On The Move

The mobile computing world is changing apace as products manage to shrink yet still pack in more features and connectivity than ever before. WINDOWS MIDDLE EAST examines the direction of the market and the technologies making it big

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By  Matthew Wade Published  June 1, 2005

On The Move|~|On-the-Move-W800---m.jpg|~|Mobile phones featuring digital cameras and fully functional MP3 players - such as Sony Ericsson's forthcoming W800 and Motorola's long-awaited iPod phone - will make a real splash later this year|~|Notebooks are without doubt the bread and butter of mobile computing. Used by consumer and business users the world over, the notebook market in this region is closely following wider global trends. The first such trend concerns prices. In terms of what specifications you, the customer, can expect for your cash, prices are tumbling due to an ongoing price war between manufacturers. Whilst this is bad for the companies involved (most resellers and retailers in the region make margins of 1% or less on each laptop sold!), it’s great for us, the end users. In our most recent budget notebook grouptest for instance (March 2005 issue), we found companies offering 512MB, 40GB Centrino models, such as ART’s Optimus 715, for as little as $1,111 - certainly not to be sneezed at. The various shopping promotions that take place across the region (such as Gitex Shopper and Dubai’s Shopping Festival in the UAE) offer the chance to bag even bigger bargains. A second noticeable trend concerns the increasing numbers of combined ultra-portable/tablet PC models hitting the market. If using the most widely understood breakdown of notebook types - dividing models into portable (standard), desktop replacement and ultra-portable models - then the latter category refers to super-light, super-slim products aimed at true road warriors and, it must be said, gadget geeks with bags of cash. The change that’s now taking place (see the LG and Dialogue products tested in our June issue), is seeing more manufacturers include tablet PC functionality with these laptops. Meanwhile in the home segment, desktop replacement models are now being strongly positioned by manufacturers as home entertainment centres. According to Fujitsu Siemens Computers’ product marketing manager, Susanne Lewitzki, home users have increasingly media-centric requirements. “They need multimedia notebooks with a wide screen and a good graphics card,” she explains. As such, many of the models now available are perhaps less portable than in the past, but offer monstrous performance, very decent on-board graphics, and so can run seriously demanding applications and games with no trouble at all. Inside the case Hardware wise, you’re now as likely to find a notebook with a DVD burner on-board than you are a standard DVD-ROM/CD-RW ‘combo’ drive. Hard disk drives are also gradually creeping up in size (although 40GB remains the value-end standard). Where notebook technology has really changed over recent months however is in terms of the built-in wireless functionality offered (see the ‘No Strings Attached’ box overleaf) as both Intel and AMD have this year announced new improved offerings. In Intel’s case its brand new version of Centrino offers improved support for different wireless standards, faster CPUs and enhanced multimedia functions. Centrino - the umbrella brand name for three Intel technologies - refers to the firm’s Pentium M CPUs, Pentium M supporting chipsets, and PRO/Wireless network connection. On the chipset front, the new ‘Sonoma’ version of Centrino replaces Intel’s 855 chipset with its new 915 chipset (code-named ‘Alviso’). This technology was previously only available on motherboards for desktop PCs, and supports both dual-channel DDR2 memory and PCI Express for seriously powerful performance. It will also support future PCI Express-based ‘ExpressCards’, which will let notebook users add external components such as sound and graphics cards. Cable Free Meanwhile Centrino’s Intel PRO wireless component - enhanced in August 2004 to support ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘g’ standard 802.11 wireless - is incorporated into Sonoma as standard. This means less niggles when connecting to wireless local area networks (WLANs). The most recent (and more user-friendly) ninth version of Intel’s wireless software, PROset Wireless, is also included. While the Pentium M component of Centrino has been the least effected overall, this still receives a boost with clock speeds rising up to 2.14GHz and front side bus speeds hitting 533MHz. As for AMD’s latest offering, its Turion 64 mobile CPU should start appearing in products on the market soon. This processor replaces its older brother, the Mobile Athlon 64, and will go head-to-head with Intel’s Pentium M processors in a market that has, to