by Dustin Sklavos, California USA
INTRODUCTION AND REFLECTING ON 2005
In this article, I’m going to be dealing in hard facts, coupled with a little bit of conjecture and speculation as to the future of mobile computing in 2006.
When we look back on 2005 we can see it as primarily a year of transition. Since the debut of Intel’s Centrino platform, coupled with ATI’s release of the Mobility Radeon 9600, notebooks have been maturing as a competitive computing platform at an alarming rate. While I don’t really think 2005 will be remembered necessarily as a banner year in new technologies, I think it was a strong transitional period. Mobile technology is maturing at an alarming rate; in 2006, we’re going to see some major milestones. I intend to cover most of them here.
2006 IN PROCESSORS
DUAL CORE AND X64
There are two major “no way back” technological milestones for processors right now: multi-core (remember, dual-core is just a stage) and 64-bit technology.
64-bit is by and large the standard for desktop processors now, with AMD finally picking up the rear by producing 64-bit Semprons. Unfortunately, the radical change in software required of 64-bit hardware, coupled with the kludge that is Windows XP Professional x64, has led to a general malaise toward the technology. While it’s an inevitable transition, it’s moving at a snail’s pace and ultimately may not matter even after Windows Vista arrives.
More than that, AMD is currently the only producer of true mobile 64-bit chips, and their presence in the exploding mobile market is frankly just not that strong.
The transition to multi-core, on the other hand, seems to be going rather smoothly. Multi-core operation offers immediate performance benefits in the way of smoother computing, and a software base for it was pre-existing in the form of multi-threaded applications that could take advantage of multiple processors in the same computer.
You see how it goes.
The problem with this year is that the move towards multiple cores coupled with 64-bit technology is inevitable, and at the moment it’s unwise to have one without the other. That makes buying a notebook right now a nightmarish task.
Which one would I choose, personally? Hard to say. But you’d better at least have one of those technologies.
THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING: INTEL’S CORE DUO
Yonah in the First Half
The first half of the year is seeing the gradual introduction of Intel’s Yonah dual-core processors, known to the consumer as Core Duo. Try to ignore Core Solo. I’m sure it offers fabulous battery life, but it’s not worth it.
With the Core series, Intel moves away from the Pentium M naming scheme and their existing model number scheme. Dual-core Centrino platform notebooks will now be known as Centrino Duo.
The model numbers for the Core series are as follows:
- T2600 2.16 GHz
- T2500 2.00 GHz
- T2400 1.83 GHz
- T2300 1.66 GHz
- T1300 1.66 GHz*
- L2400 1.66 GHz
- L2300 1.50 GHz
T represents standard chips with a heat dissipation of 31W, up 4W over existing Dothan core chips; L represents lower voltage chips with a heat dissipation of 15W. It’s a nice way of thumbing their nose at AMD by swapping the letter designations of their model numbers.
* The T1300 is a Core Solo with a heat dissipation of 27W, and should be shunned, mocked, and pantsed on the playground. It’s a modern dinosaur.
With the Core Duo comes a new Intel chipset, and early reports are that not only does the new Centrino Duo platform have substantially improved performance over the old Sonoma platform, but the battery life also either meets or exceeds it.
Unfortunately, Yonah still lacks support for 64-bit technology. While that wouldn’t necessarily be the death blow there, the knowledge of the next core coming makes the new Core Duo a difficult recommendation.
Merom in the Second Half
The Core Duo will see a new design in the second half of 2006 when it switches over to the new Merom core. The Merom chips will double the on-die cache of the Yonah chips in addition to bringing in 64-bit technology, thus making a complete, low power, 64-bit dual core mobile processor. Intel has even gone on record as saying they expect the power consumption of the Merom based Core Duo to be even lower than the Yonah based ones.
Excited? You should be. But it’s this foreknowledge of the Merom chips that serves to really blunt enthusiasm for the current Core Duo processors, even though they’re remarkable in and of themselves. Unfortunately, Merom is truly complete technology, while Yonah is more of a transitional stepping stone, and right now, we have Yonah.
ALWAYS OUTNUMBERED, NEVER OUTGUNNED: AMD’S DUAL CORE TURION
AMD hasn’t released details in months, but thus far appear to have kept to their existing roadmaps. They’re due to make an announcement soon, but here’s the information we have so far.
