A peek at Intel's notebook of the future

In Intel's vision of the future, notebook PCs are always on, always connected, and always useful--offering location-specific information in a mobile design that can run for most of a business day on a single battery charge.

That notebook of the future, dubbed the Mobile Internet PC 2004, was unveiled on Tuesday at Intel's Developer Forum. Although Intel engineers showed off prototype notebooks that offer many of those futuristic features, the company won't actually build them; it's just offering its ideas to the 4000 attendees at its biannual gathering.

Mobile CPUs remain an Intel priority, however. Intel's 2.4-GHz Mobile Pentium 4 Processor-M shipped in January. The company is readying a new batch of wireless products and technologies, and its Centrino is to ship in March as a bundle of chip set, CPU, and wireless LAN module.

Always On Is Key

A notebook becomes infinitely more useful when it can remain always on, says Dr. Shreekant S. Thakkar, Intel director of mobile platform architecture.

To accomplish this, Intel suggests implementing a "quick-view screen" that lets you view and access instant messages and other communications using a small display viewable on a notebook's closed cover.

Craig Barrett demonstrated Intel's prototype model of such a notebook, called Newport, during his keynote speech Tuesday. A two-part design that transforms from a 2.4-pound tablet PC to 4.5-pound notebook with keyboard, the unit includes batteries in both sections, extending its battery life to about six hours.

Intel engineers demonstrated the capability to scroll through e-mails, access a calendar, and even check network connections through Newport's small secondary display and a four-button interface.

By 2005, Intel expects to see the same always-on capabilities available beyond the secondary screen. They'll show up on compatible Bluetooth devices such as cell phones, Thakkar says.

Connecting Anywhere

An always-on notebook is only as good as its Internet connection. By 2004 Intel wants to see systems that can seamlessly move among connections, always seeking the fastest transfer rates possible, Thakkar says.

Intel engineers demonstrated the Newport notebook's capability to automatically switch from wired ethernet to a WiFi network by unplugging the unit's network connection. Yank the WiFi connection, and the notebook seeks a connection via cellular technology.

All the while, the connection remains secure, Thakkar says. Equally importantly, billing for the switch from WiFi to cellular technology should be simple, he says. Intel envisions scenarios like today's cellular packages in which you pay a slightly higher fee when roaming on other networks, he says.

Once notebook PCs achieve always-on, always-connected status, they can begin to take advantage of location-based applications, Thakkar says. Applications can range from basic utilities, like automatically connecting to a nearby printer, to more complex tasks that actually track your physical location.

Tracking applications, based on a variety of technologies from WiFi to global positioning, will offer useful information based on where you are at the time, Intel's visionaries say. For example, you might receive maps, restaurant suggestions, and hotel recommendations--all without having to plug in any information yourself.

Better Batteries

In an effort to increase battery life in the 2004 platform and future prototypes, Intel and others, including Microsoft Corp., have started a new industry initiative called the Extended Battery Life Working Group.

The group is focusing on four key areas of battery life, says John Calhoon, technology evangelist with the Windows Hardware Experience Group at Microsoft.

One major area of focus: doing a better job of explaining the actual work capacity of a notebook battery, Calhoon says. Today, notebook vendors list a single time period. He'd like to see actual usage times, much as cellular vendors describe standby and talk time.

Another subset of the group is focusing on component power consumption, developing guidelines to reduce power needs throughout the notebook, he says. The group's initial focus is on the display and storage subsystems, he says.

The group is also focusing on future technologies and regulatory issues, as well as developing software utilities to maximize battery life, he says.

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