Buying a PC for Your Third-World Adventure

A reader of this blog asked “What PC should I buy that can survive the erratic electricity of a third-world residency?” The answer, of course, is “It depends how much you want to spend.” But having reliable computing in a less-developed setting need not break the bank.

Assumptions

You’re an average, modern computer user with professional (i.e., office), social, and personal computing needs preparing to reside outside a first-world power grid. You could be in the mountains of Columbia or Colorado, or, like me, at the end of a one-kilometer driveway. You need to be able to use your PC at any time, but not necessarily all the time. You have a budget.

My previous stories on this subject are here. Your problem is spotty power that can come and go at any moment, day or night, and be off for hours. Your collateral problem is poor power with spikes, low and high voltage, surges, and intermittent on/off cycles. These can and will destroy the unprotected PC power supply in short order.

Strategy

The strategy is to put as much inexpensive stored electricity (i.e., batteries) in front of the computer’s power supply as practical. Duh! The easiest implementation is to use a laptop, which comes with a built-in battery. Modern laptops have hours of self-contained power while you wait for the power grid, backup generator, or tomorrow’s sun to renew your power supply.

Still easy but more expensive choices are a desktop all-in-one (such as an Apple iMac) or a regular desktop. In both the desktop cases cases, you’ll want an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) which stores AC grid power in a battery and delivers it to your electronic devices.

With those assumptions and strategy in mind, here is a prioritized list of what to buy and why to buy it:

The Basics

  • A laptop. Commercial grade (e.g., Dell XPS) has higher build quality than consumer grade (e.g., Dell Inspiron). You get what you pay for. Consider: 17″ screen-size as desktop replacement; SSD for reliability and speed. Your choice: Windows, Mac, even Chromebook.
  • A high-quality surge protector to filter as much electrical grief as possible. Mandatory unless you use a UPS.
  • A bigger and/or backup laptop battery. Greater off-grid time. More efficient than a UPS. Lowest cost when bought bundled with a new laptop.

The Upgrades

  • A powerful UPS, where power is measured in volt-amps. Over 1,000VA is better. Below 500VA is probably pointless with a laptop. The UPS has receptacles for other electrical necessities, so it becomes your electrical hub. Also, all UPS systems have power quality circuitry so your PC will always get clean power. Also, PC applications and a USB connection to the UPS can automatically and safely shut any PC down before the UPS itself exhausts its batteries.
  • A portable hard drive storage device to back up your PC. If this were me, it would rank in the Basics as a “must have”. The portable hard drives require no electrical power beyond a USB cable. With electricity (from your UPS), there are faster/greater capacity options.
  • A USB 3.0 Hub for greater I/O connectivity. Your laptop or all-in-one will never have enough USB ports for the printers, backup storage, Bluetooth speakers, and mobile devices that need charging. Your choices are four or seven ports. Go with the powered seven-port hub. After all, everyone in your house (office) will want to leech off your clean power. Plan accordingly.

The Options

Here’s where the budget goes out the window, but your level of electricity paranoia is nobody else’s business:

  • A secondary monitor scales your laptop’s screen to desktop size or becomes a second screen with more real estate.
  • Backup generator sized to your home electricity load. Best purchased locally as you will require service eventually. Requires (clean) gasoline.
  • Solar power generator requires solar panels, an AC inverter, and distribution hub. It can have its own battery for storage or use the UPS already in our specs. The money problem is a 300-400 watt solar installation can easily cost as much or more than our laptop computing device.
  • The ultimate upgrade for this scenario is a Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid car with internal 7.4 kWh batteries, 2 AC power outlets, USB charging, and 12-volt power. You can also drive it. $31,770 and up.

Is a Tablet an Alternative?

A tablet or a laptop/tablet (i.e., a two-in-one) is worth considering. Portable, mobile, self-contained cellular network option. Some have a desktop operating system. The keyboard and mouse can use easily rechargeable AA batteries. Device operating life often exceeds eight hours. Rechargeable from a small solar panel. Connects to Bluetooth peripherals and to a video monitor/TV via an HDMI cable.

Minimalist computing dramatically simplifies backup power requirements.

Consolidated electronics such as a tablet connected to the LCD monitor also used as a TV makes planning easier and redundancy less necessary.

The Network

Getting on the Internet has its own set of problems and costs. You’ll need local knowledge to make cost-effective decisions.

Assuming a controllable data budget, the easiest Internet on-ramp is to use your smartphone as a hotspot and connect your laptop via Bluetooth. You won’t find unlimited data plans in the third world, so this approach needs careful usage-based planning.

