Ultrabooks: Thin Is In

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.

Ritchie’s Chat Room: Intel Director Makiko Eda

As the director of Intel’s marketing and sales division for Asia Pacific, Makiko Eda can talk with authority about her company’s current and future position in a world now dominated by daily tablet announcements. Hailing from Japan, Eda was in Sydney to meet retailers and get an update on the Australian arm of the Intel business.

After the worldwide recall which affected all PC manufacturers, Intel is preparing to re-launch its second generation Core processors commonly known as Sandy Bridge. Eda is under no illusion that the recall did not affect business for both Intel and its customers, admitting there was “pain in the supply chain, delay, and missed opportunities in the market.”

Eda notes that they have strengthened their verification process in the production and testing areas, saying there is definitely a need for “an extra step at the factory”. After the success of the first generation of iCore models, Eda noted there was a “military” push to get the new chips to market, and when they did find the issue that sparked the recall, Intel “had to make a quick decision.”

That recall left much of the market starved of higher value product, particularly in the quad core notebook range. The challenge now is to make enough noise about a category that has been overwhelmed by the interest in tablets. “We hear a lot of concern, that computers are kind of boring”. The new range, Eda says, “has a lot of new capabilities and can bring more excitement into the category. As Intel we have to do a better job of communicating that excitement and experience that Sandy Bridge brings to the market.”

So how does Intel feel about the impending onslaught of tablets? “Tablets are a great device, but they’re not going to replace computers.” says Eda. “It’s going to be a secondary device, but it is getting a lot of attention in the market.” With NVidia becoming well known for their tablet processors, Eda says Intel will have their own offering in the second half of the year. “Our products will focus on energy efficiency, performance and added value to the tablet.”

In the meantime, Eda says that netbooks remain a viable alternative in the near future as a second device, and that Intel are working with manufacturers on innovations to keep the netbook category relevant. “We’ll come up with interesting form factors, like hybrids. You’ll get the goodness of tablets, ease of access and thinness but at the same time you have the convenience of the keyboard.”

Intel have set their sights on the lounge room as well, with a host of manufacturers showing off Intel-embedded Smart TVs at this year’s CES exhibition in Las Vegas. Said Eda, “We’re working with some partners to enable the internet experience on TV more seamlessly. We want to make it an out-of-the-box experience.”

With cloud computing also on the horizon from a consumer perspective, Eda believes that the enterprise space will derive the most benefit at this stage, where “the internal cloud makes more sense”. Consumers may not be ready to make the leap because “you rely so much on the communication infrastructure. You may still want to have a photo on your hard drive; you may have videos you want to see, without thinking ‘do I have an internet connection here’?”

Security will be foremost in the minds of end users when products like Chrome notebooks begin to make their way into the retail space, and to that end, Eda says that Intel are “working on hardware-based solutions”. Intel’s acquisition of McAfee may be part of that plan, with Eda hinting that Intel intends to “extract some of the (McAfee) goodness to integrate into the core business with security features in the future.”

With the computer industry evolving quicker than ever, Intel faces challenges from many corners, but Eda is confident of her company’s ability to repeat the successes of last year’s Core processor launch. As Eda explains, there’s more to computers than talking about speeds and specifications. With the marketing focus on the “experience”, rather than the product, Intel is “trying to put a little bit of the human side into it.”

Interview courtesy of Intel Australia.

2nd Generation Intel Core Models Have Landed

It’s exciting times in the PC industry. AMD are rolling out their new Fusion products, Android Honeycomb is set to be launched on a raft of new tablets, and Intel’s latest generation of Core Processors are finally being launched, after a recall that delayed the release of new notebooks across all brands.

This week, Bing Lee took delivery of the first two iterations of the new Intel range. We’ll be doing a full unboxing of both notebooks in the near future, but in the meantime here’s some brief specs and pictures to whet your appetite.

First up is the Samsung QX412, which replaces the QX310. It features a Gen 2 i5 processor, 1GB graphics card, HDMI output, DVD burner, and Samsung’s 3 second boot-up feature.

One of the impressive aspects of this model is the increase of the screen size to 14″ while using the same overall design from last year that used a 13.3″ screen, so it makes better use of the real estate – it really is a 14″ screen in a 13.3″ notebook chassis. The top lid is a cool-looking metal black, and reveals a silver/chrome surface on the keyboard area when opened. It’s definitely a style-setting notebook, with a great combination of looks and performance.

Also launched is the Acer AS5750G, which is our first Gen 2 quad core model. This notebook is all about grunt. The 2GHz quad core processor turbo boosts to 2.9GHz, and is backed up by a massive 2GB graphics card, 4GB memory and 640GB hard drive.

Other features include a 15.6″ screen, HDMI output and numeric keypad. It’s also one of the first notebooks to feature the new high speed USB 3.0 port, which can transfer files between it and a USB 3.0 storage device by over 10 times the speed of a standard USB 2.0.

The release of these models are a pleasant surprise as most Gen 2 models aren’t due out until April or May. We’re looking forward to taking both these models through their paces and presenting more details in the near future.

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.

Intel’s New “Sandy Bridge” Sneak Peak

This week, two of my contacts from Intel came to visit me. The purpose? To show me a demonstration of their new Sandy Bridge Processor, and Bing Lee had the honour of being the first retailer in Australia to see it in action.

Being under a confidentiality agreement, I can’t talk about the specifics of the demos or specs that were displayed. What I can say is that the demonstrations definitely showed that the new processors perform impressively well, utilising the GPU/CPU combination that this new 32nm platform offers.

Intel have been talking up Sandy Bridge for a little while now, so there is some information out there, however to see it in action was exciting. It’s no secret that a huge proportion of internet traffic is video and will continue to grow its share, and that video transcoding from PC to portable device is a common task. From an end-user perspective, PC gaming, video content and the way it is delivered and managed is a big focus for the new Intel range and it’s great to see real-life applications benefiting from the new architecture.

That’s all I can say for now, but thanks to Intel for the demo, and look forward to posting more details closer to the launch date!