Using the supplied keyboard and mouse, the monitor was linked directly to a server which fed the screen all the tools you’d normally expect on a local hard drive-based computer – operating system, applications, ability to save and edit documents. However, none of the work was saved locally – it was all stored on the cloud. You can imagine how easy it would be for, say, a customer service department to be fitted out with such a setup – one central server to maintain, and as many thin, or ultra-thin, clients as required. The efficiencies and cost savings could be huge, and reinvested into staff and other areas of the business.

When Google announced the first Chrome-based netbooks recently, its pitch was not to the typical end user. In fact, the business model for Chrome is more about subscription-based services for enterprise-level customers than mums and dads, and similar to the scenario above, provides an “always-on” and “always up-to-date” computing solution. Anti-virus, software upgrades, new applications – no downtime to load these onto each notebook. The next time the notebook is used, it has all the latest updates because its cloud connection does.

So how quickly will end users gravitate towards the cloud? Well, in many ways we are there already. Facebook and Gmail are just two examples of serious amounts of information being held somewhere, in some server in the world, and easily accessed through the internet. But who has a copy of their entire Facebook activity archived on their computer? If there was a serious security breach that affected either access or the information stored, there would be a global uproar.

Of course, as we all know, millions of people woke up a couple of weeks ago to just that situation, with the Playstation Network security breach affecting anyone that used Sony’s online gaming services. It was the largest and most serious mainstream online break-in so far, and it may dampen consumer confidence to put their trust in the cloud.

Cloud computing for corporations is a solid proposition, because the company is in control of the entire ecosystem, from servers to software to the roaming hardware. They may even outsource some of these components but it is still very much a closed system, and therefore more protected.

I think cloud computing for consumers will be a slower burn. The mentality shift from local storage and access to being reliant on internet access for the majority of tasks that historically wouldn’t require online presence is already happening now. One of the biggest hurdles to gaining mainstream acceptance will be security and stability. We want easy and fast access to our documents, but expect them not to be hacked into. Having a choice of cloud providers based on speed and security could become a new commercially viable industry.

For consumers to have the same experience on the cloud as they would on a traditional PC, network speed needs to be fast – real fast. This is where the NBN comes into play. These two technologies are developing and being produced in parallel, and by the time they both meet, cloud computing on a chosen secure network with speeds that the NBN can deliver will change the way we work and play.

In the meantime, the enterprise and commercial industry will continue to develop the cloud, and we as consumers will reap the benefits as their lessons are integrated into the next generation of cloud-based devices. I can’t wait to see and test the new products as they become available. I’ll keep you all in the loop – from my blog in the cloud.

Nikon D3100 Unboxing: DSLR for Dummies (Video Below)

In an earlier blog, I talked about the awesome abilities of DSLR cameras. However, just picking up a DSLR and taking good images won’t happen without a fair bit of practise and maybe even some lessons. Trial and error when using a new DSLR that has lots of settings, knobs and dials and be a little daunting, maybe even discouraging, especially if you’re not getting the results you were expecting.

DSLR manufacturers have cottoned onto this, and identified it as one reason would-be purchasers might stay away from upgrading their point and shoot. Let’s face it, on a compact camera the only real variables that you would use are flash/no flash, zoom and maybe a few other preset options. DSLR is a totally different story – it’s all about taking control of every possible aspect of a shot.

That’s why a product like the Nikon D3100 is cool – it really helps bridge the gap from being an enthusiastic photo snapper to a more considered and creative image composer. You may not understand what changing the aperture setting does, but the camera will help you decide in plain English what you want the picture to look like. Instead of random trial and error, it gives you a chance to truly experiment with settings to see how they affect the final image.

This is a great example of embedded technology bringing new people into the fold. Before the age of “firmware” and affordable digital cameras, SLR’s were a mystery understood by the chosen few. Now software on the camera itself can teach, guide and complement face-to-face lessons or advice. Innovations like this don’t make us lazier –on the contrary, they challenge us to strive for improvement, and there’s nothing like that “buzz” when you produce a picture with a wow factor.

An interesting phenomenon I have noticed is on Facebook album uploads – there are those that share their random party and social event pics, and then those that present, (with a fair amount of pride, I imagine), their crafted images from a day’s shoot. The positive comments that these images attract then spur the creation and sharing of more great images. Years ago it would have been harder to make your pic available to such a large audience, but your friends across the globe can now enjoy your creative output.

Here’s the video we produced for Bing Lee on the D3100 – enjoy!

Intel’s New Processors: Bridging the Gap

On Tuesday 18th January, Intel hosted a media and retailer launch in Sydney to demonstrate their new processor range, the second generation of the Core Processor Family, commonly known as Sandy Bridge. Special overseas guest and Intel evangelist Mooly Eden revealed to the audience how processor development is changing within Intel, delivering his presentation with humour and enthusiasm. It’s a fairly dry subject, but Mooly managed to steer clear of too many specs and statistics and focus on the practical benefits that he and Intel believes the new range will deliver.

Intel Sandy Bridge General Manager Philip Cronin

General Manager of Intel Australia/New Zealand Phillip Cronin opens the event.

As a retail technology buyer, it was a great opportunity to gain some insight into the company whose name adorns millions of notebooks and desktops worldwide, yet remains hidden deep inside those products. The physical Intel product can only be imagined as a concept; it is what the platform enables us to do as users, that has secured its success as a microprocessor manufacturer.

Intel Sandy Bridge Mooly Eden

Highly entertaining and passionate about processors & people: Vice President & General Manager PC Client Group, Mooly Eden.