AMD’s roadmaps indicate that the Turion 64 will undergo a transition from being a single-channel, single core 64-bit architecture to a dual-channel, dual core 64-bit architecture, which I assume will be derivative of the upcoming Socket AM2 desktop Athlon 64 X2 processors just as the existing Turion 64 processors are derivative of Socket 754 desktop Athlon 64 processors.
What’s key is that if AMD can deliver the dual-core Turion 64 before Intel gets Merom out the door, in this author’s opinion, that would likely be the definitive choice for mobile processors, at least for a short while.
Unfortunately, AMD still doesn’t have a true dedicated mobile solution the way Intel does, and Intel will likely continue to beat them up, down, and sideways with low power consumption and heat dissipation in the mobile sector. Remember that the Centrino platform isn’t just the processor, it’s the processor AND the chipset (yeah, and the wireless). Intel continues to produce potent, low-power chipsets to pair with their processors, but AMD doesn’t have that. No one in AMD’s camp seems to be really interested in producing a low-power chipset, and as a result notebooks with their processors are basically using desktop chipsets which consume a lot of power.
And that’s a problem, but with any luck the problem will solve itself this year and help AMD gain a truly competitive edge in the notebook market.
Either way, dual-core Turion 64 is going to be the way to go if they can make it surface prior to Merom.
2006 IN GRAPHICS
The massive architectural and market changes in mobile processors are going to be paired not so much with change in the graphics sector as just progress, and in many ways, that’s very exciting.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, low-end parts don’t linger in the mobile sector like they do on the desktop. While you can still go and buy a brand new Radeon 9200 for your desktop, your low end notebook is going to be running a HyperMemory X300 or a GeForce Go 6200 – both superior parts to the aging 9200.
In 2006 we’re going to see a low end that rivals the existing mid-range, and this is only good news for mobile gamers. This will be the year where mobile gaming really matures – at least that’s my prediction. I’ll tell you why.
MOBILITY RADEON X1K SERIES
ATI is already releasing four Mobility Radeon parts for 2006, with more undoubtedly on the way. First up are the X1300 and X1400, both four-pipeline parts. The X1300 will have a low-end version running largely off of HyperMemory. The X1400 will be a higher clocked version of the X1300.
If you’ve seen the X1300 Pro’s desktop performance, you should feel heartened. Our entry-level part is going to at least exceed the performance of a Mobility Radeon X600, which is currently really the bare minimum for solid gaming performance. X1400 is just gravy from there.
Next is the X1600 which has already been spoken about and reviewed on the forums here. The X1600 is a mighty twelve-pipeline part that has performance sitting between an X700 and a GeForce Go 6800. Another fairly impressive notebook part.
ATI also announced the Mobility Radeon X1800XT. This I can’t be as forthcoming about, but word on the street is performance comparable to a desktop Radeon X1800XL.
All of these parts are Shader Model 3 ready and better, include ATI’s AVIVO technology which allows the GPU to assist in decoding H.264 hi-definition video, along with substantially accelerating transcoding between video formats.
ATI is also planning on releasing a four-pipeline IGP later this year. While it hasn’t been formally announced for notebooks, expect to see it. ATI claims performance comparable to an X600. Heck of a bare minimum isn’t it?
ATI has also gone on record as saying they will be releasing a driver that allows the notebook to switch to an IGP part when running on battery to conserve power. If this comes to fruition, it will be a major boon for mobile gamers, as they will now be able to achieve the desired mobility when unplugged, while getting excellent performance while plugged in. Details of this technology are sketchy, but it has been announced, so look for it.
GEFORCE GO 7 SERIES
nVidia has been less forthcoming with their mobile line, and I think that’s largely due to the slow rollout of their desktop 7 series. They have pages up on their site for their 7 series mobile parts, so we’ll discuss them briefly. Unfortunately, though, because there is no existing information on their desktop counterparts, it’s very difficult to gauge where these parts will wind up performance-wise.
In the low end, the GeForce Go 7300 and 7400 are the next generation analogues to the GeForce Go 6200 and 6400 respectively, and appear to inherit the same TurboCache shared memory architecture.
