Putting your notebook on a diet

Or how the mobile PC is changing its shape


Getting overweight normally means going on a diet. Not always the nicest time. Yet overweight is how some people describe their notebook computer nowadays. And for mobile users, weight is often a key buying criteria. The question is, how do you put a notebook on a diet? Traditionally a notebook was defined as 3 kg weight and A4 proportions. But few models meet these two limits nowadays.

At the beginning it was easy. You took a desktop, removed most of the bells and whistles, shrank the screen and with some clever miniaturisation you got an A4 box of approximately the right weight. The problem today is that notebook manufacturers cannot remove most of the bells and whistles. For years notebooks were criticised as incomplete PCs. Now that miniaturisation and low-power modes have resolved so many challenges, everything is included.

Your desktop has a sound system? Your notebook too. Your desktop has a CD-ROM? No problem, we'll slot that in as well. You need a built-in modem, 2 MB video subsystem and 16 MB of memory? Of course we can pack that all in also. But you don't mind if we loosen up on the size and weight a little as well?

Fortunately for the notebook carrier, 1997 offers help. A new diet of specialised electronics will allow manufacturers to build mobile PCs with a range of features in shapes and sizes never before possible. From hand-held featherweights up to 4 kg road-warrior monsters, 1997 will offer you more mobile choice than for many a year. But don't believe all this comes cheaply. Nobody ever saved money on a specialised diet.

Life through an envelope

Certainly the most visible change this year will hit you right between the eyes. Notebooks with screens in the wide-screen 16:9 format are on the designing board right now. Indeed some are already on the shelves, for example, Sharp's Wide Note PC-W100-T. 16:9 has several advantages for users. The "envelope" format is much more natural for the eyes, approximating to the natural field of vision that our eyes perceive. In an age where eye strain from computers is a growing danger, this can only be an improvement.

For users, 16:9 offers other practical advantages. The horizontal ratio of 16 is four times a standard 4:3 screen, but the vertical ratio of 9 is only three times. The effect is more pixels available across the screen for more data or better detail. Put simply, the greater width brings you 25% more viewing area. For spreadsheet users, the benefits are clearly enormous. For word-processing, text can be more easily displayed at true size and in graphics programs, increased pixel density means more detail or clearer pictures.

For notebook designers 16:9 offers further advantages, which inevitably flow to the user. 16:9 is much closer to the ratio of a keyboard size than any other screens so far. The keyboard is often seen as the one "immutable" aspect of mobile PC design: companies are not trying to redesign the human finger. Now that screen and keyboard are in closer harmony, engineers can construct flatter, wider products, breaking the A4 stricture on notebooks. Flatter is easy to carry. Wider is easier to type on.

To CE or not to CE

Microsoft too has its ingredients for the notebook diet. Announced in a blaze of publicity at Comdex in the USA last autumn, Windows CE is the lightweight version for hand-held PCs. This is already Microsoft's second attempt at a slimmed-down version of its megabyte-addictive operating system. This time Microsoft was careful to get manufacturers on its side in advance and a range of models were introduced at the same time as Windows CE itself.

But rather than clear the air, Windows CE unfortunately blurs the distinction between full notebooks PCs and hand-helds. Why do you need three and a half kilos when 600 grammes of Windows CE will do the job just as well? You don't of course. But Windows CE will not always do the job you need. Microsoft has not created a new operating system to make Windows 95 redundant! And this leaves much room for confusion.

Having a unified interface on different PCs has its appeal. Nobody wants to learn unnecessary commands and software. Windows CE offers many standard, but not all, Word and Excel features. Using Windows CE, some of your favourite commands may be lost. Other programs will not run at all under it. Experienced users may get frustrated with CE at some stage, with the reaction: "I'll take a full-function notebook PC next time, I know I can rely on that." More interestingly a full-function Windows 95 PC doesn't have to be much heavier than a CE model.

Oh my! What a little book!

When Toshiba announced the Libretto 20 in Japan on 17th April last year, many heads in the computer industry looked shocked. Here was an 800 gramme featherweight, demanding to be called a fully-functioning Windows 95 PC. A non-Intel processor equivalent to a DX4 75MHz powers this smallest of notebooks. A 270 MB hard disk, 8 MB memory and a colour TFT screen showing 65,536 colours were also included. The whole unit measures just 210 x 115 x 34 millimetres.

Yet the claim to full PC functionality was hard to refute. The Libretto also comes with serial, parallel and Infrared ports as well as a PC Card Type II slot, e.g. for networking, modems or a SCSI adaptor. An external floppy can be accessed via the PC Card port. Memory can be expanded to 20 MB.

