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Roads diverge on the way to thinner PCs

Posted: 01 Aug 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:thinner ultramobile PC? NanoBook? Net2Display specification?

Engineers are forging ahead on two fronts to define lower-power, lower-cost devices that deliver the full capabilities of a desktop PC. Via Technologies Inc. has announced a platform for ultramobile PCs (UMPCs), targeting users on the go. Meanwhile, a group of companies is putting the final touches on a standard for next-generation thin clients aimed mainly at businesses looking to reduce desktop costs without skimping on performance. The Video Electronics Standard Association (VESA) expects to finish a draft of its Net2Display specification in September.

"The big story is that all these things will breathe fresh life into a category of products that a lot of people have written off," said Bob O'Donnell, VP of clients and display research at International Data Corp. "We will see a variety of hardware and software alternatives. There are a lot of ways to tackle the problem, and each one has its trade-offs."

At the June Computex show in Taiwan, Via launched its mobile ITX, a 63mm x 45mm PC motherboard based on Via's 1.2GHz C7-M processor. "It's smaller than my name card," said Via CEO Chen Wen-chi, pulling one from his shirt pocket.

Via also unveiled a UMPC reference design called the NanoBook that will be the basis for products shipping later this year. The reference design weighs less than 850g and measures 230 x 171 x 29.4mm.

Aside from the C7-M processor, the NanoBook includes Via's VX700 chipset with integrated graphics, a full keyboard, a 7-inch WVGA screen with touch panel, up to 1Gbyte of DDR2 SDRAM and a 30-60Gbyte hard drive. The wireless suite consists of built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but users can add GPS and 3G/CDMA wireless broadband modules via USB slots. The company promises 4-5hrs of battery life.

First International Computer Inc. has already designed a product based on the platform, and Via said Packard Bell BV, a European PC maker, would base its forthcoming EasyNote XS on the NanoBook. The price of an end system is expected to fall under $600, a point the company believes will drive it into the mainstream consumer market.

Net2Display standard envisions ultrathin clients. Desktop may be only open-source software on sub-$100 terminal?

Cost hurdle
To date, UMPCs have sold for anywhere from $800 to $2,000. Analysts believe prices need to fall into the range of $199 to $299 without cutting corners on connectivity for consumers to warm up to them.

Intel Corp. is also trying to kick-start the UMPC. Anand Chandrasekher, who heads Intel's new UMPC group, demoed several UMPCs based on the company's Menlow platform at Computex. Menlow uses Intel's upcoming Silverthorne CPU and Poulsbo chipset, both made in 45nm technology and set for release before June 2008.

"Menlow is just the beginning," said Chandrasekher, comparing its importance to the launch of Centrino in 2003, a debut he also spearheaded. "Every year, we launched a new platform like clockwork. We are going to do the exact same thing here."

Intel is working with Option NV, a European company, to design compact cellular modules for ultramobile PCs. The Edge and HSPA modules should hit the market in the first half of 2008 and measure 25mm x 30mm x 2.5mm in an LGA package.

There's still plenty of market skepticism about the UMPC category, even if UMPCs do hit the right size and price points.

"Category creation is not easy," said Chandrasekher, but he quickly added that it "is very doable."

Boosting thin-client PCs
On a separate front, work is proceeding on the VESA Net2Display spec, which defines an approach to building thin clients that are simpler yet powerful enough to handle full-motion video. As many as 20 companies have worked on the standard, which could be ratified by the end of the year, said Kenneth Ocheltree, an IBM Corp. researcher who co-chairs the effort. He expects multiple products based on the work using various combinations of hardware and software to hit the market by early 2008.

Taiwan's players are racing to support the UMPC. Shown is HTC's shift.

"I think most of the major computer companies are involved in this," he said. VESA has not disclosed names of corporations participating in the effort, but Ocheltree said about 12 companies are active now.

The standard essentially enables a kind of network-attached display, greatly reducing the need for software updates and patches to the client device, which acts like a local graphics frame buffer, Ocheltree said. It provides specific primitives for handling video with help from a graphics controller at the server.

Backers hope the spec could ultimately enable suitably equipped computer monitors to act as remote PCs as long as they have a built-in Ethernet port. "This could be useful at home or in the office," said Ocheltree.

VESA is working on a reference implementation of the Net2Display specification. It's roughly based on Columbia University's Think project, which was the genesis of the effort. The VESA group expects to release an open-source version of its software.

Varied implementations
The standard envisions multiple implementations at different performance levels, although exact details of its overall approach have not been released.

Separately, startup Teradici Corp., which co-chairs the Net2Display effort, recently released chips to power a new generation of thin clients. In addition, Wyse Technology Inc., which dominates this area, said it plans to upgrade its software to support many of the features Teradici announced.

For its part, NEC Corp. in November rolled out a thin-client system using a chip from startup ServerEngines LLC. The approach provides improved performance over past products for video and VoIP, but it requires software support for each media codec or format, forcing regular updates when those elements change.

IDC estimates that about 3.3 million thin-client PCs will be sold this year, up from 2.7 million in 2006a small sliver of the estimated 90 million business desktops expected to ship each year by 2008. Businesses like the systems because they save the cost of a full PC for every user. Today's thin clients typically lag full desktop performance in several respects, howevera fact that has kept the market small.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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