Post-IDF, Fall 2009

The Silent Front

The information overload of a few journalistic days at a computer tech event always provokes in me a desperate need for some tranquility or at least several cold pints in quick succession. This is especially true at the IDF, where Intel's brightest and best are sent forth to sway and conquer the media hordes. (It's not really much of a challenge, especially after Intel's domination in the chip sector over the past several years.) These various talented, polished tech-savvy public relations experts, silver tongued engineers and technocratic visionaries are truly impressive in the way they deftly stream immense gobs of information, much like the company's processor chips. The IDF is nothing if not a testament to Intel's sheer depth of talent and marketing prowess.

Pseudo-freehand drawings were the theme of the posters at IDF Fall 2009.

After the event, after rubbing shoulders with 4,000-odd mostly tech-geeks, after a dose of zen and several cold pints to soothe the swollen brain, a state of contemplation sometimes prevails. I then feel compelled to share these nuggets — of gold or lead, the reader is free to judge.

The Atom Phenomenon

One of my journalistic cohorts at IDF expressed disappointment that too much time was spent by the first keynote speaker, Intel CEO Paul Otelinni, on the Atom processor. (See the IDF Press Room video page for full videos of this and other keynote presentations.) This is not a point of view I share. While enthusiasts might be more interested in the coming 32nm Clarkdale and Westmere processors, as well as Larrabee, the 45nm graphics chip that will be integrated with the CPU on a single chip, real market growth is in the low end of the market, and Atom has been golden in that sector. Conversely, the fate of the desktop PC is clearly on the wall. Notebooks have been outselling desktops for some years, while desktop sales are declining at about 15% per annum. With small nettops and all-in-one PCs also on the rise, the traditional desktop (in mid-tower and desktop form) is on the downslope of its long life cycle.

Netbooks are said to be the bright spot for the computer industry during an economic downturn described as the worst since the Great Depression. Currently, they represent about 20% of all mobile PC sales, which should mean about 33 million units in 2009. Netbooks have actually ushered in a new era of computer proliferation. No longer is the industry target a PC or two per household. The new paradigm is a computer for every man, woman and child (of grade school age, at least) on the planet. If this sounds absurd and excessive, consider that similar market penetration has already been achieved with mobile phones in many parts of the world. What makes it possible to envisage both mobile phones and computers for everyone is a ferocious pace in technical innovation, especially in miniaturization and power management, and reduction of production costs. The cheapest of the netbooks are already retailing for under $250, and will surely break $200 by year's end. While computer enthusiasts like me and most diehard SPCR readers may consider them little more than toys, they are indeed selling like toys at Christmas time, because for so many buyers, it's all they need from a computer: Email access, web browsing, social networking, viewing and sharing photos and videos.

Two of the many Atom-equipped MIDs shown at IDF Fall 2009.

The Intel Atom processor is the primary enabler behind netbooks and nettops; these terms didn't even exist until Intel's partners integrated the Atom into the new style PCs and marketed them successfully. Yes, VIA and others offered low power chips before, but not at the Atom's low price, made possible by Intel's continuing quest to maximize yields with ever smaller dies. Currently, the die of the 45nm Atom chip is less than 25 square millimetres, or about a tenth of the Celeron chip, and some ~2,700 Atom processors are obtained from a single 300mm diameter silicon wafer. The economics are compelling and will improve as Intel moves to 32nm and smaller die technology. It's important to note, also, that Intel is pushing Atom versions for mobile internet devices (MID) such as smart phones, some 100 million units of which will ship this year.

CULV Processors

Among low power Intel processors, more interesting than the Atoms for those who seek better performance are the Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage CPUs, which were not really touched during IDF. There are at least a dozen CULV models, including the Core 2 Solo SU3500 (1.4 Ghz, 3MB L2, 5.5W TDP) used in the Gateway EC1803h thin-light 11.6" screen notebook we reviewed a few weeks ago. The CULV line was actually announced back in June at Computex; see this Intel press release. CULVs don't have a page of their own, but at the bottom of Intel's Ultra-Thin Laptops page is a list of the current processor lineup. What's compelling about CULVs is that the Thermal Design Power (TDP) is just 10W for the dual-cores and 5.5W for the single cores, which puts it in the same ball park as the Atom — yet they have the full processing power of the C2D architecture, albeit at lower clock speeds (currently 1.2~1.6 GHz).