Both sales in Japan and praise world-wide for the Libretto have exceeded all expectations. As a response, the Libretto 30 and 50 models have been added to the range. These include an 810 MB hard disk, integrated sound system and a 75MHz Intel Pentium processor. Toshiba is also considering launching the product in other parts of the world. The latest versions were on show at CeBIT 97, including an Intel Pentium-based model. This helped Toshiba judge demand in the European market.

The march of miniaturisation

What has made the Libretto possible is the relentless march of miniaturisation. In early notebook days, the challenge was simply to make all desktop features small enough for a notebook. Nowadays other forces are also pushing researchers to create ever smaller components: power consumption and competition both play major roles.

Power supply in particular is a bane of mobile design. Although batteries have improved from nickel cadmium, to nickel hydride and now to lithium ion, with other improvements such as square cells along the way, power supply is still way below the optimum. So new technologies in notebooks are only possible if the power requirements are throttled from the start. CD-ROMs had to wait until low-powered drives and in particular low-powered lasers could be manufactured. PCI chip sets also had to be created in 3.3 volt versions before they could be built into notebooks.

Existing technologies have had their power consumption squeezed too. Hard disks and screens offer higher capacities with lower weights and lower power needs. Memory and other control chips have all had their voltage reduced. For Intel the pressure of power consumption forced the design of Pentium processors with low-power cores. Voltage Reduction Technology however also solved another processor notebook problem - it reduced the heat levels generated inside the PC. This has allowed notebooks to use ever faster Pentium chips without melting their cases.

Pentium peaks conquered

The competition to put ever more features into traditional notebook PCs has produced innovations and knowledge that has now made it possible to produce models such as the Toshiba Portégé 660CDT. Here is a notebook that weighs just 2.5 kg with floppy drive or 2.7 kg with 10-speed CD-ROM drive included. At the same time it is powered by a 150 MHz Pentium processor, 16 MB of EDO-RAM and a 1.2 GB hard disk. Even two years ago such a combination would have been considered impossible. Now when you are reaching such technological heights at 2.5 kg, it no longer seems so exotic to reach DX4 or the low Pentium foothills in 800 gramme Librettos.

You can also view this development as another step in the conquest of mobility. The first mobile PCs were 7 or 8 kg monsters and it took several years until technology was able to create the 3 kg A4 packages that have conquered mobile computing. Seven years on from the notebook, so we are entering a new generation of technological expertise that allows us to produce even smaller, yet still fully-functional mobile PCs. This is the logical extension of the greed of notebook users for ever more features.

Price stable, inflation saved

As researchers have miniaturised in response to the competitive market pressures, two results have shone through: technical progress costs money but progress offers wider choice. What this means for the user is that the price of new technology is keeping the unit price of a notebook more or less same. Of course, as you get ever better hardware for your money, you could say notebooks suffer from technology inflation. But it is still the same price level, which means that the price is lower in real terms.

Notebooks prices will not therefore fall to desktop levels. This is not despite lack of competition. It simply reflects the true costs of the leaders in the field. When Toshiba, IBM, Sharp, or another electronics giants invest millions of dollars in new technologies, the market has to provide a return on this investment. This is reflected in the prices of the new miniaturised components.

More or less, not more for less

The second benefit of miniaturisation is that manufacturers can now offer more choice in mobile shapes and sizes by judiciously combining older capacities with new technology. This poses the "more or less" question. More capacity in the same space or less capacity in a smaller space? The Portégé 660CDT is clearly one of the most innovative examples of the former, the Libretto equally innovatively represents the latter.

The Libretto 20 notebook costs in Japan the equivalent of approximately DM 3200. This shocks many people who expect lighter weight machines to costs less. But price, as we have seen, is a function of technological development, not the number of grammes. As more and more shapes and combinations become available in 1997 price will be seen as part of the complex matrix that improving technology, slim-line forms and new screens offer. If the Libretto weighs more per gramme than a 3.7 kg Tecra, does that make it more or less valuable? Obviously only a user can answer this. And his answer will depend on his needs.

Needs are indeed what should anyway determine which product to buy. In the fast changing world of mobile computing, nothing is more certain than that tomorrow's models will be different. And almost certainly faster. To get full value from a mobile PC in 1997 the golden rule will apply more strongly than ever before: choose a PC that meets your needs now and in six months time. And after this year's special diets have been applied, you'll have the widest range of PCs to choose from.