date, been Intel dominated. The gradual roll-out of both Intel’s Sonoma and AMD’s Turion should also now prove good news for bargain hunters. It is Windows’ prediction that ‘Dothan’-based notebooks (running the previous incarnation of Centrino) and AMD-based Mobile Athlon 64 machines will now fall in price as the cost of their respective components drops. After Intel launched ‘Dothan’ Centrino in 2004 for instance, its older Banias technology then dropped in price by a third. To get the most from Wi-Fi, you must either be working (or playing) in a home or business environment that has a WLAN set-up. If you need to log on, this LAN must also have a router ‘routing’ (sending) an internet connection around it. Users looking to set-up a WLAN should check out page 63 in the July issue of WINDOWS magazine for our step-by-step WLAN guide. Alternatively, wireless devices - be they notebooks or PDAs - can log on at public hotspots. True enough, the rollout of these across the region has been frustratingly slow, with Etisalat for instance in the UAE never once having yet met one of its hotspot targets. However, it is difficult to measure the number of hotspots that exist, as the only organisation that is free with its info is Intel, which of course only counts the ‘Intel-verified’ hotspots it has authorised. Research group IDC hasn’t yet carried out any research on the ground in terms of Wi-Fi growth in the region, however the organisation’s regional director, Jyoti Lalchandi, did tell Windows that he estimates there are currently 160-180 public hotspots now operating throughout the Gulf region. Along with mobility in general, ‘wireless’ is a theme being increasingly focused upon by manufacturers here, particularly in the business sector. HP is just one example. As the firm’s product manager for Notebooks and Pocket PCs, Personal Systems Group, Vishnu Taimni, explained to Windows, “With the increased number of hotspots, people are buying notebooks with wireless technology that enable them to work on the go. (HP) recently launched a complete new range of commercial notebook platforms in an event dubbed ‘Break Free’, celebrating mobility. All of the products launched at the event have wireless capabilities to help small businesses and enterprise customers work better, anywhere they are.” Power On… Of course the one issue still stopping road warriors from working continuously whilst on the move is battery life. Even the least power-hungry ultra-portable notebooks struggle to plough on past the four or five hour mark, despite the latest Pentium M CPUs being less greedy than ever before. One solution now being offered regularly by ultra-portable makers is a second battery. Slotting in such a replacement power unit can double your notebook’s available battery life and so makes full-day working a real possibility. Fujitsu Siemens Computers (FSC) is one such company to offer this. “All our notebooks have a modular bay concept,” said Susanne Lewitzki, product-marketing manager, FSC Middle East, “so whenever the user feels the need for extra battery power, he can always slide in a battery into the modular bay.” Looking further into the future, many companies are busy, behind locked doors, researching fuel-cell technology and how to best adapt this for use in mobile PCs. “A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that's similar to a battery," Acer Middle East's business development manager (mobile products), Graham Braum, explains, “but differing from the latter in that it’s designed for continuous replenishment of the reactants consumed - i.e. it produces electricity from an external fuel supply as opposed to the limited internal energy storage capacity of a battery. There are a number of vendors developing fuel cell battery prototypes for PCs and mobile devices, but this is all in the R&D phase." “We continue to investigate this technology,” Dell's Middle East product manager, Andrew Nicholson, told Windows.” We understand that battery technology is a key buying criteria for notebooks and we continue to investigate a number of different technologies.” HP’s Taimni was even more specific, predicting that fuel cell technology might be introduced into its notebooks as soon as next year, whereas FSC’s Lewitzki reckons 2007 is more likely. In the Hand Gone are the days in which the technology in your hand simply let you make calls. When even an ultra-portable notebook is too much to carry, the current crop of PDAs and smartphones let you take calls, work on documents, organise your calendar, surf the web and grab your e-mails. The real burgeoning trend in this space is the convergence between these two types of device, with smartphones increasingly cramming in more data-friendly features, such as more megabytes of built-in memory, and high-end PDAs often now including phone functionality. Many PDAs and smartphones at present run