2006 Laptop Technology — A Year in Review of What Happened

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by Dustin Sklavos

INTRODUCTION

Well, I can say with relative certainty that I was largely off with my predictions for 2006 in what would happen with the notebook market. That’s okay; this is a screwy market and certainly we shouldn’t be relying on manufacturers to release products on time and as publicized. The sign of a good marketing department is being able to take a lame duck and make it look like it’s swimming.

There are other factors I didn’t account for in my predictions for the past year, and then there were just random surprises and shifts in the marketplace.

Ultimately, 2006 was an odd but nonetheless exciting year for technology, albeit less so for the notebook market which will have to wait until 2007 for all this crazy desktop technology to make the transition.

2006 IN PROCESSORS

DUAL CORE AND X64

I described these two as "no way back" technological milestones for processors, and that’s for the most part the case. Superficially.

64-bit technology is, I’m convinced, fairly stillborn. For certain, the transition in the mobile market was made this year from Core Duo to Core 2 Duo, and the Turion 64 X2 hit the pavement face first.

The problem is that 64-bit processors have been around for a while now, existing entirely as glorified 32-bit chips, and this year didn’t do anything to change that. Windows Vista has been frequently delayed, and early reports of the 64-bit version haven’t exactly been stellar, citing it as incrementally better than XP Professional x64. The consensus from beta testers has been that even if you can run it, run the 32-bit Vista instead. Ouch.

Multi-core chips, however, have had a much smoother ride and have successfully trickled down to the budget market. Multi-threaded applications haven’t been surfacing as much as we’d hoped, but the technology has a foothold and at least the benefits to it have been immediate.

The bonus to notebook users, however, has been that now you can have 64-bit dual core processors, sealing that future-proofing deal in case either technology ever becomes truly relevant.

Bitter? Naw. But my experience with dual core processing coming off of a high-powered single core chip has left me somewhat wanting. It’s not revolutionary, only evolutionary.

INTEL STEALS PAGES FROM AMD’S MARKETING PLAYBOOK

Intel’s marketing department – the same one that kept the Pentium 4 alive well after its usefulness – seems to have shot itself in the face this year. Let me explain.

First of all, you’re relying almost entirely on the model number to differentiate between a Yonah (Core Duo) and Merom (Core 2 Duo) based notebook. Apparently it would’ve killed Intel to term the Merom-based notebooks Centrino 2 Duo or Centrino Duo 64, or some kind of signifier that said these chips were better.

Second of all, it doesn’t even actually matter that much. Merom was such an incremental upgrade to Yonah that it by and large went unnoticed. If you visit the forums here and see the initial wave of "should I upgrade my notebook Core Duo to a Core 2 Duo?" threads, you’ll see that the answer was frequently "no, it’s not really worth it." Because it’s not: at the same clock speed you see a 10% performance increase at most. More than that, the 64-bit functionality isn’t relevant and it’s unlikely it will become relevant in the lifetime of that notebook.

Third of all, early announcements and all around media pimping of the Merom made the Yonah appear half-baked before it was even out of the gate; even my article from the beginning of the year hyped it as much. The question became "should I wait for Core 2 Duo?" I wish I could’ve known to say "no." Merom is essentially an undervolted, underclocked Conroe desktop chip. Die hard computer geeks, who does Turion 64 that remind Turion 64 you of Turion 64?

Probably one of the most disappointing points in all this is that Intel should be improving battery life with new iterations of its mobile chips, or at least stabilizing it. But the Core 2 Duo’s 10% performance improvement has, for the first time in the history of the Centrino platform, put the performance ahead of battery life. If you want Core 2 Duo power, you’d better be willing to trade a bit of battery life for it. For most of us, that’s just not worth it.

Intel had a really good thing going with the Centrino platform and it’s disappointing to see it suddenly stagnate.

Amusingly, it was Intel’s release in the desktop market that really blew away all of us tech geeks. The desktop Core 2 Duo is by all accounts an absolute monster. When I can achieve better than AMD top of the line performance from my $320 Intel processor, that’s a huge deal. The desktop Core 2 Duo, codenamed Conroe, is so good and so efficient that notebook manufacturers were talking about putting them in desktop replacement notebooks around August of this year.

