PCs hitting a brighter note

Notebook computers are proving a hit with both business and consumers — and grabbing a bigger slice of the PC market

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By  Caroline Denslow Published  September 11, 2005

|~|notebookbody.jpg|~|Consumers are attracted to notebook PCs thanks to lower prices, more power and greater multimedia functions. |~|Today’s notebook computers are a far cry from how portable computers looked like 20 years ago. Back then they were clunky, provided very basic computing functions and were heavy, weighing about 28 Ibs. But even then, mobile computing was a popular concept among PC users; in fact, when Compaq released its Portable, sales of the device reached about US$112 million in its first year alone. Notebook sales picked up and by 1990 it was a US$5.4 billion market. Market share continues to grow, with IDC declaring that the notebook PC segment is accounting for a larger portion of the global PC business. While desktop shipments grew by about 13% compared to last year’s, the notebook segment saw growth of more than 30% from a year earlier. In the second quarter of this year alone IDC has reported that an estimated 14.3 million units have been sold worldwide. The analyst firm expects this figure to increase by more than half in 2008. There are a number of factors contributing to the increase in notebook sales. Lower prices and enhanced wireless technology are driving the demand overall, while multimedia capabilities are encouraging more consumers to buy laptops. “Mobility, in general is becoming more affordable, it’s becoming more common. There are more hotspots coming up,” says Vishnu Taimni, product manager, notebooks and handhelds, HP Middle East. “Also the average selling price of notebooks has come down drastically. Today, the average customer doesn’t mind paying a 10% to 15% premium for a notebook compared to a desktop PC with the same specifications,” Taimni adds. Changing work patterns and workplace design are also helping to convince businesses to replace desktop PCs with notebooks, says Susanne Lewitzki, product manager, Fujitsu Siem mens Computers (FSC) Middle East. “More and more workers travel a lot or are frequently out of the office. However, this mobile workforce still needs to be able to work. Travel time is really becoming work time,” Lewitzki explains. The strong demand in both the business and consumer side will result in notebook line-ups diverging into two paths: the thin and light for professionals and the multimedia-enriched laptops for the home users. “From now on, the notebook PC industry will be bipolar. This means one section will focus on thin and light and low-priced laptops for office users and students, while another area will focus on multimedia, widescreen and expensive notebooks,” says Stephen Min, general manager for laptop PCs, LG Electronics Middle East and Africa. Whether it is for office or entertainment use, the good thing about today’s notebooks are that they becoming more affordable and more sophisticated. When it comes to leading innovations, notebook PCs are never far behind. In fact, those innovations are happening now in display, computing power, security, battery life and even design. ||**||Worth the watt |~|Braum,graham.jpg|~|Graham Braun of Acer forsees the demand for notebook PCs with larger screens.|~|With notebook processors already matching the power and speed of those in desktop PCs, the new buzzword in processor trends is ‘performance per watt’. Upcoming mobile processor roadmaps from both Intel and AMD reveal not only improved graphics and wireless capabilities but, more importantly, lower power consumption. Dual-core processors for notebook computers are on its way next year. Intel is set to release Yonah, Pentium M’s dual-core version in January 2006. Yonah will feature sophisticated power management techniques that will ensure each core is only drawing as much power as it needs. Intel will equipped the processor with monitoring capabilities so that it can allocate power between the cores only when needed, thereby reducing power consumption during idle moments. Like Yonah, the rest of the Napa platform will be power efficient. Napa is Intel’s next-generation mobile platform that combines Yonah and a new wireless chip that makes up the Centrino brand. Later next year, the 32-bit Yonah will be succeeded by Merom, a 64-bit capable, dual-core notebook chip based on the new Intel processor architecture. Merom will be as power efficient as Yonah — with maximum power usage expected to be around 30 watts — but a second flavour will also be released that will use up only about 5 watts. AMD, for its part, claims to already have a working sample of a dual-core notebook processor. The X2 is also a low-power chip, which AMD plans to release in the beginning of next year as well. The chipmaker’s roadmap extends beyond dual-core processors — to four or more CPUs on a single chip. It also intends to develop mobile chips that can keep batteries running for seven hours. “We are investing quite heavily in mobile,” said Marty Seyer, general manager of AMD’s microprocessor business unit, at a forum recently. “In January we introduced [our] Turion 64 processor. We’re going to evolve that CPU core over time. We’re going to improve the power efficiency, [and] we’re going to add the next generation of memory,” he added. The goal is to extend battery life to five hours by next year, Seyer says, and increase that to six hours and beyond by 2007. ||**||The big picture|~|ghani,imtiaz.jpg|~|Lenovo’s notebooks have an unique active protection system and a set of self-recovery tools says Imtiaz Ghani.