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Intel’s Next Generation Hardware and Viiv Centrino for the Home

We saw the next generation of Intel hardware during this week at Intel?s developer forum.  This hardware promises vastly greater performance or vastly less power consumption in what could be a completely new class of devices.

Multi-Core Kicks out MHz

Since the beginning of the PC, we have measured performance by MHz; Intel is signaling that is about to end, however, as they focus on adding cores rather than just speed to increase performance.  They are currently selling two core products and indicated they have four core products in the development process, with more and more cores likely to follow.  As the parts flow to market, this move should dramatically increase your ability to multi-task and more effectively have your computer address threats like viruses and serve several users at once.  The second capability is thought to be critical for media distribution in the home and it certainly could make games vastly more complex and realistic over time.

On the mobile side, it allows for systems that can more effectively ramp down performance to conserve battery life, based on what the machine is being used for.  For instance, if all you need to do is email you could shut all but one core down, dramatically cutting power used by the processor.  Intel promised a 10x performance increase or a 10x power benefit; the word ?or? implies a level of flexibility in system design we clearly haven?t had before.  The only downside is that for those of us who have held off buying a new office heater because our PCs provide that service, it will be time to rethink that decision.

The Death of ARM

One interesting announcement was a .5 watt part that is x86 based.  There was no mention of ARM on stage; this suggests Intel is finally responding with a similar strategy to the x86 everywhere initiatives from AMD and VIA.  While this doesn?t bode well for ARM in the long term, it does suggest that Intel is moving back to a strategy that they should have been leading since the beginning.

While they didn?t showcase any new products using this part, it is in development; you could imagine it wherever ARM currently is, including phones, hand-held computers, portable media players, and navigation systems.  It heralds a new age of portable devices that are much more similar to their PC counterparts than they have been; that change should result in lower prices for products that are easier to use.  Neither is a bad thing.

Laptops Get Tiny

Showcasing just how small a laptop can be, Intel revealed a number of hand-held laptop prototypes.  One was particularly interesting in that it had three keyboards:  One that popped out from the right side and contained only multi-media controls (much like a media player today), one that popped out from the left side like a RIM Blackberry keyboard, and one that popped out from the bottom like a small laptop keyboard.  By selecting the keyboard you selected the mode the laptop functioned in; while this design was likely too complex and costly for the market, the concept was interesting and clearly innovative.

Small laptops using Intel technology
Attendees have a closer look at the products and demos shown during Intel CEO Paul Otellini’s keynote at Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, August 23, 2005.

The idea of a pocket-able laptop continues to interest many of us; Intel promised that their version would have battery life approaching that of smart phones, while retaining much of the functionality of a laptop and providing the connectivity options of both.  OQO led the way with this and it is interesting that Intel is now validating that market.

Viiv, the Media PC Equivalent to Centrino

The most highly anticipated announcement was Viiv, which is similar to Intel?s Centrino effort but targeted at home entertainment PCs.  Centrino was their mobile bundle; it included the chipset, the wireless subsystem, and the Pentium M processor.  Increasingly and informally, it includes the Intel Graphics subsystem.  Viiv officially includes the chipset, the wired networking subsystem (wireless is optional), and the Pentium processor family.  Unofficially, it is likely to include the Intel graphics subsystem as Centrino does.

Intel Developer Forum Fall 2005
Donald J. MacDonald, Intel’s Vice President, General Manager Digital Home Group, shows IDF attendees some of the new home entertainment products using Intel technology

Intel's New High Resolution Screen
Donald J. MacDonald, Intel’s Vice President, General Manager Digital Home Group, shows IDF attendees a new home entertainment high resolution screen using Intel technology.

Showcasing Entertainment PCs, which initially will run Microsoft?s Media Center Operating system (the film they showed did not have the Microsoft interface), Intel described a future product that would be quiet, small, and very appliance-like.  They showcased one design concept that was about the size of an Xbox 360, but would be a fully functional Media PC with tuners and HD distribution capability.  Another shown design concept appeared to be a future Mac mini design, possibly showcasing the future of that device (Apple was the invisible partner at the show).

Mini PC's
IDF attendees get a closer look at new digital home technology presented during Intel Vice President and General Manager, Digital Home Group, Donald J. MacDonald’s keynote.

They also showcased updated, low-cost devices that could be used to distribute this programming around the home, and suggested that WiMax, the new broadband wireless technology expected to emerge next year, to solve part of the video distribution problem.

These PCs would not only play your music and videos, but acknowledge the growing need for families to play games and communicate with each other regardless of where they are.  This showcases the continued drive to create Media Laptops that can provide a similar experience from hotel rooms and, it is hoped, airplanes and automobiles.

Chance of Success

The success of this initiative will be predicated on the ability to deliver a true consumer entertainment experience, coupled with the advantages of cross vendor standards?something the consumer electronics (CE) industry has found almost impossible to provide.  So far, the two industries, High Tech and CE, have been at opposite ends of this spectrum.  The CE products are generally easier to use individually but can become almost impossible to figure out once you combine all of the components, while the Tech products start out more difficult, yet adding additional capabilities doesn?t make them any more so.  Plug and Play does in fact work, it is just that the initial experience must be vastly simpler than it currently is.

Part of the problem to be overcome will be getting around some of the unique disadvantages of the Tech Industry.  These include the resistance from the firms that own the video titles who view the PC as a “tool of the devil,” resistance from the retail sales channel for a complete solution, and the inability to separate the operating system from the user experience.

The one we haven?t discussed is the sales channel issue.  The ideal product would have a built-in amplifier, as everything else is built into the PC, however, the stores are so worried they will lose receiver revenue that they are blocking your ability to get a better device.  That kind of shortsightedness really upsets me for some reason, and I truly hope one of the vendors steps up and showcases what an iPod/Sonos like Media Center PC can be.

On the OS, it is clear that future products will run a variety of platforms, only one of which will come from Microsoft.  The others I am aware of are all embedded and they may prove to be more attractive to an audience that had trouble figuring out how to get rid of the flashing ?12:00? on VCRs.

Finally, Intel isn?t alone in this race.  VIA is releasing a product set wrapped around their C7 processor, and AMD, along with NVIDIA, will be releasing an Athlon/NForce solution.  Both of these will challenge Intel?s vision with unique advantages that the related companies bring to the table.

You the consumer are the target, and you’ll win no matter who gets this right; this is good news for those of us who love to mystify our neighbors and spouses with ever-changing ways to listen to music and watch videos.

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