The Evolution of the WinTel PC to be Revealed

The next evolution of the Personal Computer (PC) running Windows and Intel Architecture (WinTel) will likely be shown this week at Microsoft’s “Build” conference for software developers.  If reports are accurate, I will predict a seismic shift in the WinTel world.

Most news reports expected an early build of Windows 8 running on a tablet with an ARM processor (typical processor used in smartphones and tablets) to be shown at the conference, but news leaked to CNET’s Brooke Crothers that Windows 8 will be shown on a Samsung tablet computer running on an Intel processor.  Crothers expressed surprise because it ran counter to conventional wisdom that ARM processors are far more energy efficient than typical Intel processors used in PC desktops and notebooks.

Tablets like the Apple iPad have less than half the battery capacity and size of a typical notebook computer, yet the iPad can play video for more than twice the duration (11 hours).  More importantly, tablet computers are “always on” because they can standby for days or weeks at a time on a single battery charge without ever being shut down.  This is impossible for conventional Intel processors and notebooks running on Intel chips. They are typically limited to 5-15 hours of standby time and must be shutdown or at least put to sleep.  Long battery life and the always on capability are some of the key differentiators driving the explosive growth in Apple iPad and Android tablets.  Microsoft actually produced a Tablet PC ten years ago, but the machines failed to gain traction. They were several times heavier, cost several times more, and only had a fraction of the battery life of the modern Apple iPad.

Crothers inferred the possibility of tablets running on more energy efficient Intel’s “Sandy Bridge” processors and Intel “Atom” processors, but those products are not nearly good enough in terms of run time or standby time.  The NVIDIA’s Kal-El quad-core ARM processor rumored for the Build Windows 8 demonstration won’t be in production until the end of the year.  It’s still possible that Microsoft could simply demonstrate a tablet based on existing dual-core ARM processors that are already on the market, but that isn’t consistent with leaked news of an Intel based solution.

Intel Moorestown and Medfield

The obvious answer that seems to be escaping everyone is Intel’s new breed of processors called “Moorestown” and “Medfield.”  Moorestown went into production in 2010 and Medfield went into production in February of 2011.

Image credit – Intel IDF 2009 slides

These processors are compatible with the 30-year-old Intel architecture used in all PCs, which means they will run existing PC software without any modification, but these two chips lack some Input/Output (I/O) capability such as the PCI Express bus.  The lack of this I/O helped reduce energy leakage according to analyst David Kanter of Real World Tech, and this allows the chips to be 50 times more efficient in standby mode compared to existing Intel chips that require 1.6 watts in standby mode.  That means Intel’s Medfield processor needs less than 0.032 watts of power in standby mode – a Medfield based tablet with the 25 watt*hour battery used in the iPad tablet can idle for 32 days without being turned off.  While one month of standby battery life might not seem like a design necessity, but people want a device that doesn’t lose half its battery life over night if they forget to charge it.  The only way to achieve a usable always on system is to have near zero power leakage in standby mode.

Given that these super efficient chips from Intel have been out for more than a year, one might wonder why they aren’t already being used in the market.  For one thing, Microsoft Windows can’t run on Intel chips without all of the legacy I/O functionality like the PCI bus.  But that will change with Windows 8, as will be demonstrated in the next few days.  This isn’t even the first time Windows 8 was demonstrated on these legacy-free Intel processors.  Windows 8 was demonstrated on Intel Moorestown at CES 2011.  Whether or not Microsoft will demonstrate Windows 8 on Intel Medfield (or Moorestown) remains to be seen, but that seems to be the only rational course of action, since no other Intel product can match ARM processors.

Windows 8 closing the touch gap

Besides the heavy weight and poor battery life, Microsoft’s Tablet PC required the use of a special stylus pen that was difficult to use, and easy to lose.  Apparently even Hitler couldn’t bring himself to use the Tablet PC stylus.  Apple’s responsive multi-touch user interface and capacitive touchscreen on the iPhone and then the iPad forced everyone else in the industry to drop the stylus for tablet navigation.  Windows 8 will close the touch gap with the new optional “metro” interface that arguably surpasses the Apple iPad.  For desktop computers, Windows 8 will substantially improve boot times.  The touch responsiveness gap can apparently be closed by eliminating the mouse double-click wait state, but one can only assume that this will be incorporated into Windows 8’s Metro interface.