|~|For notebooks that are positioned as a home entertainment device, bigger screens are becoming a requirement. Right now, 15.4-inch screens are the standard, but lately, some of the vendors have started introducing 17-inch displays as well. “Almost 90% of customers are selecting 15.4-inch displays. But starting this quarter, market shares for both 15.4-inch and 17-inch displays will be almost the same,” predicts Min. Graham Braun, business development manager, mobile products, Acer Computer Middle East, believes that demand for larger screens will grow especially when display and graphic cards technologies are making it possible to view movies in notebook PCs with greater clarity and resolution. “We also have notebooks that include tuners that let users record programmes directly from a TV. This is another factor that will call for larger, better displays,” Braun says. Both Lewitzki and Taimni, however, agree that displays will not expand beyond 17 inches. Instead vendors will incorporate widescreen technology to further enhance display sizes. “At this stage, I have to say that we won’t be expanding beyond 17 inches. If you look at the 17-inch notebooks we have today, we are virtually reaching four kilograms already,” Lewitzki says. Wide-aspect-ratio screens on notebooks typically range from 8.9 to 17 inches, measured diagonally from corner to corner. Taimni says it provides sufficient viewing area for viewing video files on laptop screens. “I honestly don’t expect screen sizes to increase more than 15.4 inches. We have 17-inch screens today but again it is a very small niche segment of the market,” adds Taimni. “What I expect, in fact, is an increase in the adoption of wide-screen technology. I believe it is going to be more prominent,” he continues. The next big advancement in displays will be OLED (organic light-emitting diode) — a technology that uses organic compounds that glows when exposed to an electrical charge. OLED displays are currently being used in small devices such as mobile phones, but don’t expect them to become mainstream for notebook PCs anytime soon. However, when it odes happen, it will provide significant enhancements to a notebook display’s quality. Compared to liquid crystal displays (LCDs), OLEDs are brighter, have better contrast, offer wider viewing angles and have faster response times than LCDs. They also consume less power, and are thinner and flexible, which will cause a substantial change in the notebook’s size and shape.||**||Battery lifelines|~|min,stephen.jpg|~|Stephen Min of LG is predicting a brighter future for notebook PCs as powerful multimedia entities.|~|With today’s notebooks featuring faster processors, larger screens and bigger hard drives — each of which requires considerable amo-unts of electricity — users are demanding longer battery life. Today’s notebook batteries last about five to five-and-a-half hours, but that is often not enough, especially for someone who is constantly on the move. “Battery life on a mobile device is a key concern. That’s the whole point of mobility… that I can move around and use my notebook anytime without having to worry about where to find a power socket,” says Lewitzki. Notebook and component manufacturers are working on improving battery capacity. Right now, the industry goal is to extend battery life to at least eight hours — equivalent to a full day’s work. So far, new battery technologies, such as fuel cells, look promising, but it will still take years for them to be commercially viable. At the same time, efforts are being undertaken to reduce power consumption in notebook components. In the meantime, notebook manufacturers are offering accessories — add-ons that can double the current battery life. For example, FSC has included a modular bay in its Lifebook series that makes it easy for users to attach a second battery. HP also has a similar accessory on offer. ||**||Secure and safe |~||~||~|Vendors are also setting new standards for notebook security, integrating biometric, hardwired security chips and smart card technologies in new laptop models. In some higher-end notebook lines, integrated fingerprint recognition sensors will become the norm as vendors push beyond PC passwords, according to Lewitzki. “We have fingerprint sensors in some of our devices. That is becoming more and more popular because obviously a fingerprint is something that is unique for a human being and it’s quite easy to use,” she says. Hard drive protection features are also common among laptops. Lenovo has an active protection system that shelters the hard drive