the 2003 edition of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS (either ‘Pocket PC’ (PDA) or ‘Smartphone’ editions), however look out for the firm’s newly launched ‘Mobile 5.0’ making it onto both types of handheld over coming months. This platform now includes support for persistent memory storage - meaning a mobile device can retain information even when its battery is depleted. Mobile 5.0 also offers support for 3G networks, Wi-Fi, and several improvements to its existing Bluetooth support. Smartphone wise, the gadget being most regularly pulled out of top executives’ cases is still Nokia’s Communicator. Despite - or because of - this model’s popularity however, other companies have now really ramped up the competition, launching similarly featured and, in some cases, more svelte offerings. Siemens Mobile for instance has followed the Communicator’s lead by including a full keyboard with its SK65 phone, but to get to this it’s a case of spinning around the device’s two halves, rather than just flipping it open Communicator-style. Sony Ericsson’s P910i is another chunky pocket rocket that offers up a flip-down keypad and a stylus (though be warned, if your digits aren’t miniscule in size, you’ll find this type of keypad next to useless), while Motorola’s new MPx220 (see this month's magazine) gives you Bluetooth, Microsoft’s Smartphone OS, plus 32MB of memory and a memory card expansion slot. The fruity technology that is continuing to make waves in Europe is Research In Motion's ‘BlackBerry’ handheld device. Although no Middle East launch date has yet been set for this, smartphone markers in the region - such as PalmOne and Siemens - have begun selling what they call ‘Blackberry-enabled’ devices. The key difference between these and standard e-mail capable PDAs and smartphones, is that rather than having to log in and check your e-mail at regular intervals (or configuring MS Outlook to do the same), Blackberry functionality means your device is always on and always checking for messages, so your e-mail appears instantly. While some might find the idea of being ‘always on’ a scary one, we’re sure this concept has avid workaholics chomping at the bit. Take a Break Thanks to the worlds of IT and consumer electronics converging more by the day, truly innovate products that let you listen to tunes, play games and even view your favourite movies are now everywhere. If you’re a music fan, kit such as Apple’s new iPod Shuffle lets you load up tunes from your PC for truly mobile enjoyment. The Shuffle’s launch has also led to many companies following suit, offering similar, ‘load and listen’ releases. Look out in particular for Sony Ericsson’s forthcoming Walkman phone, the W800, which is due to be launched in the next couple of months. This features a built-in MP3 player and will be bundled with a huge 500MB Sony MegaStick. The other ‘biggie’ release on the horizon is Motorola’s forthcoming iPod phone, on which few details are currently available. Over the last year the newest type of entertainment product to arrive has been the PMC (Personal Media Centre). These serious screens might not fit in your pocket, but they’ll definitely squeeze into your work case and allow you to load up movie and sound files for viewing whenever you like. Creative was the first to launch in this region with its Zen PMC, which lets you transfer movies you may have downloaded from PC to PMC. However, more recent releases from the likes of Archos and MSI also let you encode (record) directly to your PMC, meaning the PC doesn’t even get a look in. ------------------------ No Strings Attached Wi-Fi networks use radio technologies called IEEE 802.11a, 802.11b or 802.11g to provide secure, reliable and fast wireless connectivity. · 802.11a: provides up to 54Mbps in the 5GHz band · 802.11b: provides 11Mbps transmission in the 2.4 GHz band and is the most used standard the world over · 802.11g: provides up to 54Mbps in the 2.4GHz band. Introduced in June 2003 and backward compatible with 802.11b, most new home and small business WiFi products are ‘g’ (or dual ‘b’ and ‘g’) standard · 802.11n: is the next step standard after ‘g’. It will offer a minimum data throughput rate of 100Mbit/sec. Although not finally verified and released, some vendors such as Belkin have begun selling 'pre-N' routers and Wi-Fi cards Coming up WiMAX - sometimes referred to as ‘Wi-Fi on steroids’ - refers to IEEE 802.16 wireless metropolitan area networks (MANs). These connect IEEE 802.11(WiFi) hotspots to the internet and provide a wireless extension to cable and DSL for last mile broadband access. IEEE 802.16 provides up to 50km of range and allows users connectivity without a direct line of sight to a base station Sites: IEEE Community- www.ieee.org Wi-Fi Alliance- www.wi-fi.org ------------------------ ||**||

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