A conventional desktop or laptop setup will require a network access device(s) to the cable, wireless broadband, or satellite network. Plan to power-protect these devices too by plugging them into your UPS. However, that limits PC placement to being close to the network access point.

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Note: the products linked in this blog post are not endorsed by the author. The author has no financial ties to any product mentioned in this blog post.

 

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IT Industry Hopes for Q4 Holiday Magic

I am floored by how it has come to pass that almost all of the 2013 new tech products get to market in the fourth quarter of 2013. For the most part, the other three quarters of the year were not wasted so much as not used to smooth supply and demand. What is to be done?

2013 products arrive in Q4
Here are some of the data points I used to conclude that 2013 is one backend-loaded product year:

  • Data Center: Xeon E3-1200 v3 single-socket chips based on the Haswell architecture started shipping this month. Servers follow next quarter. Xeon E5 dual-socket chips based on Ivy Bridge announced and anticipated in shipping servers in Q4. New Avoton and Rangely Atom chips for micro-servers and storage/comms are announced and anticipated in product in Q4.
  • PCs: my channel checks show 2013 Gen 4 Core (Haswell) chips in about 10% of SKUs at retail, mostly quad-core. Dual-core chips are now arriving and we’ll see lower-end Haswell notebooks and desktops arriving imminently. Apple, for instance, launched its Haswell-based 2013 iMac all-in-ones September 24th. But note the 2013 Mac Pro announced in June has not shipped and the new MacBooks are missing in action.
  • Tablets: Intel’s Bay Trail Atom chips announced in June are now shipping. They’ll be married to Android or Windows 8.1, which ships in late October. Apple’s 2013 iPad products have not been announced. Android tabs this year have mostly seen software updates, not significant hardware changes.
  • Phones: Apple’s new phones started selling this week. The 5C is last year’s product with a cost-reduced plastic case. The iPhone 5S is the hot product. Unless you stood all day in line last weekend, you’ll be getting your ordered phone …. in Q4. Intel’s Merrifield Atom chips for smartphones, announced in June have yet to be launched. I’m thinking Merrifield gets the spotlight at the early January ’14 CES show.

How did we get so backend loaded?
I don’t think an economics degree is needed to explain what has happened. The phenomenal unit growth over the past decade in personal computers, including mobility, have squarely placed the industry under the forces of global macro-economics. The recession in Europe, pull-back in emerging countries led by China, and slow growth in the USA all contribute to a sub-par macro-economic global economy. Unit volume growth rates have fallen.

The IT industry has reacted with slowed new product introductions in order to sell more of the existing products, which reduces the cost-per-unit of R&D and overhead of existing products. And increases profits.

Unfortunately, products are typically built to a forecast. The forecast for 2012-2013 was higher than reality. More product was built than planned or sold. There are warehouses full of last year’s technology.

The best laugh I’ve gotten in the past year from industry executives is to suggest that “I know a guy who knows a guy in New Jersey who could maybe arrange a warehouse fire.” After about a second of mental arithmetic, I usually get a broad smile back and a response like “Hypothetically, that would certainly be very helpful.” (Industry execs must think I routinely wear a wire.)

So, with warehouses full of product which will depreciate dramatically upon new technology announcements, the industry has said “Give us more time to unload the warehouses.”

Meanwhile, getting the new base technology out the door on schedule is harder, not easier. Semiconductor fabrication, new OS releases, new sensors and drivers, etc. all contribute to friction in the product development schedule. But flaws are unacceptable because of the replacement costs. For example, if a computing flaw is found in Apple’s new iOS 7, which shipped five days ago, Apple will have to fix the install on over 100 million devices and climbing — and deal with class action lawsuits and reputation damage; costs over $1 billion are the starting point.

In short, the industry has slowed its cadence over the past several years to the point where all the sizzle in the market with this year’s products happens at the year-end holidays. (Glad I’m not a Wall Street analyst.)

What happens next?
The warehouses will still be stuffed entering 2014. But there will be less 2012 tech on those shelves, now replaced by 2013 tech.

Marching soldiers are taught that when they get out of step, they skip once and get back in cadence.

The ideal consumer cadence for the IT industry has products shipping in Q2 and fully ramped by mid-Q3; that’s in time for the back-to-school major selling season, second only to the holidays. The data center cadence is more centered on a two-year cycle, while enterprise PC buying prefers predictability.

Consumer tech in 2014 broadly moves to a smaller process node and doubles up to quad-cores. Competitively, Intel is muscling its way into tablets and smartphones. The A7 processor in the new Apple iPhone 5S is Apple’s first shot in response. Intel will come back with 14nm Atoms in 2014, and Apple will have an A8.