To wit: this is a desktop chip that is faster, cooler, and more heat efficient than the Mobile Athlon 64s AMD was putting into notebooks as recently as last year. So I guess my $20,000 question is: why can’t I get this in a notebook yet? If Gateway and HP were shoehorning a freaking Prescott Pentium 4 into a 15.4" chassis, Conroe seems like an obvious choice.

Hopefully we’ll see it in 2007.

AMD ARRIVES TO THE PARTY WITH TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

Guys, you hurt me. I’ve been batting for the green team for years. The notebook I had before my current one was AMD. The desktop I had before my current one ran through two different AMD processors. If all things are equal, I buy AMD.

I said that the Turion 64 X2 had a real chance to get a foothold in the mobile market as the first 64-bit dual core notebook processor.

Now, I’ve read that AMD’s shrewd purchase of ATI is going to mean ATI has to stop paper launching hardware and start putting it on the shelves when they say they’re going to. That’s wonderful. Who’s going to hold AMD to that?

The Turion 64 X2 arrived so late to the party that the word "Merom" was already on everyone’s lips by the time it made it to shelves. Worse still, the Turion 64 X2 frankly…sucks. Maybe that’s too harsh, but performance wise it isn’t measuring up to Intel’s mobile offerings.

The 64 X2 is available in 1.6 GHz, 1.8 GHz, and 2 GHz flavors. The problem is that Intel’s low end on Core Duo’s release was 1.66 GHz, their high end was 2.16 GHz, and the Core Duo is generally a more efficient architecture than the 64 X2. Ouch.

Worse, reports surfaced that the pricing on the Turion 64 X2s wasn’t even very competitive as a budget solution against the Core Duos, a market segment that AMD had traditionally excelled in tapping. It hearkens back to how frustrated I was when the Athlon 64s were released with price tags in the same brackets as Intel’s Pentium 4s.

Note to AMD: there’s no shame in grossly undercutting the competition on price. After all, Intel just did that to you with the desktop Core 2 Duo, forcing you to make massive cuts to the pricing of your desktop line as well as making you rely on Dell, the perennial supporter of the underpowered and overpriced. (Note how Dell was the only company to aggressively try to keep Pentium 4s afloat in their heyday.)

It isn’t all bad news on AMD’s front.

The purchase of ATI was an extremely odd one initially. Why not nVidia, the company that’s been producing the finest AMD chipsets on the market for years now, while ATI and Intel had been cozying up? So glad you asked.

Purchasing ATI does two things for AMD: it gives them an experienced in-house chipset developer, something they haven’t enjoyed for a while, and it hamstrings Intel, who had been relying on ATI to produce budget IGPs and boards (ironically better than their mainstream IGPs) for their platform. Intel and ATI had also been collectively pimping ATI’s desktop Crossfire dual graphics platform.

If nothing else, AMD is learning, and they’re working on a genuinely competitive PLATFORM. Not just a name for a chip, but a complete chip and chipset package to compete with Intel’s market dominating Centrino initiative.

Would I buy AMD hardware? Ask me again in six months.

As a sidenote, this purchase may finally force nVidia’s hand on SLI certification. If nVidia finally opens up the spec (says the guy with a P965 board with two graphics card slots), it wouldn’t be very good for AMD/ATI, but it would be GREAT for the consumer and GREAT for nVidia. But for now, SLI remains limited to nVidia boards. At least, officially.

2006 IN GRAPHICS: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Notebook graphics made very incremental improvements this year, if that, but there were SOME improvements and by and large I was correct in one prediction: this year’s low end does indeed rival last year’s existing mid range.

ATI

The effects of the AMD buyout on ATI and their relation to the graphics industry are too hard to tell for the future, but they were pretty clear for this year: while their desktop products continued with refresh after refresh, their mobile products stagnated and more than that, the big four-pipeline IGP release they had planned wound up getting seriously delayed and not surfacing at all, leaving us to deal with a refresh in name only of the Radeon Xpress 200M, called the Radeon Xpress 1100 and 1150. Woo.

The rumored driver that allows the notebook to switch to an IGP part on battery also never surfaced, but rumors are that it will surface next year as part of AMD’s mobile platform initiative.

