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Personal computing

Intel Canada's general manager Doug Cooper on the company's new chips and the future of PCs.

Last Updated May 14, 2007

Intel Corp. released its latest computer chips with built-in wireless networking capabilities on May 9. By the end of the year, the new processors are expected to find their way into more than 230 models of computer, most of them notebooks.

CBC News Online talked with Intel Canada's general manager Doug Cooper about trends in personal computing, the impact of advancing technology and the company's new Centrino Core Duo 2 and Pro chips.

What are the key differences between Intel's latest chips and the previous generation of processors?

We continue to focus on mobile performance, so we looked at three things: connectivity, battery life and performance.

The Intel Centrino Duo chips are designed to be more energy-efficient, so we can get five hours of battery life out of a notebook [computer]. So you can be on the road and leave your notebook running the entire time.

The architecture of the CPU [central processing unit] has added levels of power management — a turbo mode for demanding tasks and a lower power sleep mode. If I unplug my notebook from its power supply, it automatically goes into a reduced power-use mode to save battery life.

What are the factors you're looking at when you say the battery will last five hours?

That's a good question. We're trying to get people to think more in terms of energy efficiency. Battery life is a tricky thing because as they get older they begin to lose their ability to hold a charge.

When we're testing energy efficiency, what we do is put a watt-meter between the [test] bench and the wall and measure the kilowatt-hours we get.

What are some of the trends in personal computer use?

One thing we're seeing a lot more of is people staying connected when [they] travel. A lot of that is because they're now buying notebooks instead of desktops. [Market research firm] NPD and retailers say they saw the crossover three years ago, and [research and analysis firm] IDC says by 2010, notebooks will be 50 to 60 per cent of the market.

What does that mean for computer design?

One thing is that instead of having GPS [global positioning satellite system functionality] outside [of the computer through an add-on device] it should be inside. For ultra-mobile devices, GPS has to be in it, whether we do it or the manufacturers add in a chip.

So all of these [notebooks] will become location-aware — they will know where they are. That opens up all sorts of new possibilities for new web applications and the types of things you can do.

If you connect to a wireless network somewhere, you could check the Starbucks [coffee shop] website and it will tell you where the nearest one is, or you might get a coupon for the Starbucks that is just up the street.

Does Intel plan to add GPS right on the processor chip in the same way it has with wireless networking capability?

We're looking at it.

What is happening to desktop computers if so many people are moving to notebooks?

The desktop is changing. It's becoming more of a home entertainment device than a productivity device. People want, now, theatre wide-screen displays. They want high-definition quality displays, which will be a bigger push for us to manage the power [that the computer chip uses].

We're encouraging manufacturers to come out with creative, thin designs for desktop computers.

As the physical limits of a single processor are starting to be reached, are there other aspects to chip design that address other needs people have beyond just computing ability?

For one thing, it affected our decision to go to multiple [processing] cores [on a chip]. More cores means lower power consumption.

The thing we realized prior to [launching the line of chips branded] Centrino was that just innovating on the processor wasn't enough. That worked better for us in the [19]80s and '90s when people expected to get an increase in performance with each [chip] generation.

But there are many other things that influence the experience [of using a computer], like wireless [connectivity], graphics, battery life.

With wireless-N, we think we can make it less expensive and do a better job with managing power [than hardware makers], so we put it on the chip.

We will add WiMax [wireless networking capability] in 2008 because it just makes sense, especially in Asia and Europe.

If people are moving away from desktops toward notebooks, how much more important is wireless capability becoming?

We did some research last year and found that most small business [computer] users don't want to take long vacations because they don't want to be away too long. Now, with wireless [internet] access available almost anywhere, they can stay connected and keep an eye on things; they don't have to be away from their business even when they're travelling.

The big things [in chip design] have been [in] wireless capabilities.

People used to find they would open their notebook and have a weak [Wi-Fi] signal. That was because they were connecting to a reflection, not the actual signal itself.

[Wireless networking draft standard 802.11]-n has multiple antennas pointing in different directions — that [design] is part of the standard — so it will seek out and find the strongest signal, and that's what it will connect to.

We did 3,400 different tests [for wireless connectivity on the latest Centrino chips] and we increased performance by factor of two compared to where we started.

How are you measuring that performance increase? Ability to detect a Wi-Fi signal? Signal strength? Data rate?

In the course of testing, we improved our measured data rate in terms of throughput. [Throughput is the amount of data that can pass through a connection over a unit of time]

You can also do channel-bonding — if you have multiple [Wi-Fi signal] channels [available], you can bond them and get double the throughput.

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