In the mid end is the GeForce Go 7600, which is an eight-pipeline part that will be competing against ATI’s twelve-pipeline X1600.
In the high end is the GeForce Go 7800 and Go 7800 GTX. The GTX is on the market already and is by far the fastest notebook GPU available. nVidia really hit this one out of the park; it’s pin-compatible with the Go 6800 and has the same thermal envelope, but is also a 24-pipeline part offering incredible mobile performance.
nVidia has admittedly never been much of a mobile GPU company, and that’s been readily apparent in the last generation of chips. One of their major downfalls as of late has been a lack of an IGP in the desktop and mobile markets, only having just recently re-entered the desktop IGP market. Unfortunately, they have nothing to compete with ATI’s Radeon Xpress 200M right now, and I expect that will continue through 2006 as well.
Still, nVidia has been providing enough of a challenge in the mobile world to at least keep ATI on its toes, but they don’t have anything this time around that really competes with what AVIVO brings to the table in terms of pure features, and as I mentioned, they’re sorely deficient in the IGP market, not even competing there at all.
This is hazy, but expect it to surface this year in boutique notebooks. Chipsets are becoming available from both nVidia and ATI that enable SLI and Crossfire respectively in notebooks, and many manufacturers, like Clevo, are experimenting with enabling these technologies in notebooks. The problem, however, is largely with cooling two GPUs in a notebook. Still, the zany die-hard gamers with cash to burn are going to want to keep an eye out for this.
If nothing else, it’s cool just to think about having a notebook running two GeForce Go 7800s in SLI, isn’t it?
2006 IN OPTICAL DRIVES
HD-DVD, BLU-RAY, ETC.
Even now, the battle rages on. Toshiba demonstrated a notebook at CES with an integrated HD-DVD drive, but quite honestly, you’re not going to want to worry about either of these technologies until they’re done tearing one another apart. Media buffs waiting for these to materialize would do well not to bet on either camp.
Early impressions of these technologies have been disappointing, since all they offer above DVD are a higher resolution picture along with extremely consumer-unfriendly, prohibitive Digital Rights Management schemes. DVD became popular because it was a universally agreed upon standard; the schism between the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps may very well be the end of them both.
All that said, I can see whichever one ends up victorious (assuming one is victorious at all) leading a prosperous life in the mobile market. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a DVD on your notebook, but watching something encoded at 720×480 on a 1280×800 screen can leave a lot to be desired. While the average person’s home TV has almost nothing to gain from either technology, his or her laptop will offer a somewhat crisper picture than it would with just a regular DVD.
Just some things to consider, but don’t hold off on buying a notebook on account of either of these. Everyone is by and large happy with DVD right now and those of us that have invested in 200+ DVD collections are going to be fairly hesitant to adopt a new technology that offers so little real value to the consumer.
2006 IN HARD DISKS
PERPENDICULAR HARD DISKS
In the middle of 2005, Seagate demonstrated a 2.5″ notebook hard drive that utilized a new method of storing data, called perpendicular recording. Without going into the esoteric details of the technology, it effectively doubles the usable space of a single hard disk platter. Platters in notebook drives are maxing out at 60GB right now, and at only two platters per notebook drive, we’re stuck at 120GB while desktop users are enjoying having dual 500GB hard drives.
Seagate’s perpendicular recording prototype drive stored 160GB – 80GB per platter. Keep in mind that greater data density on the drive contributes to improved read/write speeds, and perpendicular recording nearly doubles that density.
So what does all this mean to you? Perpendicular drives were demonstrated at CES this year, and we have every reason to believe they will begin surfacing on the market by the middle of the year. And because it’s just a change in the internal technology of the drive, they will be compatible with your existing notebook.
2006 IN OPERATING SYSTEMS
THE INTEL MAC
This is a painfully complex subject, but an exciting one, too. I’ll try and refine it down to its fundamental points. By now you’ve heard that Apple is transitioning to Intel chips, and in fact have MacBook Pro’s based on Intel’s Core Duo now available for sale on their site (shipping February, I’m told). To say the new MacBook Pro is sexy is the understatement of the year, and it immediately explains why Apple elected to make the switch to Intel chips from IBM’s PowerPC chips. And it comes with a Mobility Radeon X1600 standard! (Of course, maybe it’d better at that price point.) So now you have a mobile dual core processor, coupled with a GPU capable of doing video transcoding in hardware, under what has long been the definitive multimedia platform. Oh, and unlike PCs (well, Windows), Macs have been designed with parallelism in mind for years.