Notebooks will see a full generation of innovation as Intel delivers 14nm chips that are on an efficiency path towards thresh-hold voltages — as low as possible — that deliver outstanding battery life. A variation on the same tech gets to Atom by 2014 holidays.

The biggest visible product changes will be in form-factors, as two-in-one notebooks in many designs compete with tablets in many sizes. The risk-averse product manufacturers (who own that product in the warehouses) have to innovate or die, macro-economic conditions be damned. Dell comes to mind.

On the software side, Apple’s IOS 7 looks and acts a lot more like Android than ever before. Who would have guessed that? Microsoft tries again with Windows version 8.1.

Consumer buyers will be information-hosed with more changes than they have seen in years, making decision-making harder.

Intel has been very cagy about what 2014 brings to desktops; another year with Haswell refreshers before a 2015 new architecture is entirely possible. Otherwise, traditional beige boxes are being replaced with all-in-ones and innovative small form-factor machines.

The data center is in step and a skip is unnecessary. The 2014 market battle will answer the question: what place do micro-servers have in the data center? However, there is too much server-supplier capacity chasing a more commodity datacenter. Reports have IBM selling off its server business, and Dell is going private to focus long-term.

The bright spot is that tech products of all classes seems to wear out after about 4-5 years, demanding replacement. Anyone still have an iPhone 3G?

The industry is likely to continue to dawdle its cycles until global macro-economic conditions improve and demand catches up with more of the supply. But moving the availability of products back even two months in the calendar would improve new-product flow-through by catching the back-to-school season.

Catch me on Twitter @peterskastner

warehouse-300x196

 

Two-In-One Tablet/Notebooks: Mirage or Miracle?

Intel’s sales and marketing senior executive Tom Kilroy said at Computex last week “The two-in-one concept is really going to be the new wave”, citing computers such as the Lenovo Yoga, which can be used as both a laptop, a tablet and in ‘tent’ mode with a viewing screen that stands up on its own, he said. “The days of carrying around a smartphone, a tablet, and a notebook are numbered – the discrete tablet as we know it will go by the wayside and the 2-in-1 will be the future. If you’re doing content creation it just doesn’t happen on the phone.”

We’re Heading in the Right Direction
I cannot agree more that the endpoint for all the phone, tablet, laptop/notebook convergence talk is fewer devices for most people. For one reason, cost alone prohibits many from affording three devices at a roughly $600 unsubsidized cost per device. The phone is most likely to stand alone because it is the most pocket-portable, and can do it all albeit in a tiny form factor. That leaves the battle between the tablet and laptop as the device most likely to morph dramatically this decade.

Many will settle on a converged laptop-tablet (laptab) that combines the media consumption strengths of the tablet with the data and media production strengths of the laptop/notebook. Such a laptab could do the jobs of both a laptop and a tablet with few if any compromises. Done right, the laptab will be the converged non-phone device.

Intel’s Haswell and Baytrail announcements on June 3rd set the stage for that company to rapidly become a much bigger player in the smartphone and laptop business, as well as setting the stage for Ultrabook laptops with convertible features. What’s changed with this latest generation of technology is much improved performance-per-watt, idle power, and battery life.

The mainstream laptop is now in the same ballpark as tablets with keyboards in baseline mobility and weight. Convertible laptops sans keyboards give up little to dedicated tablets in hardware. Tablets and laptops now both have adequate screen resolution, processor speed, memory and storage, and battery life for media consumption — the tablet’s tour de force.

However, while the industry is now headed in the direction of laptab convergence, I don’t think we are yet on course. As the old New England adage goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Let’s look more deeply at what a converged two-in-one should look like. We’d hate for the promise of convergence to be a mirage.

A Two-in-One Should Be Just That
Our qualitative market research shows consumers really do want one mobile device that can do the jobs now performed separately by laptops and tablets. As usual, the devil is in the details.

To the users in our research panels, converged really does mean “coming together” in hardware and software including apps. That’s not the public industry directional focus we’ve seen.

On laptops, users want to “run tablet apps on a productivity OS (like Windows or OS X). On smartphones and tablets, users want to “run productivity apps I am familiar with, and have access to my home and work data.” Queried further, users tell us they want a merged hardware feature-set  combining a tablet and laptop together with the ability to run their tablet apps on the laptop. (You gotta love non-technology users for wanting technology miracles. It’s what drives innovation.)

