Analyst opinion: Intel kicks laptops into high gear

There is a lot going on this week in terms of laptop PCs thanks to the arrival of Intel’s new Santa Rosa chipset. But this isn’t just about Intel, new AMD products are rolling to market as well and both come with refreshed graphics and storage options.

If that weren’t enough we have significant industrial design changes flowing through from Gateway and HP, and there’s more (starts to feel like you’re going to get some free knives at some point doesn’t it ?) There is a new flash memory component entering the market in some othese products that will make them scream, but may require that you make a difficult choice.

I should add right at the top that much of what is coming out won’t run that well on XP and does require Windows Vista, for which these products were designed. I believe the same will be true for Apple’s Leopard and the related hardware that is due in a few short weeks. Generally, it is a bad idea to put a new OS on old hardware or an old OS on new hardware so, if you aren’t ready to move yet, you may want to wait until you are ready before picking one of these things up.

To reiterate, this is really the first hardware that was truly designed to run with Vista and this product has now passed the initial 90 day period when most problems are found and resolved for a new OS. From here on, we should see Vista in a much better light.

Intel vs. AMD

Let’s be clear, unlike desktops, servers, and workstations where AMD has given Intel a lot of grief in the past, Intel owns the laptop segment and there is almost nothing in this recent set of announcements that indicates any near term change to that ownership. Intel is in the lead and they are accelerating. I did say "almost" though : Where AMD may have an advantage with some configurations is with graphics performance where Intel has historically lagged both ATI and Nvidia. Even integrated solutions will be based on ATI and, if graphics are important, the related products should be very competitive.

AMD’s bet is that once they can integrate ATI’s technology with their own they will be able to argue they have the performance advantage overall and be more competitive with regard to battery life. Intel sees this problem coming and is working hard to mitigate it, but is well behind ATI with graphics and doesn’t have unlimited time to get this done. It is the second half of 2008, when this technology should be ready and reports out of AMD’s labs are very promising. However, there is a big gap between promising in the lab and kicking butt in the market, which will have to be crossed relatively quickly, if AMD wants to take market share from Intel. Currently, both Intel and AMD say they are ahead in the next generation of 45 nm technology.

Nvidia remains a wild card in this fight, and as both Intel and AMD move to make the GPU (Graphics Card) redundant over the next two years, staying relevant will increasingly be a problem. To address this they are continuing their relationship with AMD and getting much closer to Intel than anyone even thought was possible. One of the most powerful systems launched at the Intel event, from Sony, was Intel and NVIDIA inside. This will be incredibly interesting to watch play out. Nvidia will clearly have a major impact on how this all works out.

Much like Intel did a few years back AMD is developing a grounds up mobile part but, until it arrives, similar Intel systems should have significant advantages in terms of battery life for a given performance level. This should be particularly true with systems that have Intel’s Turbo Memory.

Turbo Memory vs. Hybrid hard drives

A year or so ago it was believed that Hybrid hard drives would be a better solution than Intel’s Robson offering primarily because they were processor independent and didn’t take up any additional real estate. Unfortunately, for AMD and the drive companies, hybrid hard drives didn’t work as advertised and Robson did. AMD bet on these drives and now is faced with having to get a similar technology to market quickly but Turbo Memory has one shortcoming that they may be able to leverage.

Currently Turbo Memory can’t be used to improve graphics performance ; while it can supplement system memory, in systems where memory is shared with graphics performance improvements it may not be so pronounced. If AMD can make its solution work more broadly available, it could create an advantage. But if this was easy, Intel would have done it so there is every indication that it would be vastly more difficult to do. Then again, AMD has ATI now and that might give them the engineering talent to get this done.

The Turbo Memory hard choice

In most of the laptop configurations I’ve seen Turbo Memory is on a card, not on the motherboard. It can use one of two typical card slots for customer configurable options. The other two things that use those slots are WiFi and WAN. I can’t picture a laptop without WiFi and have come to depend on WAN myself so trading either out would be painful. You could go to an external WAN card but range and performance will likely suffer (largely due to antenna placement) and that means many of us will have to choose.

I like Turbo Memory a lot and use a number of notebook computers so using an external solution for WAN actually makes a lot of sense for me. But, you probably will only have the one notebook. Fortunately most WAN solutions are $60 a month and that price probably keeps most of you away from doing the WAN thing right now.

Great new hardware

If you haven’t noticed the Hardware OEMS are starting to invest heavily in industrial design and you’ve already seen big changes in Dell and HP consumer products. With this announcement comes a laptop improvement from Gateway in the professional line, some new designs from HP, and even Sony has refreshed a number of offerings (and is probably inadvertently giving a little Apple preview in the process).

Gateway is probably showing the biggest move of any of the vendors right now as they move from a line that was relatively plain to one that now has a metallic edge. Pictures don’t do the products justice as they are dark gray and hard to photograph but these new offerings have a deep metal look and feel making vastly more attractive than anything out of that company for some time and, with ATI graphics on Intel in the 15 offering, potentially better performing than many of the other new products. Both are wide screen and sampling of what will be coming later from the company. The E-475 is the 15" wide screen model and the E-265M is the 14" wide screen. Generally, 14" wide is better for simple applications and 15" is vastly better for gaming or desktop use.

HP made a major push with nine new business and four consumer laptops all launched in Asia at their Mobility Summit in Shanghai. Some of these won’t show up on the market for several months yet. Several that will that now set the design pace for the company include the Compaq 2710 convertible (tablet/laptop), which is the first to have a light in the lid (like a ThinkPad) to light the keys in dark conditions. The HP Pavilion HDX which has a honking 20" screen and is basically a mobile gaming entertainment system and body building (it isn’t light) product.

Even more interesting was that HP announced the first HD/Blu-ray combo drive for their desktop systems, which records Blu-Ray (higher capacity) but plays back both formats. Realistically, this is the only way to go and I expect Apple will use a similar part, if they can, though the trick will be getting the price down and putting this into laptops (and we all know Apple loves to do stuff like this first, which makes HP’s lead in this area even more interesting). Some of the laptops launched, HP claims, have a 15 hour battery life and most have a new protective coating called "Durakeys" on the keyboards, which should extend the life of those keyboards 50%.

Sony did a broad refresh but the most interesting offering was their FZ series, which is probably a dead ringer for what Apple is likely to announce in a few weeks in their MacBook pro line. A very crisp product with a nice edge to it, you can picture consumer and executives alike drooling over this product. The high end product has the Nvidia GeForce 8400M offering (probably the way to go anyway), which is supposed to have market leading performance in the segment. Sony has a lower cost version with integrated graphics but that would be like buying a Ferrari with a V4 rather than a V8. The top unit has a Blu-Ray burner but, unlike HP, no HD-DVD support (granted that’s all they can really do now, but Sony is another company that could have done both early), which caused me to sigh once again about Sony’s historic media choice problem.

Wrapping up

This is only the start of what is probably going to be an incredibly rapid pace, even for this market, it terms of new post Vista/Leopard hardware. We still have the Quad-Core offerings for the desktop coming for the performance set and the broad consumer line refreshes for back-to-school and 4th quarter which are expected to, along with Apple’s offerings, dwarf what we have seen so far. You may want to hide your wallet for a few months because the temptations are only going to get worse as this year progresses.

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