from shocks, thereby ensuring that data stored in it is secured. “It acts like an airbag,” says Imtiaz Ghani, Lenovo’s general manager for the Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan. “When it detects sudden changes in motion, it temporarily parks the hard drive’s read/ write head to protect valuable data from everyday notebook accidents.” Aside from the active protection system, Lenovo notebooks also include a set of self-recovery tools that can help users diagnose and recover from system crashes or viruses quickly, and other security features inherited after it acquired IBM’s notebook business. Smart cards, which hold passwords and encryption keys, also provide another level of authentication beyond simple keyed-in passwords. Braun describes the integrated smart card reader as a unique feature. “It resembles a credit card and contains a chip that stores data,” he says. “We added the smart card reader as a feature in our notebooks to provide better security. A smart card, once activated, will be the only way for someone to access the notebook’s data. That way, if the notebook is stolen, you can be sure that important business information will not be accessible,” Braun adds. Some notebooks also include a special security chip integrated into the mainboard of the system. TPM (Trusted Platform Module) is both a hardware- and software-based security solution that provides protection for sensitive keys, identity information and confidential data. It was developed by the Trusted Computing Group (TCG), a not-for-profit industry-standards organisation that looks into enhancing the security features of disparate computing environments. “TPM is a chip that, when activated, will not allow any application that has not been authorised by the TCG to run on your system,” says Taimni. ||**||Designer colours|~||~||~|With notebooks becoming highly commoditised items, design is turning out to be a key product differentiator among many vendors in this segment. It is particularly evident in the consumer sector, where laptops are marketed as a home entertainment device. For instance, notebooks now are breaking free from the more subdued black, silver and grey tints to brighter shades of orange, green and yellow. Apple made this trend popular with its iBook, which came in assorted colours of royal blue, tangerine and radioactive green. Min says LG will be launching a new range of laptops this month that will come in a variety of colours. “At Gitex, we are going to offer various colours, including blue and ivory, as well as colours that are customised for women,” he reveals. Meanwhile, for other users who are not ready to adopt a radical design change, HP is offering a temporary solution. Laptop covers, much like the personalised mobile phone covers out in the market, will give users a wide selection of designs to choose from. While HP’s laptop covers are only available in Europe, Taimni says they are also looking at introducing a similar concept in the region. Microsoft is also advocating the idea of mounting mobile phone-like displays on the lids of notebook PCs so that users can check the time, battery status, appointments or see if new e-mail has arrived without having to open and start up their PC. Such displays will be made possible with Vista, the upcoming version of Windows. Microsoft is also currently developing software and reference designs for the auxiliary displays that will resemble the colour cell phone displays we see today. Another trend in notebook design is the use of sturdier materials for the casing. While plastic was the material of choice in the past, notebooks now come housed in magnesium alloy, carbon fibre or titanium casings. ||**||Wait for WiMax |~||~||~|Converging voice, video and data applications will speed up the development of new wireless standards. In a few years’ time, common wireless standards will be sharing the air with emerging technologies, which will solidify the presence of broadband connectivity even further. WiMax, GPRS (general packet radio service) and UMTS (universal mobile telephony system) will pave the way for handheld devices and laptops to have a common networking interface. But these technologies are still far from becoming mainstream in the notebook segment. In the meantime, notebooks will still be predominantly offering 802.11b and 802.11g standards, according to Taimni. “If things go well, we might see WiMax towards the latter half of next year or by 2007,” Taimni predicts. “There are a lot of things that need to be done in terms of defining standards and making them available to the public,” says Lewitzki, referring to new wireless technologies being proposed today. Because there are so many innovations happening at the same time, predicting what the notebook of the future will look like is almost impossible. Depending on industry and market acceptance, some notebook computing technologies will make it to mainstream adoption while others will fade to oblivion. But one thing is certain. Tomorrow’s notebooks promise to make computing experience better. ||**||

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