Better late than never

Among many tech writers and analysts, Microsoft and Intel were effectively perceived as dead men walking with the imminent death of the WinTel PC approaching.  The lack of faith in these two companies is somewhat understandable given the amount of time it takes them companies to respond to immense threats.  Less than two years ago before the introduction of Apple’s iPad, no one even knew if tablet computers were a viable product category.  Before anyone knew it, Apple was threatening the entire Personal Computer industry with something other than a Personal Computer.

But Intel and other microprocessor makers operate on a 5-year concept-to-product cycle and Microsoft operates on a 3-year Operating System (OS) cycle.  Even when it’s obvious that the WinTel world needs a massive evolution to compete with Apple iPad, it will take years to adapt.  But perhaps this week we’ll see just how the WinTel world will adapt.

Update 1 – 9/13/2011 – For now, the Windows 8 software looks great but I’m disappointed with the hardware.  The Samsung Tablet demoed today is definitely more “Tablet PC” lineage (the failed type from 10 years ago) rather than a “Tablet” like the iPad or other Android Tablets.  The specifications are:

‎”The Series 7 sports a 400 nit, 11.6-inch capacitive panel (1366 x 768 resolution), Intel’s 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M CPU with integrated graphics, a 64GB SSD and 4GB of RAM”

This is not a tablet computer, this is a high-end Ultrabook without the keyboard.  Even though it’s a much more advanced iteration of the Tablet PC, it will be in the $1000 Ultrabook territory (double that of tablets).  The biggest issue is lack of true mobility since the battery life will be cut in half and the device cannot be left on in standby mode because it will drain the battery quickly.  Rather than an “always on” solution that is untethered from the power cord and charger brick, this will operate more like a laptop.  This can’t happen until an ARM processor or Intel Medfield processor is used in the platform.

In fairness, this is a pre-production developer machine and in that respect it accomplishes its goal.  Developers will get everything they need to produce applications on what appears to be a very promising operating system.  That’s not to say that the future I predicted above won’t happen within the year – it most likely will – it just isn’t being delivered this week.

UPDATE 2 – 9/13/2011 – Microsoft did in fact demonstrate other more mobile tablets running on a variety of hardware, and the device mentioned in update 1 is what Microsoft gave to developers (5000 units).  So Microsoft did in fact show off the vision of true mobile tablet computing.  BGR’s Zach Epstein concluded that Windows 8 represents the “Post PC” era.  In related news, Intel is promising all-day computing and 10 days of standby battery life in its full fledged notebook processors in 2013.  That will mean the entire PC industry is shifting into true untethered always on mobility.

UPDATE 3 – 9/15/2011 – As I suspected, the processor used in the developer tablet is too powerful (both performance and energy consumption) to be a proper tablet device.  Gizmodo confirmed this in their positive commentary on Windows 8.  They pointed out that the current tablet is a developer device and not intended to be a final product when Windows 8 ships.

“Look, the fan is noisy and it runs nearly constantly. But as Microsoft relentlessly explained, this is a developer preview running on sub-optimal hardware. The Samsung tablet that previewed at BUILD will never hit the market with Windows 8.”

Anandtech also reported that a Tablet running an “unnamed” 32nm Intel System on Chip (SoC) processor was seen locked in a plastic box.  This could be the Intel Medfield chip talked about in this article or it could be a next generation processor that will succeed the Medfield.  By the time Windows 8 ships, there will almost certainly be something newer than Medfield and the fan noise and poor battery life problems will disappear.  Intel seems to be more busy moonlighting with Google Android than being focused on Windows 8 as Microsoft moonlights with ARM.  But at the end of the day, I suspect the two companies need each other more than they’re willing to admit.


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