Intel prototype transforms notebook

The company will unveil later this year a new double-jointed prototype portable computer, designed to get people thinking about what's next for notebook PCs.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
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Intel will unveil later this year a new double-jointed prototype portable computer, designed to get people thinking about what's next for notebook PCs.

The new notebook PC prototype, which has yet to be revealed to the public, shows how a notebook can metamorphose from a tablet for capturing handwritten text to a mobile entertainment or messaging console, all while retaining a built-in keyboard.

Designers in Intel's research labs created the prototype, dubbed Florence, to illustrate the potential for designing notebook PCs using existing components. The prototype takes cues from previous Intel designs and some of today's so-called convertible tablet PCs, which run Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Convertibles allow a person to rotate the screen 180 degrees and fold it back down to create a writing tablet.

"The inspiration (behind Florence) was a two-way restaurant door" that swings both inward and outward, said Nick Oakley, who designed the prototype. "How does that work, and could it be applied to a notebook in some way?"

While the prototype itself is crudely constructed, using hinges fitted together with pins, a PC manufacturer could create a version for production using current technology such as Intel's Pentium M chip and a 12-inch touch-sensitive screen for handwriting recognition. Both are currently available.

Exploring new designs is especially important these days. While PCs used to pretty much sell themselves, the recent economic downturn and a continued trend of consumers and businesses purchasing lower-priced models have put pressure on PC manufacturers. Finding new, hit products could assist in reinvigorating future PC sales.

Prototypes are "a way of asking questions about how to drive Intel technology," Oakley said.

Notebook shipments have increased steadily over the past several years, garnering nearly 24 percent of the worldwide PC market. Most manufacturers and analysts believe notebooks will reach half of all PC shipments. The portable computers are more difficult to design and build than a desktop, but they sell for much more, presenting an opportunity for manufacturers to boost their revenue.

Intel prototype Florence is intended to work like a regular notebook with a keyboard and to allow users to enter data using a pen. The machine will include a variety of input-output ports such as USB (universal serial bus).

One of two sets of hinges built into Florence's chassis allows a person to open the screen and turn it into a writing tablet. This transformation is achieved by folding back the screen--rotating it backward nearly 360 degrees--so that its cover touches the bottom of the chassis.

An additional set of hinges separates the keyboard from its bed so that it swings out from underneath. These hinges allow the keyboard enough movement to fold over a portion of the screen.

Separating the keyboard and folding it up covers the bottom two-thirds of the screen. A mobile console is created after switching off many of the notebook's functions. But with the top third of the screen visible and the aid of several navigation buttons a person can quickly gain access to functions such as playing music files or viewing messages. The backside of the keyboard contains several buttons that aid a person in controlling functions like playing music. At the same time, buttons located on either side of the screen allow a person to scroll through e-mails or other messages.

Opening the screen about halfway and swinging the keyboard to a position midway through its range results in an intermediate mode. This position, likely the most useful, will allow a person to rest the main portion of the notebook at the edge of a tray or table and still be able to type.

Design trends
Tablet PCs, which the Florence prototype is loosely based on, are carving out a niche among the smallest and lightest notebooks. Most of the devices allow the input of data with a stylus in addition to or instead of a keyboard. But the machines still serve a fairly limited number of customers compared with the overall size of the notebook market.

Increasing the functionality of notebooks could help improve sales by giving customers more reasons to upgrade. People who might not necessarily need a new PC might consider a Florence-style machine either because it's more useful to them or because they might find its design irresistible.

"What Intel and other PC vendors are tying to accomplish is to create new usage models for PCs...with designs that extend the capabilities of the PC--either at work or in the home," said Alan Promisel, an analyst with IDC. "Ultimately, they are trying to create demand in a segment that right now is somewhat sluggish...and reinvigorate overall sales, recreating that boom that we saw in 1998 and 1999."

For the most part, Intel doesn't directly benefit from creating PC concepts. The company uses prototypes mainly to glean ideas on future demands that might be placed on its chips from its prototypes, Oakley said.

"Doing these kinds of concepts kind of pulls the technology along," he said.

Florence was created by Intel's Mobile Architecture Lab. The lab is part of Intel's larger Mobile Platforms Group, which is responsible for creating new mobile products. The lab creates many new designs on paper each year, but constructs only a few prototypes. It created three prototypes last year, for example, including Newport, which was designed to demonstrate what a Centrino notebook might look like in 2004.

Many Intel prototypes are viewed only internally by the company or shared with outside computer manufacturers and designers that have partnered with Intel. However, the chipmaker plans to show Florence publicly several times later in the year, a company representative said.