A converged laptab hardware set would include:

  • Processor, memory, storage, touch screen
  • All-day (and probably into the night) battery life
  • Keyboard, preferably removable for weight reasons
  • Tablet sensors: GPS, accelerometer, 1080p video/still camera
  • Radios: Bluetooth, WiFi, optional 3G/LTE cellular. NFC when retailers enables the NFC eCommerce market.

The heavy lift from these pesky consumers is in the software stack. They want to run tablet apps (e.g., Angry Birds) on a full operating system. For example, iOS apps on an OS X MacBook.

Importantly, they do not want to buy a second copy of an app (e.g., $4.99 Angry Birds for OS X) on a full operating system. “One app with one set of data” is what we heard, along with complaints about the intricacies of syncing. Now, we suggested to Apple execs five years ago this summer that running iOS apps on OS X was a good idea. They replied, “Yeah, we’ve heard that.” But not done anything about it.

So, consider consumers with jobs who need to stay compatible with applications and files they use at work. Think Microsoft Office. These folks can’t give up the laptop and its office-productivity OS for a consumption-oriented tablet in an either-or decision. Let’s call this the business laptab market.

Conversely, tablets are go-to devices for video watchers, Internet surfers, email and readers but few book writers or budget spreadsheet accountants. It’s the consume(r) market.

How the tech industry responds to the above specs for the two divergent markets will dictate the course and duration of converged laptab demand.

There are two positive signs we’ve noticed recently, both involving Intel. First, the company acquired ST-Ericsson’s global navigation satellite system (GNSS) business. That will bring GPS capabilities to Intel’s communications chip business, and hence to Intel mobile products like tablets and laptops. Second, the Silvermont architecture that includes the Baytrail tablet chip supports virtualization, so hypothetically Android could run along side Windows or iOS along side OS X. Just a  small matter of programming and licensing.

On the negative side, a number of products have been announced with dual-boot capabilities, especially Android and Windows. This plays to the “laptop converts to tablet” form of convertibles. However, our research says dual-boot is not the destination.

To watch laptab convergence play out, keep an eye on the three OS players: Microsoft Windows, Apple’s iOS and OS X, and Google. We view Google as a wild card because it could rather easily merge Chrome OS and Android with Google apps (but has said that won’t happen over the next two years.) The hardware industry really cannot deliver the converged laptab described above without the active support of the OS players.

Laptab users may want to think through their long-term options. Browser-based apps, especially those using HTML5 and the cloud, are quite interchangeable. The trend is towards cross-OS applications. Apple’s iWork office apps will soon run on iOS, OS X, and Windows. Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365 are available in the cloud. Microsoft just delivered Office for iPhone.

Summary Observations
The direction of laptab convergence we’ve seen to date is headed in the right direction, but the finish line is not in sight.

Real consumers with experience in tablets and laptops see the need to bring all the sensor and media hardware in tablets to laptops; convertible laptops with removable keyboards do not go far enough into the desired experience to replace and substitute for tablets.

The convergence miracle is a combined tablet and notebook OS software and user apps. The hardware to do this is now close at hand. But the willingness of the industry to push the software, licensing, and marketing investment is not apparent.

Thus, widespread laptab substitution for tablets and laptops is not in the foreseeable future. The market, especially the business laptab market, will remain additive.

Follow @peterskastner on Twitter

Lenovo Ideapad Yoga convertible laptop

Lenovo Ideapad Yoga convertible laptop

The 2013-2014 Computing Forest – Part 1: Processors

Ignoring the daily tech trees that fall in the woods, let’s explore the computer technology forest looking out a couple of years.
Those seeking daily comments should follow @peterskastner on Twitter.

Part 1: Processors

Architectures and Processes

Intel’s Haswell and Broadwell

We’ll see a new X86 architecture in the first half of 2013, code-name Haswell. The Haswell chips will use the 22 nm fabrication process introduced in third-generation Intel Core chips (aka Ivy Bridge). Haswell is important for extending electrical efficiency, improving performance per clock tick, and as the vehicle for Intel’s first system on a chip (SoC), which combines a dual-core processor, graphics, and IO in one unit.

Haswell is an architecture, and the benefits of the architecture carry over to the various usage models discussed in the next section.

I rate energy efficiency as the headline story for Haswell. Lightweight laptops like Ultrabooks (an Intel design) and Apple’s MacBook Air will sip the battery at around 8 watts, half of today’s 17 watts. This will dramatically improve the battery life of laptops but also smartphones and tablets, two markets that Intel has literally built $5 billion fabs to supply.