The X1600 largely remained ATI’s mobile part of choice this year, with a minor refresh into the X1700 toward the end of the year that saw a very minor performance improvement if any, but lower power consumption and heat dissipation. I’m pleased to report that at least in the mobile world, their X1600 architecture certainly lived a better life than it did in the desktop world where it had the misfortune of tangling with nVidia’s infinitely superior (and still choice) GeForce 7600GT.

ATI’s relationship with Intel is, unfortunately, now largely up in the air. While they were doing everyone a favor and producing IGPs for Intel’s low end this year, they’re drying up, and it’s unlikely we’ll see another part for Intel out of the ATI camp.

NVIDIA

I apologize, I’ve been entirely too negative. This was the year that made me an nVidia convert and believer, and I wasn’t the only one. nVidia’s mobile market share grew by leaps and bounds.

It seems like in the course of a few months, nVidia’s GeForce Go 6100 and 6150 IGPs swept the Radeon Xpress under the rug, and with good reason. While their performance is only incrementally better than the Radeon Xpress, it’s still better. With the advent of this part, major manufacturers like HP made the switch to nVidia entirely.

The Go 7300, 7400, and especially 7600 parts all made big splashes this year and rightfully so. The Go 7600, in particular, has excellent thermal characteristics that in many instances made it a more desirable part to use than the X1600 and it’s my understanding it’s also the less expensive of the two. The Go 7400 saw excellent market penetration as well.

I’m very impressed with the turnaround nVidia’s made in the mobile market; 2006 saw them really become a major player instead of just an alternative to ATI, and it’s my understanding they actually succeeded ATI as a producer of mobile parts.

2006 IN OPTICAL DRIVES

HD-DVD and Blu-Ray were released this year and received with a collective "meh." Their notebook penetration was if at all possible even less inspiring than their living room performance. Continuing our juvenile use of double entendre, we can say that their introduction was flaccid.

HD-DVD saw its notebook introduction in a single entry in Toshiba’s Qosmio line, placing its cost of entry in the notebook envrionment at:

a. $2,999

and b. 17" overwrought "desktop replacement"

In other words, screw it. But you can’t ask too much, this was HD-DVD’s first year on the market and it’s not like they had all year to at least make some kind of effort to push it.

And Blu-ray? Well, its introduction was in a single Sony Vaio notebook, and it has the same problems the HD-DVD notebook did. The specs between the systems are virtually identical, actually, with the Sony trading 40GB of hard disk space (you’d think at $2,999 they’d at least pack in 240GB like Toshiba did) for a faster video card (the difference between a Go 7600 and Go 7600GT is a sizable one.

But ultimately, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, two technologies that are really prime to help out the notebook user (due to the naturally higher resolution of notebook displays) appeared in our market all but stillborn.

Hey, there’s always 2007.

HARD DISKS a.k.a LET’S GET PERPENDICULAR!

Well, here’s a new technology that didn’t take that long to shuffle into our market from desktops, and that’s probably because we’re the ones that need it most. 2006 saw our drive capacity jump from physically oversized 120GB drives to lean 160GB ones, and their market penetration has actually been fairly quick. Toshiba even beat everyone else out of the gate with a monstrous 200GB notebook drive!

Of course, thanks to perpendicular recording you can also score a downright obese 750GB on the desktop.

At any rate, perpendicular recording is here, reliable, and affordable. And this is how you smoothly introduce technology into the market.

This year has actually been GREAT in this market, though, as prices of these drives all but tanked over the course of the year. The 100GB 7200rpm drive in my laptop, for example, would’ve cost more than $300 before the beginning of the year; now it can be had for just $130 on NewEgg. If you bump speed down, you can have a 100GB drive in your notebook for less than a buck a gig, unheard of before this year.

HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES?

As a sidenote, this is the year that finally saw me as an iPod convert. I don’t know what to tell you. Apple’s iPod is THE product of choice for a reason.

There’s no question the Intel Mac has been a runaway success for Apple, but it hasn’t all been bread and roses, with reports of serious heat issues plaguing virtually every MacBook line. The old adage sticks: never buy version 1.0 hardware from Apple.

Of course, I had a friend in college that liked her shiny new MacBook because "it keeps me warm in the winter." So there you go. If you live someplace cold (my mother just moved to North Dakota and said they were having a heatwave; when I asked her what the temperature was, she said "23 degrees"), consider their thermal issues a "feature."

