Notebook overhaul on the horizon

Customer demand for laptops is forcing the hand of innovation for manufactures looking for ways to juice up power performance and other features.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
7 min read
Five years from now, the desktop will probably look pretty much like it does today, but the notebook will likely be smaller and lighter, capable of making cellular calls on its own and running on methanol.

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Component development projects under way portend fairly substantial changes in notebook design, according to executives and analysts. Fuel cells and battery enhancements, which will let notebooks run three to 10 times longer without a recharge, will begin to appear by late 2004.

Smaller hard drives and screens will also likely lead to some changes in the classic notepad shape for some models. Multiband wireless communications, in which notebooks drift from cellular to Wi-Fi to back, will be common.

"The ThinkPad will evolve," said Brian Connors, chief technology officer and vice president of business development in IBM's PC division.

Nonetheless, designers will continually have to ask, "Is it just cool, or is it functional?"

The pending design changes for notebooks are being driven by one of the most influential forces in the technology industry: People are buying the portable computers. In the second quarter, notebook sales grew 6.1 percent, although the overall market declined, according to research firm Gartner.

Unlike desktop PCs, though, notebooks have to more acutely adapt to contradictory demands in the marketplace. Customers want large screens, fast processors and beefy hard drives--three components that can require substantial amounts of electricity.

At the same time, they want long battery life, a notebook that measures less than an inch thick and a carrying weight less than four pounds--features that aren't easy to achieve in a high-voltage lap warmer.

This leaves engineers two choices. "Either you can supply more power into the platform or take more power out of it," said Mike Rocke, the strategic investment manager for the mobile products group inside Intel Capital, the chipmaking giant's venture capital arm. Intel has invested in approximately 15 mobile-centric companies, a spokeswoman said.

PolyFuel, for instance, a spinoff of SRI International, is working on fuel cells for portable devices. The cells essentially break down methanol molecules into protons, electrons and carbon dioxide. While the protons pass through a specialized membrane, the electrons can't and get shuffled into a wire powering a cell phone or laptop. The byproducts from the chemical reaction come together as water molecules.

"You are building a miniature power production facility. You are producing electricity out of chemicals," Rocke said. It's also safer than a close chemical relative, he said. "You can get power out of these things below the flammability point of methanol."

The replaceable fuel cartridges initially will last two to three times longer than batteries but eventually last 10 times longer. Notebooks containing fuel cells will begin to arrive in late 2004 to 2005, he said. Another fuel cell company, MTI MicroFuel Cells, gives the same projection.

Rather than replace batteries, other companies are looking to supplement them with supercapacitors, a concept for storing electricity at the chip level first aired in Japanese academic journals in the late 1980s.

"Supercapacitors hold more electricity than capacitors and transfer and recharge faster than batteries," Anthony Kongats, CEO of Cap-XX, a Sydney, Australia, supercapacitor start-up, said in an e-mail. "It is not uncommon to see improvements of 200 percent plus for low temperature operations and 50 percent in handhelds" at minimum voltage levels.

Batteries can be completely removed, but the notebook will continue to run for five minutes, said Rocke, adding that supercapacitor-enhanced notebooks could begin to arrive in 2004. Intel invested in both PolyFuel and Cap-XX.

Other start-ups are working on efficient solar cells, low-power screens, and new types of heat-dissipation techniques. Many of these companies are spinoffs from government and military projects. MTI, for example, received a $4.7 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Wireless wonders
Improvements in energy efficiency will lead to a wider proliferation of wireless computing, which in turn will likely spark more sales. While notebooks equipped with Wi-Fi (also known as 802.11b networking) have become fairly standard, the next great leap will come through notebooks with integrated cards that can switch between Wi-Fi and cellular.

"Wireless is going to be everywhere," said IBM's Connors. "I think you are going to see a lot more convergence between WAN (through cellular) and wireless LAN."

Connors actually computes this way now, but the dual-band mode comes from an add-in card.