The on-chip graphics capabilities have improved by an order of magnitude in the past couple of years and get better of the next two. Like the main processor, the GPU benefits from improved electrical efficiency. In essence, on-board graphics are now “good enough” for the 80-th percentile of users. By 2015, the market for add-on graphics cards will start well above $100, reducing market size so much that the drivers switch; consumer GPUs lead high-performance computing (HPC) today. That’s swapping so that HPC is the demand that supplies off-shoot high-end consumer GPUs.

In delivering a variety of SoC processors in 2013, Intel learns valuable technology lessons for the smartphone, tablet, and mobile PC markets that will carry forward into the future. Adjacent markets, notably automotive and television, also require highly integrated SoCs.

Broadwell is the code-name for the 2014 process shrink of the Haswell architecture from 22nm to 14nm. I’d expect better electrical efficiency, graphics, and more mature SoCs. This is the technology sword Intel carries into the full fledged assault on the smartphone and tablet markets (more below).

AMD

AMD enters 2013 with plans for “Vishera” for the high-end desktop, “Richland”, an SoC  for low-end and mainstream users, and “Kabini”, a low-power SoC  for tablets.

The 2013 server plans are to deliver its third-generation of the current Opteron architecture, code name Steamroller. The company also plans to move from a 32nm SOI process to a 28nm bulk silicon process.

In 2014, AMD will be building Opteron processors based on a 64-bit ARM architecture, and may well be first to market. These chips will incorporate the IO fabric acquired with microserver-builder Seamicro. In addition, AMD is expected to place small ARM cores on its X86 processors in order to deliver a counter to Intel’s Trusted Execution Technology. AMD leads the pack in processor chimerism.

Intel’s better performing high-end chips have kept AMD largely outside looking in for the past two years. Worse, low-end markets such as netbooks have been eroded by the upward charge of ARM-based tablets and web laptops (i.e., Chromebook, Kindle, Nook).

ARM

ARM Holdings licenses processor and SoC designs that licensees can modify to meet particular uses. The company’s 32-bit chips started out as embedded industrial and consumer designs. However, the past five years has seen fast rising tides as ARM chip designs were chosen for Apple’s iPhone and iPad, Google’s Android phones and tablets, and a plethora of other consumer gadgets. Recent design wins includes Microsoft’s Surface RT. At this point, quad-core (plus one, with nVidia) 32-bit processors are commonplace. Where to go next?

The next step is a 64-bit design expected in 2014. This design will first be used by AMD, Calxeda, Marvell, and undisclosed other suppliers to deliver microservers. The idea behind microservers is to harness many (hundreds to start) of low-power/modest-performance processors costing tens of dollars each and running multiple instances of web application in parallel, such as Apache web servers. This approach aims to compete on price/performance, energy/performance, and density versus traditional big-iron servers (e.g., Intel Xeon).

In one sentence, the 2013-2014 computer industry dynamics will largely center on how well ARM users defend against Intel’s Atom SoCs in smartphones and tablets, and how well Intel defends its server market from ARM microserver encroachment. If the Microsoft Surface RT takes off, the ARM industry has a crack at the PC/laptop industry, but that’s not my prediction. Complicating the handicapping is fabrication process leadership, where Intel continues to excel over the next two years; smaller process nodes yield less expensive chips with voltage/performance advantages.

Stronger Ties Between Chip Use and Parts

The number of microprocessor models has skyrocketed off the charts the past few years, confusing everybody and costing chip makers a fortune in inventory management (e.g., write-downs). This really can’t keep up as every chip variation goes through an expensive set of usability and compatibility tests running up to millions of dollars per SKU (stock-keeping unit e.g., unique microprocessor model specs). That suggests we’ll see a much closer match between uses for specific microprocessor variations and the chips fabricated to meet the specific market and competitive needs of those uses. By 2015, I believe we’ll see a much more delineated set of chip uses and products:

Smartphones – the low-end of consumer processors. Phone features are reaching maturity: there are only so many pixels and videos one can fit on a 4″ (5″?) screen, and gaming performance is at the good-enough stage. Therefore, greater battery life and smarter use of the battery budget become front and center.

The reason for all the effort is a 400 million unit global smartphone market. For cost and size reasons, prowess in mating processors with radios and support functions into systems on a chip (SoCs) is paramount.

The horse to beat is ARM Holdings, whose architecture is used by the phone market leaders including Samsung, Apple, nVidia, and Qualcomm. The dark horse is Intel, which wants very much to grab, say, 5% of the smartphone market.

Reusing chips for multiple uses is becoming a clever way to glean profits in an otherwise commodity chip business. So I’ll raise a few eyebrows by predicting we’ll see smartphone chips used by the hundreds in microservers (see Part 2) inside the datacenter.