That said, the new MacBooks are downright FIERCE, powerful machines, and Apple scored a strong coup with users by allowing dual booting of Windows on their MacBooks. And also – and this seems small potatoes – but am I the only one that really likes the new keyboards on the MacBooks? Not the Pros, the regular ones. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the most comfortable notebook keyboards I’ve ever used.

What really impressed me, though, was that Apple made the transition from 64-bit to 32-bit to 64-bit remarkably gracefully (G4 to Core Duo to Core 2 Duo); invisibly, actually. I wish Microsoft could figure that out.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as quick to make the transition as I thought I’d be, and the reasons are fairly simple and stupid: keyboard layout is missing needed PC keys, and the mouse is still only one frigging button. Come on Apple. You got with the program on the desktop when you started shipping Mighty Mouse, let’s get a second mouse button all up in this beezy.

WINDOWS VISTA IS COMING OUT EVENTUALLY

I’ve been playing with virtually every build that came down the (illegitimate) pipe since Beta 2 and I can tell you that Vista made some massive leaps forward and has progressed nicely, turning into a very sexy, very enjoyable to use operating system.

In my opening article this year I did rumor control on the minimum hardware requirements for Vista and since every other post on our boards is still worried about running Vista, I’m going to save you some grief here.

800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM, 20GB hard disk, DVD-ROM drive. Congratulations! You can run Vista. Got a DX9 part with 128MB of video memory to kill? Congratulations! You can run Aero Glass, the new interface and the chief reason to get Vista in my opinion. Yes, it’s stuffed with security features and other enhancements (the Games Explorer is H.O.T. HOT!), but Aero Glass is what you’ll be dealing with on a daily basis.

It’s a good reason Aero Glass is as sexy as it is, too, because you’re going to be seeing a lot of it with how intrusive Vista’s security features are. User Account Control is every bit as irritating as you’ve heard. For those uninformed, whenever you make any change that Windows regards as potentially threatening to your system, such as looking at it funny or tying your shoe, a prompt will appear on the screen asking you if you’re sure you want to look at the computer funny or tie your shoe. This prompt locks your system until you respond to it. It’s the very definition of a nuisance.

At least you can disable it.

Oh, and those of you worried about your 32-bit processors? Sleep easy! Microsoft has your back. Proving they haven’t learned anything from their shoddy 64-bit implementation in Windows XP Professional x64, Vista x64 is just as rife with compatibility problems and it’s my understanding that most testers/users have been sticking with the 32-bit version.

That said, Microsoft is making a big push for hardware manufacturers to release drivers for both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista, so maybe someday, if you’re really good, they’ll actually take advantage of those 64-bit registers on your processor that have been comatose for the past three years(!).

Okay, okay, I know I’m being kind of a pill. Honestly, Vista’ll be a worthwhile upgrade when Microsoft gets around to releasing it, which after numerous delays is finally supposed to drop like it’s hot in our little hands at the end of January 2007. Hopefully by then the hardware incompatibilities that have been plaguing the beta will have been ironed out, particularly the gaming performance ones. Sure would like to be able to use those shortcut keys on my ASUS A8Jm notebook.

But rest assured, Vista is plenty fast and operates at a good clip as long as you give it enough RAM to munch on. Oh, and maybe it’s just me, but it feels like multi-tasking on it with dual core chips has been a heck of a lot faster and smoother. Is it just me?

CONCLUSION

Hey, I bought into the hype, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve been writing here for a year and a half now and following technology for at least three times that, you’d think I’d have adopted an "I’ll believe it when I see it" attitude by now.

So what has 2006 given us?

  • Typical evolution of graphics parts, but at least we have Shader Model 3.0 across the board in our dedicated parts, even though on the slow ones it’s about as useful as tits on a bull.
  • AMD screwed the pooch releasing the Turion 64 X2, but the buyout of ATI should have profound effects on the future, and positive ones.
  • HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are languishing on the shelf.
  • 64-bit is still. not. important.
    • (But now you can get it with relative ease.)
  • Even poor people can buy dual core notebooks now!
  • Bigger mobile hard disks! Still kinda slow, though. 🙁

Thank you, and here’s to a middling 2006! 2007, anyone?



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