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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 January 2008, 07:07 GMT
Ultra-mobile future beckons for PCs
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, in Las Vegas

Ultra mobile PCs are benefiting from more efficient chips

The desktop PC's days of dominance could be numbered as laptops and ultra-mobile PCs begin to reap the benefit of ever greater, and more efficient, computing power.

"We want to be mobile and not tethered to our desks anymore - we can take our computing power with us," said Mooly Eden, general manager of the mobile platform group at Intel.

"Today's laptops have more processing power than all the computers that took the Apollo rocket to the moon," he added.

Laptop sales are expected to overtake desktop sales around the world by 2009 as the shift to an untethered computer experience accelerates.

"Consumers want the performance of a desktop - they are not willing to compromise," said Mr Eden. "They want battery life, they want wi-fi connectivity and good form factor."

Intel is pushing hard into the mobile space. At CES this week the company announced five processors for laptops, using its latest chip designs made up of transistors with features just 45 billionths of a metre in size.

Toshiba UMPC
Today's ultra mobile PCs have the same power as 2005's laptops

It also announced a new dedicated chip set, called Menlow, which will power a new generation of ultra mobile computers.

"Much of our future, in terms of volume, is going to be in this area," Paul Otellini, chief executive of Intel told BBC News.

Sales of so-called Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPC), which were first launched in 2006, have been modest, but Mr Otellini said the market was still evolving.

"Ultra mobility is the ability to access all of your information, get in touch with anyone you want to, collaborate with anyone, and run any application you want from anywhere on the planet," said Dennis Moore, chief executive of OQO, which builds UMPCs.

He added: "It's about getting the same kind of connectivity and performance as sitting at your desktop PC."

Companies such as Samsung, iRiver, Lenovo, LG and Toshiba have committed to building these mobile devices.

At CES Mr Otellini showed off a Toshiba portable computer about the size of a paperback book running Windows Vista.

"The Menlow-powered device from Toshiba has the same performance as the most powerful Centrino laptop two years ago," he told BBC News.

Intel gave the Centrino label to a combination of chipset and wi-fi technologies optimised for mobile computers.

Key issue

"We will have dual and quad-core processors in these devices in just a couple of years," he added.

The relationship between computing power and battery life was the key issue in making portable computers practical, said Mr Eden.

"More performance means more transistors and more transistors means more power and more power is less battery life; that is a problem for laptops," said Mr Eden.

Power efficiency

The crucial development for ultra mobile devices is the power efficiency afforded by the latest chip designs.

Intel's Menlow chip set is five times smaller and consumes 10 times less power than ultra low voltage mobile processors introduced in 2006.

Soon you will be able to have connected experience everywhere you go
Dennis Moore, OQO

Mr Moore said: "Power is not an issue on a desktop, because a giant fan can suck the heat out of the machine; it is in a UMPC.

"You can measure the progress because a typical UMPC is smaller than the fan in a typical desktop computer."

He added: "Today's chips do not overheat, do not drain the battery in an hour."

Lightweight machine

The goal, said Mr Eden, was to build laptops - and UMPCs - which could run off a battery for an entire day.

Companies such as Qualcomm are also building processors to drive a new generation of lightweight computers. It unveiled two designs, called Anchorage and Fairbanks, at CES.

Other firms committed to a new generation of mobile computers include Taiwanese firm Asus, which has enjoyed success with its Eee PC - a lightweight machine, which can run Windows XP, and uses solid state drives instead of hard drives to keep the weight down and improve reliability.

Mr Eden said: "Moving to solid state drives is inevitable. This is a revolution that must happen. They have many advantages compared to rotational drives - they consume less power, they are more reliable because you don't have moving parts.

"This is the optimal solution for notebooks. The only problem today is the pricing. And for that reason economies of scale will play its game."

Solid state drives are more expensive to manufacture than hard drives as they are built from silicon - and lack the higher storage functionality of a hard drive.

However, Bit Micro are expected to announce a 2.5in 832 Gigabyte solid state drive at CES, closing the gap on hard disks.

For maximum mobility, Toshiba and Samsung both unveiled 1.8in solid state drives that can hold 128 GB of data.

Wireless broadband

Drives like this will start to make their way into devices in the coming months, along with other technologies such as Wimax.

The next generation wireless broadband will be introduced into a device from OQO later this year.

Its current flagship UMPC, the e2, can run Windows Vista operating system and can also connect to the net over wi-fi and 3.5G mobile networks.

At CES on Monday Asus also announced it would release a Wimax-enabled version of its Eee PC.

Mr Otellini said Intel too was looking to roll out Wimax in its chips designed for laptops in 2008.

"Soon you will be able to have a connected experience everywhere you go," said Mr Moore.

"You won't need to worry about finding a wireless hotspot and with improvements in battery life and power efficiency you won't need to worry about recharging," he added.

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