Tablets – 7″ to 10″ information consumption devices iconized by Apple’s iPad and iPad Mini. These devices need to do an excellent job on media, web browsing, and gaming at the levels of last year’s laptops. The processors and the entire SoCs need more capabilities than smartphones. Hence a usage category different from smartphones. Like smartphones, greater battery life and smarter use of the electrical budget are competitive differentiators.

Laptops, Mainstream Desktops, and All-in-One PCs – Mainstream PCs bifurcate differently over the next couple of years in different ways than the past. I’m taking my cue here from Intel’s widely leaked decision to make 2013-generation (i.e., Haswell) SoCs that solder permanently to the motherboard instead of being socketed. This is not a bad idea because almost no one upgrades a laptop processor, and only enthusiasts upgrade desktops during the typical 3-5 year useful PC life. Getting rid of sockets reduces costs, improves quality, and allows for thinner laptops.

The point is that there will be a new class of parts with the usual speed and thermal variations that are widely used to build quad-core laptops, mainstream consumer and enterprise desktops, and all-in-one PCs (which are basically laptops with big built-in monitors).

The processor energy-efficiency drive pays benefits in much lower laptop-class electrical consumption, allowing instant on and much longer battery life. Carrying extra batteries on airplanes becomes an archaic practice (not to mention a fire hazard). The battle is MacBook Air versus Ultrabooks. Low-voltage becomes its own usage sub-class.

Low End Desktops and Laptops – these are X86 PCs running Windows, not super-sized tablet chips. The market is low-cost PCs for developed markets and mainstream in emerging markets. Think $299 Pentium laptop sale at Wal-Mart. The processors for this market are soldered, dual-core, and SoC to reduce costs.

Servers, Workstations, and Enthusiasts – the high end of the computing food chain. These are socketed, high-performance devices used for business, scientific, and enthusiast applications where performance trumps other factors. That said, architecture improvements, energy efficiency, and process shrinks make each new generation of server-class processors more attractive. Intel is the market and technology leader in this computing usage class, and has little to fear from server-class competitors over the next two years.

There is already considerable overlap in server, workstation, and enthusiast processor capabilities. I see the low end Xeon 1200 moving to largely soldered models. The Xeon E5-2600 and Core i7 products gain more processor cores and better electrical efficiency over the Haswell generation.

Part 2: Form-Factors

Part 3: Application of Computing

Dell Inspiron 15z

Dell Inspiron 15z

2013 PCs: Accelerated Innovation Is Coming Soon

After a day and a half at Intel Developer Forum 2012, it’s apparent that the 2013 PC ecosystem will see a lot more innovation than we’ve been accustomed to of late. A year from now, PCs will consume much less power, perform as well or better, and have new capabilities centered around perceptual computing.

Haswell Architecture Enables New Power-On Life Expectations

Hard to believe, but Intel did not lead IDF with the microprocessor hardware. In fact, Intel said very little about the speeds and feeds of next year’s new fourth-generation Core microprocessor, code-name Haswell. Yet Haswell is designed from the ground up to make Ultrabook laptops highly desirable and very mainstream.

The undisputed fact is that Haswell will use Intel’s 22 nm three-dimensional transistor process.

The eye-opener is how much power consumption is improving. Intel says the dual-core system-on-a-chip, low-voltage processor for Ultrabooks delivered in 2013 will draw 10 watts or less. This power level is half that of 2012 third-generation Core processors (i.e., Ivy Bridge), and a 20-fold improvement from the circa-2008 Core 2-based MacBook Air I am using to write this blog.

These power-to-performance metrics will allow all-day computing, eliminating once and for all the need to compute near an electrical power outlet. You’ll think of your Ultrabook as energy-sipping as your tablet (although that’s not actually the case).

Haswell Makes Ultrabooks Even Better

Ultrabooks will come of technology age with Haswell. The Ultrabook ecosystem has gained momentum from Intel’s large industry push and incentives. Entering 2013, there will be over 140 Ivy Bridge Ultrabook designs in the market or on the way.

We are seeing much more innovation in the current and future generations of Ultrabooks, accelerated by touch screens, Windows 8 and its touch support, and new tablet-laptop hybrids. These hybrids use clever ways to disconnect, flip, or slide the keyboard from the tablet-size logic and screen. These new form-factors will be at retail point-of-sale for the holidays, and are worth checking out.

Windows 8 and touch support will rapidly gain consumer demand, especially as the $100 price premium declines next year. Touch, which most consumers are now used to on smartphones and tablets, is a natural evolution of the user interface. It will take off.