These processors are just beginning to appear in a new generation of 11"~15" screen ultra-thin laptops typically priced under $1,000 and even below $500, well below the corporate ultra mobile laptops that have usually commanded $2,000~$3,000. The CULV laptops are an obvious step up from Atom netbooks, which are really not adequate for full mobile business applications. (An aside: I met a journalist from China who bemoaned the time lost in slow image editing and processing on his Atom netbook, with which he was travelling and working on exclusively for the first time. "Never again!" he vowed. He would be an obvious candidate for a CULV ultra-thin laptop. As I am: Although my high-end Lenovo X300 is just 3.2 lbs with a good size 13.3" 1400x900 screen, and quite powerful, battery life at under 5 hrs is no longer acceptable for true mobility, not when the aforementioned <$450 Gateway gets 8 hours.)

A handful of the many CULV-equipped ultra-thin laptops shown at IDF Fall 2009, from MSI, Acer, Sony, Asus and others.

While Intel does not explicitly support CULVs for non-laptop use, it may only be a matter of time before desktop systems employing these processors for their ultra low power consumption and cooling requirements appear in the consumer marketplace. Remember that the shrinking of PCs began in earnest some five years ago with the adoption of the Pentium M mobile processor for consumer desktop systems by companies such as AOpen (who coined the phrase "Mobile on Desktop" or MoDT) and DFI. Now, mobile parts in desktop systems are mainstream: Many all-in-one PCs (such as the Lenovo A600 series and the Apple iMacs) use them.

Advanced mini-ITX

Intel's development in mini-ITX continues. In private sessions, journalists were shown a high performance LGA-1156 socket board with the yet unreleased Intel H57 chipset, supporting 45nm Lynnfield (Core i5) and 32nm Clarkdale processors, the latter to feature dual cores and an integrated 45nm GPU. Two DDR3 slots for dual-channel memory, and support for Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors. A PCIe 2.0 x16 slot allows the use of any PCI-Express addon card. Four SATA 3 Gbps ports are provided, along with DVI and HDMI, gigabit Ethernet, six USB ports, eSATA, and 8-channel audio with optical SPDIF. When this board is released, it will be the undisputed powerhouse champ among mini-ITX boards (at least until someone decides to make an LGA1366 mITX board).

Soon to come Intel LGA-1156 mini-ITX board provides many features and revised layout with H57 chip made possible by north/southbridge integration.

All-in-One and Mini PCs

In the technology showcase, both all-in-one PCs and tiny mini-mac wannabees abounded. Many were powered by Atom, some by mobile C2Ds. Classic mid-power desktops were all but absent.

HP's big TouchSmart IQ800 mobile C2D-powered all-in-one PC.

Lenovo's new sub-$500 IdeaCentre C300 18.5" 1600x900 all-in-one, alongside its tiny IdeaCentre Q100 Mini PCs/nettop, both powered by Atom.

What is Green?

It seems that concerns about environmental sustainability in the industry have been reduced to operational energy efficiency. Invariably, when a product is touted as green, the promoters mean that it consumes less electricity. The bigger companies all offer takeback recycling and careful disposal with varying cost to the consumer... but there is little if any mention of resources, toxins or energy used in the product's manufacture and distribution.

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Articles of related interest at SPCR:
Lenovo's All-in-one: IdeaCentre A600
Gateway EC1803h: Netbook or Ultra-portable?
IDF Fall 2008: Through the Silent Glass

External Links of related interest:
Anandtech: IDF 2009 - World's First Larrabee Demo
Intel: CULV News Release
Intel: IDF 2009 Press Room -
Access to all press releases, transcripts, keynote presentation videos, photos, etc.

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