Mar 18 2008

Technology on the Horizon

Small, powerful notebooks, mobile Internet devices and solid state drives are making waves.

LifeBook U810

This year is going to bring some interesting changes to the computing world. Smaller, more powerful notebooks, ultra-portable computers and other devices will help us work, play, and communicate with greater ease. New storage technologies are already reaching the market promising to improve performance, lower heat output and improve power consumption and ruggedness.

Fujitsu recently unveiled several new advanced portable notebooks, including the tiny LifeBook U810, which features a 5.6-inch Wide Super Video Graphics Adapter touch-sensitive display, an Intel A110 processor, 1 gigabyte DDR2 and a 40GB hard drive with 802.11 Wi-Fi b/g and Bluetooth. It weighs only 1.56 pounds and has High-Speed Downlink Packet Access, a fast wireless-data-transfer technology that’s managed by two antennas on both sides of the screen, turning this ultra-portable device into a real road warrior at around $1,000.  

LifeBook P8010A

The new LifeBook P8010A, though slightly larger, is still a thin and light device. This 2.69-pound unit replaces the existing LifeBook P7230 notebook with a bigger display (12.1-inch WXGA, instead of 10.6-inch in the previous model); the more energy-efficient Intel SL7100 VL capable of powering the machine up to a whopping 6.5 hours with the supplied battery; and all the regular options, including an 80GB hard drive, up to 4GB RAM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FireWire, three USB ports, a PC/SD card slot and a 1.3-megapixel Web cam. What is really special about this device is its Crystal View LED wide-screen display. During a short review at CES 2008 earlier this year, it was apparent that this display is ultra-bright and crystal clear. It recently became available starting at around $1,700.

MIDs Emerge

Somewhere between the realm of the smart phone and the ultra-mobile PC (UMPC), a new kind of device category has recently emerged — mobile Internet devices (MIDs). These are small and simple devices oriented toward Internet and e-mail applications. They will be considerably cheaper than comparable UMPCs (in the $250 range) and will have a different target audience.

MIDs are in many respects the result of an Intel initiative to push a new generation of ultra-low-power devices into the market. Intel’s new MID-oriented processor, called Atom (previously code-named Silverthorne and Diamondville), and will be manufactured on Intel's 45nm process with high-k metal gate technology. The chips have a thermal design power specification in the 0.6- to 2.5-watt range (compared with several dozen watts for mobile processors) and scale up to 1.8-gigahertz, giving them more than enough raw power for running dedicated VoIP, Internet browsers and e-mail clients.

Sony Mylo COM-2

There are several MID devices that should reach the market in 2008. One that’s already on sale is the Sony Mylo COM-2, a PSP-style device with a touch-sensitive 3.5-inch, 800-by-480 display (which is actually too small for viewing many Web sites without sideways scrolling) that uses Wi-Fi for connectivity. It does support Skype and has a 1.3-megapixel camera but sadly does not have Bluetooth connectivity if you want to use a wireless headset for Skype. When working with graphics-heavy Web sites, it reportedly is not very fast. It isn't clear what kind of processor Sony used (probably not the Atom just yet), but it does look like the MID arena is going to get very interesting later in 2008.

SSDs Gain Momentum

When it comes to storage, the focus seems to be shifting from 3.5-inch desktop hard drives to the smaller 2.5-inch portable (and notebook) drives. It’s been many months since there has been any increase in the capacity of the 3.5-inch drive, which seems to be stuck at 1 terabyte. But with the new WD 320Gb-per-platter technology, this will probably change soon enough.

The 2.5-inch disks, on the other hand, seem to keep growing almost daily. Toshiba has a new line of portable hard drives with capacities of up to 320GB, and Samsung's Spinpoint M6 is already offering a standard 2.5-inch drive with a 500GB capacity, selling for just under $300.

Apple MacBook Air

But in many respects 2008 belongs to solid state drives (SSDs). These flash-based drives are gaining momentum on the portable market, and high-end notebook models such as Apple MacBook Air and Lenovo's X300 come equipped with them (the X300 as standard and the Air as an option).

Many manufacturers see the potential of SSDs and are starting to offer newer, faster models. At CES 2008, Toshiba demonstrated two identical notebooks: one with a conventional 2.5-inch hard drive and the other equipped with a Toshiba 64GB SSD. The two notebooks were started at the same time and booted up through Windows Vista. The SSD-based notebook was significantly faster in booting the system, a few seconds before the identical HHD-based model. 

Crucial/Lexar Media took a different direction with SSDs. The company developed a 2.5-inch SSD 64GB storage kit for notebooks and desktops, connected using USB 2.0 or a 3.5-inch drive bay bracket on desktops. The Crucial drive, called SK01, includes a serial ATA 3Gb/sec hot-swappable drive bay and a 5.25-inch drive bay bracket. Such a unit could be a versatile backup, which could easily be removed if necessary.

Two major players in the SSD arena are Samsung and Sandisk. Samsung is already selling its 64GB 2.5-inch drives to Apple and Lenovo. Sandisk, which claims faster read/write speeds on its SSDs, was the first to present a new 1.8-inch SSD model in an unusual size: 72GB, the largest in the world in this form factor. The product is not yet on the market.

These are still early days for SSDs. Although flash prices have been dropping steadily over the past several years and should continue falling in the near future, the technology is still expensive (several times the price per GB of conventional hard-drive technology). Manufacturers are promising that when less-expensive multilevel cell (MLC) SSDs reach the market, prices of SSDs will drop considerably, making them more affordable to the general public. Although this might sound like good news for people who would like to enjoy some of the benefits of flash-based drives, experts are cautioning that MLC is still considerably slower than the more expensive single-level cell (SLC) used in today's SSDs and could perform poorly compared with conventional hard drives.

Iddo Genuth is the editor of the electronic magazine The Future of Things at www.thefutureofthings.com