Next year’s Haswell adds icing to the Ultrabook cake. The candles are new technology centered on perceptual computing.

Intel’s Perceptual Computing Software Brings the Gaming Console to the PC

Those readers familiar with Microsoft’s xBox 360 Kinect or the Wii, a camera that senses interactive gestures and speech, will instantly understand how Intel’s beta-stage perceptual computing software and third-party hardware will take the PC user interface to a whole new level. Available now as a free developer’s kit, the software will drive perceptual computing into application products arriving about the delivery time of Haswell next year.

Perceptual computing gets us beyond keyboard commands and mouse clicks. The hardware, initially by Creative, “sees” nearby gestures and actions, such as hand, finger, and facial gestures like smiling. Facial analysis tracks the mouth, nose, and eyes as the head moves. 2D and 3D object tracking can augment the reality experience by, for example, showing a user what a particular style of glasses would like like on her face. Finally, speech technology from Nuance, the iPhone Siri-enabling folks, will drive voice command innovation. But Siri’s magic happens in the cloud at Apple’s data centers. Intel’s perceptual computing will happen lightening fast because its local, as we saw in demos.

Will 2013 See the End of PC Cables?

Intriguingly, Intel teased that it will deliver wireless near-field technology with Haswell PCs that allows wireless device charging and cable-free communications. Any road warrior who once left a certain USB cable at home will be delighted. The rest of us will celebrate the end of PC set-up times where cabling nests are just part of the nomadic lifestyle.

The Desktop is Alive and Well

Windows 8, touch, and perceptual computing are also stirring juices in the desktop space. We’ve seen numerous all-in-one PCs that create giant canvases for artists, interactive television, gaming, and collapsible form-factors that result in a very big tablet. Visualize convertible all-in-one.

All of this is goodness as product innovation will drive industry-specific uses and consumer lifestyle-specific uses. The volumes won’t be mass market, but we see the industry breaking out of the beige-box mentality at higher gross margins. In fact, all-in-ones are a shining star at 65% compound annual growth rates.

How to Approach Buying a New PC or Laptop in Late 2012

The innovation described above starts in the 2012 holiday season and continues over the next year through the Haswell microprocessor-based product roll-out in Q2 and Q3 of 2013.

My 2008 MacBook Air is working but falling way behind the technology curve, a bad place for a technology analyst to be. I’m in the market to buy fairly soon.

First, I like the data and entertainment consumption ease of use of tablets. For my needs, tablet features that carry into a new laptop include:

  • a 3G or LTE cell radio to allow always-on connectivity; WiFi has too many limits
  • Multiple radios, especially GPS for location-based apps and Bluetooth for peripherals
  • Touch support
  • Windows 8
  • Thin and light.

Those requirements put me into the specs of a feature-rich Ultrabook. Moreover, a convertible Ultrabook might get me off an iPad and MacBook onto one Ultrabook, eliminating a lot of synching issues.

Since I don’t typically do a lot of always-on media consumption, I probably don’t require waiting for Haswell to gets its great battery life; Third-Generation Core “Ivy Bridge” will get the job done and still last several years into the technology future.

Getting ready for perceptual computing apps late next year will likely require careful spec checking to get good hardware support for 3D video tracking and dual-array microphones that improve voice command accuracy. No immediate answer here.

I’ll update this blog when I find the above laptop specs in a product we can both buy at retail. Or post your comments and suggestions.

For a desktop, I’ll wait for a Haswell-based touch-enabled all-in-one.

2nd Generation Intel Core Processors

Sandy Bridge is a microprocessor architecture that Intel is rolling out across three chipsets and a couple dozen microprocessors.  It is the best mainstream chip family Intel has introduced since the Centrino in 2003.

YouTube – Tech Analyst Peter Kastner on 2nd Generation Intel Core Processors.

Sandy Bridge is a microprocessor architecture that Intel is rolling out across three chipsets and a couple dozen microprocessors.  It is the best mainstream chip family Intel has introduced since the Centrino in 2003.

Sandy Bridge brings quad-core processors to mainstream, everyday computing. This keeps the hardware capacity up with the increasing multi-tasking load caused by always-on Internet, social networking, chat and instant messaging, emails, and all the background tasks supported by the operating system.

Sandy Bridge graphics is about twice the performance of the 2010 version on integrated graphics. This means a large proportion of casual gamers (Farmville, World of Warfare) won’t have to buy up for a discrete graphics card.