Yeah, I’d jump ship, too.
But it’s not all bread and roses. Apple has gone from a 64-bit chip, to a 32-bit dual core chip, and late this year they’ll be going to a 64-bit dual core chip. We know this to be true because it’s on Intel’s roadmap and has been readily announced.
Also note that Rosetta technology – that’s the technology that lets PowerPC apps run on the new Intel chips – is conditional. Like the emulation on Xbox360, some prior applications (and unfortunately, not old ones either) just won’t work. Visit Apple’s site for more information.
What it all amounts to is a massively transitory period for Apple and the Mac, and it’s a period that I would strongly advise against jumping aboard in. The software written specifically for the Intel platform isn’t quite ready to go yet. And Mac OS X is basically going from x64, to x32, and back to x64 again.
Be excited about the MacBook Pro and the transition. You have every right and reason to be. Hell, you know I am. But be patient and wait for it to finish moving through its growing pains.
Then we can all jump ship and be done with Windows. 😉
WINDOWS VISTA: WINDOWS XP IN MAC OS X CLOTHING
Windows Vista is set to release near the end of 2006, and if I know you, I know you’re keenly interested in making sure your hardware will fully support it.
Well, it won’t. Deal with it.
Okay, that’s a lie. By and large it will, but thanks to new Digital Rights Management “features” in Vista, some protected HD content may not play on your new machine. That’s because Vista checks your hardware to ensure it’s secure and certified, and if it’s not, you’re basically screwed. There’re more irritating DRM “features” in Vista, but by and large this forced obsolescence of some hardware seems to be what rubs most users the wrong way.
There’re also a lot of random, wild hardware requirements being thrown around for it and a lot of misinformation. This is rumor control: here are the facts.
You’re going to be okay. The reality is that it requires about the same hardware Windows XP does. I know this, because the beta is running perfectly fine on most computers available today. The big kicker is the Aero Glass interface, which requires hardware acceleration by the system’s GPU. For Aero Glass, the GMA 900 and lower users by and large won’t be able to enjoy all of the eye candy. Your bare minimum is going to be a 64MB true DirectX 9 class GPU; you can refer to my GPU guide to see where you fit in, but basically it’s Mobility Radeon X200M onward.
Worried about having a 64-bit processor? Don’t be. It’s been guaranteed there’ll be a 32-bit version of Vista for those that want it; in fact, nearest I can tell the “bitness” of Vista is sort of foggy, but I’m sure a helpful forum member will fill in the blanks. Understand that 64-bit is the future, but it’s not a prerequisite for enjoying Windows Vista.
Unfortunately, word of mouth regarding Vista right now is middling at best, and the consensus seems to be that it’s little more than a glorified Windows XP. But it’s not due out until late 2006 (think October/November), so there’s still time for change.
If you haven’t guessed by now, 2006 is going to be quite a year in mobile technology as multiple new standards come into place and new hardware enters the market and matures. I could speculate as to how things are going to go, but I’ll bulletpoint my key ideas:
- Dual core, 64-bit is the future. But dual core is the more immediate future.
- AMD could very well be first to market with a 64-bit dual core notebook processor.
- If you’re in no great rush to buy a notebook, wait until the second half of 2006 for Merom.
- It’s going to be a banner year for mobile gamers, as after ATI’s next IGP is released, the only notebooks that won’t be worth gaming with will be ones with non-ATI IGP parts.
- We could very well all be using Macs at the end of the year, but let’s wait until then to give the transition time to mature.
- Windows Vista isn’t the sure thing Windows XP was. Plan accordingly and don’t believe the hype.
- HD-DVD and Blu-Ray could very well die on the shelf.
- Bigger mobile hard disks! Still kinda slow, though. 🙁
Thank you, and here’s to a great 2006; it’s going to be an exciting year for notebook enthusiasts!