Besides expanding coverage, multiband technology has an economic appeal for everyone concerned, said Dave Ditzel, chief technology officer of Transmeta, which makes energy-efficient notebook processors. Carriers haven't been successful with high-speed data services yet, but offering unified wireless services for phones and notebooks might be the package that finally tickles consumers' fancy.

Notebook users would be able to connect outside of so-called hot spots but have to pay only cellular, per-minute, connection fees in select circumstances.

"When you are on 802.11, you aren't paying for it," he said.

Security systems, though, will have to evolve at the same time or corporations won't adopt the wireless services, Connors said. One technique IBM has developed is the Device Wireless Service Auditor (DWSA), which uses all the computers on a network to sniff out intrusions.

Similarly, many functions handled by IT department employees will have to become automated to make these more complex wireless networks cost-effective, he added.

Let's get small
Meanwhile, other companies are pushing the aesthetic boundaries. Small hard drives, like the Toshiba mini-hard drive included in Apple Computer's iPod music device, will likely begin to appear in notebooks after the price drops and more manufacturers enter the market.

Only Toshiba makes the drives with 1.8-inch platters, and they cost nearly twice as much as the 2.5-inch drives found in small notebooks. Other companies with an emphasis on small include Iridigm (screens) and 3DSP (signal processors).

With parts like these, PC makers will be able to manufacture ever-so-small devices. IBM has licensed the MetaPad, a full-fledged computer the size and shape of a Palm handheld, to Antelope Technologies, which will come out with a handheld computer later this year. OQO says it will come up with a similar device for around $1,000 in the second half of this year.

"There are four key technologies for the future of the notebooks. They are tiny disk drives, high-resolution small screens, dual-mode wireless technology and Crusoe processors," said Transmeta's Ditzel, whose company makes the Crusoe chip. Both the MetaPad and the OQO device use Crusoe, he added.

Intel also makes energy-efficient processors and will introduce a new family, code-named Banias, early next year.

Another novel aesthetic change will come in the form of two-screen notebook. Synaptics, which makes the touch pad found on most notebooks, has come out with a model that places a screen inside the pad. Toshiba already sells a notebook containing the pad.

"You can do all sorts of things with it. You can put a calculator in the touch pad, use it as a quick launch for applications," IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell said.

Eventually, the second screen could become a message pad for sending e-mail or instant messages. Executives from PC companies and Intel have said they are tinkering with communication modules that can send or receive messages while the rest of the computer is in sleep mode.

Cost, cost, cost
These changes, though, will have to pass through the adoption gauntlet. In general, manufacturers are loath to carry the flag on a new technology because of the higher costs and additional marketing risks.

"It is all about economies of scale. We're starting to see that with thin polymers and fuel cells. It could take a few years for the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to accept them," said Alan Promisel, IDC's notebook analyst.

A few years ago, lithium polymer batteries, which can be molded like clay, were expected to become popular in thin and light notebooks. Designers could fill air pockets in notebooks with battery material, impossible with standard cylindrical batteries.

Polymer batteries, however, don't possess the same energy density as cylinders, so the benefit turned out to be a wash. Few have adopted them.

"Many engineers are locked into old paradigms regarding power and energy storage and are reluctant to change," Kongats wrote. "We are working very closely with leading companies in each niche to establish beachheads for our future market expansion."

Fuel cells in particular could be hampered by airport regulations or customer fears about toting around flaming liquids, said Dean McCarron, a principal analyst at Mercury Research. Instead, they might show up on handhelds first, while notebook designers initially examine other energy alternatives, Connors said.

Aesthetic changes can also be difficult to instill. Miniaturized subnotebooks always gather crowds at trade shows, but outside of Japan they still represent only a sliver of the market.

One of the technologies that will have to face this challenge is organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays. Made of light-emitting organic material that glows when an electrical charge is passed through it, OLED displays are thinner, brighter and less expensive than current LCD displays. They also bend. Still, the jury remains out.

"I think they are very intriguing, but the best I can tell from mobile products is that we are five to six years away," said IBM's Connors. "It's somewhat disappointing because it could change the size and shape of computers."