SB graphics shine at video rendering, such as TV and BluRay DVD playback compared to previous generations. Sandy Bridge chips also have industry-leading video transcoding performance, making conversions from TV-optimized to smartphone-optimized video in seconds instead of overnight. This technology will make just-in-time video conversion a must-have feature going forward.

Because all the processor, memory controller, and graphics logic is on a single 32 nm chip with Sandy Bridge, energy efficiency is excellent. That bodes well for good battery life in quad-core Sandy Bridge notebooks that will arrive over the next couple of months.

Corporate buyers face the triple-play this year of Microsoft’s Windows 7 SP1, Sandy Bridge’s excellent and efficient quad-core platform, and much improved Intel vPro administration, especially remote provisioning. 2011 is the year to accelerate PC and laptop replacements that were deferred during the recession, while reducing Total Cost of Ownership by several hundred dollars per PC per year compared with the in-service PCs. That’s worth crunching the numbers on.

Bottom Line: Core 2 Duo owners should look to Sandy Bridge immediately for 2011 replacements. Video-oriented families will especially enjoy Sandy Bridge.  But these are mainstream processors that bring big computing steps forward with this generation. Personally, I’d pass on the 2010 leftovers now being swept out of inventory.

The PC Soft-Hardware Upgrade: Now in Trials

Intel today began a trial of “softSKUing”, technology that allows silicon upgrades to be turned on by software after the chip has left the factory. Acer’s Gateway division is providing the consumer desktop trial product and 280 Best Buy stores in the U. S. provide the consumer market testbed.

For a $50 manufacturer’s suggested retail price (split by Intel, Acer, and Best Buy), a consumer buying the low-end Pentium desktop used in the trial gets an upgrade in cache memory and Hyper-Threading that boost performance by about 20%, according to Intel. The upgrade is done online using an unlock code provided on a gift-card-like point-of-sale transaction card. Either the consumer at home or Best Buy’s geek squad services can activate the upgrade card and perform the soft-upgrade in minutes. The upgrade potential could be easily extended to other Intel desktop and laptop processors, so the pilot is more a marketing trial than a technology test.

The idea of up-selling is not new.  Auto dealers advertise stripped cars at low prices every weekend to get customers to come in the door.  We all know what happens next — the up-sell. Until now, PCs were no different than cars on the lot. You bought what the factory made and the dealer had on the shelf. For PC retailers like Best Buy, and small systems builders overseas, having the wrong PC mix on the shelf has numerous negative consequences, starting with the need to stock many different stock-keeping units (SKU’s) at a comparatively high inventory cost.

The softSKU trial will see whether, say, one in eight consumers can be sold an upgrade on the spot. If the trial is successful, and I think it will be, the way we buy and use PCs may change dramatically this decade.

From a technology and marketing standpoint, Intel’s softSKUing hardware upgrades program is a mash-up of mainframe upgrades and the Apple iTunes store. Hear me out. For decades, IBM mainframe customers have been able to call up IBM and turn on processors to boost throughput during peak periods such as this week, the first week of a quarter when quarter-end accounting and reporting is done. The iTunes store allows consumers to buy music or rent videos.

Where Intel could easily take the current pilot program this decade is to allow consumers to go online and get a permanent upgrade (e.g., buy music at iTunes) or even rent a performance upgrade for a few hours or days (e.g., rent videos). Would you rent a CPU upgrade for, say, $4 an evening to beat your gaming friends at World of Warcraft? Or unlock your laptop for a few weeks during budget season when big spreadsheets are the norm? Thus, both consumer and enterprise PCs could benefit from the ability to upgrade-on-demand.

There’s a market opportunity here to turn the now one-time sale of a processor into a lifecycle revenue stream, newly found money for Intel and its partners.

Fact is, most processor chips are born today able to run at high-end performance levels. Most get performance-reduced at the factory to meet market demands for a wide range of price and performance profiles. So the potential exists for Intel to unlock these more-capable chips to do more at little technology cost. The technology to securely deliver upgrades will be field-tested in the current trial. So, I guess all we need to talk about is the price of the upgrade?

The blogosphere absolutely hates the idea of buying a processor with unlockable potential performance upgrades. But these ranting people have little to say about the electronic speed governor commonly found on most automobiles. I reject the Internet mob’s argument that Intel should sell a $1,000 worth of extreme microprocessor performance for $100. That’s a sure way to kill the golden goose of technology innovation.

So, if the Intel pilot is successful, look for a broad range of upgrade opportunities with the 2012 generation of desktop and laptop processors. Whether Intel and its partners create a lifecycle revenue stream model built on soft upgrades will unfold later in the decade, or not.