On a global scale, some of the statistics Mooly quoted are mind-boggling. One million PCs are shipped everyday around the world. The new processors carry 1.16 Billion transistors on each chip. From a user perspective, there are 2 billion internet users around the world, 240 billion emails sent per day, 2 billion videos viewed daily, and 2.5 billion images uploaded to Facebook per month. These usage figures are the ones that have brought into focus Intel’s challenge – to meet the demands of how we interact with our PC on a daily basis, which is far removed from our behaviour only a few years ago.

Intel Sandy Bridge Brain and Human Brain

Mooly reminded us that today’s chips are not too far away from having the same number of connections as a human brain. The words “Sky” and "Net” were thrown around as well.

PCs have indeed shifted from being a desktop in a room that everyone shared, to being a completely personal device that is used to socialise and communicate online. As more educated consumers, we have all progressed from looking at and comparing specs before purchasing a PC, to now judging whether that product would enhance the experience of what we would normally use a computer for – in other words, seeking out the practical benefits rather than checking out what’s under the hood.

Intel Sandy Bridge Samsung Notebooks

One of Samsung's hot new models. Also, there is a notebook in this picture.

At this launch, the issue of content creation versus consumption was raised, and I think it highlights one of the biggest challenges to chip makers. Most of us think that when we are moving our movies and music to a portable device, or uploading new photo albums to our Facebook account, it all falls under the umbrella of “consumption” – it’s all being moved around to be shared and enjoyed. Nothing is being “created” as far as the user is concerned.

However, from a PC perspective there is PLENTY going on. Every time a video moves from a PC to a portable device it needs to be “transcoded”, or changed from one format to another. This requires not only a high speed, reliable link between devices but also sheer processing power to alter the file into a format best suited to the device it’s being transferred to. Likewise with photos uploaded to Flickr or Facebook, the images need to be compressed without major quality loss before uploading. All of this is “creation” – creating a new file to fit the requirements of a new device or online destination.

Intel Sandy Bridge Acer Notebooks

Acer's new look premium notebooks, incorporating an innovative touch interface.

Yet, the expectation of any user, myself included, is that those activities should “just happen”. So behind the scenes, Intel is working to a new paradigm – determine the ideal user experience, understand the environment in which it’s happening and deliver hardware that can cope with those demands.

Quick Sync is a good example of supporting user behaviour. It’s basically a transcoding feature that speeds up the compression much quicker than any hardware before it. And because the HD graphics engine is on the same chip, Intel claim there is no need for a dedicated graphics card unless you’re a hardcore gamer or high definition video editor. The demo certainly was impressive, more so as it was without discreet graphics hardware. To drive the point home, some high resolution rendering and bulk-photo red-eye removal processes were demonstrated and were amazingly quick.

Mooly introduced the PC Theft Defence Service, which in simple terms assists in rendering a notebook useless if it was stolen and then connected to the internet by the thief – the user would be able to send a “suicide pill” which the notebook would pick up online and self-destruct. He also showed off a new game, Portal 2, which used motion-sensing equipment to navigate and control a third person shooter.

I was impressed with the avatar demonstration that replaced a person’s real face with a new, animated one – one which could be changed by choice. The point of the demo was to show what could be achieved with the new processors, and where man-machine interfaces may evolve.

Intel Sandy Bridge Avatar

Weirdest tech moment of the night: Mooly talks with an avatar of… well, himself.

The final announcement of the night was a new entertainment feature called “Intel Insider”, which allows full HD movies to be streamed if it detects the new Intel processors in the PC. Because the new Intel Core range uses encryption technology, some movie studios are warming to the idea of releasing full high definition digital versions of its movies – for a price of course. This represents a new distribution opportunity for an industry beset by piracy and illegal downloading.

Sandy Bridge Intel Insider for HD movies

Commercial or controversial? Intel Insider got tongues wagging. Intel didn't bite.

There are two sides to this from a user perspective. Firstly, it does open new markets for film studios to deliver movies in high quality without fear of the file being copied and distributed via torrents and P2P networks. iTunes has proven that people will pay for content when it’s easy to access, manage and enjoy. The flip side is this is the first time a component company, as opposed to a software company, has joined forces with movie studios, and the fear voiced in the room during question time revolved around Intel’s ability to determine what can be watched – if the chip can be used to access content, could it also be used to prevent certain files to be played? An interesting take, but probably not the conspiracy theory some hope for. Movie studios might yet embrace digital distribution on a larger scale, and this is one step towards opening up that comfort zone for the normally paranoid and protective film companies.

Of course, high definition streaming is one thing, but being able to watch it on a big screen is another. WiDi, which is an Intel feature enabling wireless streaming from a notebook to a flat panel screen, has been improved to 1080p streaming. This works in well with the full HD movie streaming offer. Content will be streamed from a content provider to the notebook, which will then push the content onto suitable televisions. This provides an opportunity for film studios, notebook makers and television brands to work with retailers to come up with a bundled offer that makes it easy for the customer to understand and use all the benefits that Sandy Bridge promises to deliver.

Intel Sandy Bridge WiDi Wireless Streaming

Full HD streaming from a notebook to an LCD. Wireless just took another leap forward.

There was a lot to absorb at the Intel Sandy Bridge launch, and the overall feeling I had was that Intel are reaching out to customers more than ever, bridging that gap between what the geniuses at the Intel labs think up in the theoretical world and what users are demanding in the real world. We’re looking forward to chatting to Intel in the near future to discuss their strategy in more detail.

Cheers until next time!

Intel Sandy Bridge Mooly Eden and Ritchie Djamhur

Myself and Mooly Eden after the Q & A session.