Search This Blog

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Consider Yourself "Converged" - New Netbooks Offer a Pocketful of Power

By Scott McQuarrie

They're called netbooks, mini-PCs, subnotebooks and a few other names that are too cute by half, like the Asus "EeePc." Although the "name brands" have jumped into the fray, at present the category is dominated by the second tier of computer and component makers. And despite Hewlett-Packard pricing one of its models just under $1000, the sweet spot in pricing is still the $300-500 area.

Netbooks are made for portability and are generally around two pounds or so, with screens less than 10 inches in diameter. Despite its cutesy name, the Asus EeePc line is most representative of the new category of PCs. The keyboards are, naturally, reduced in size, there are no optical drives (external units are available), WiFI is built in and most have SD (SecureDigital) card slots, webcams, three or four USB ports and VGA out (for a second monitor). Installed RAM is usually 512MB at minimum, with 1GB the apparent standard at present.

Brains, not brawn
The current netbooks feature less-than-state-of-the-art CPUs (Central Processing Units), usually the Intel Atom line. This is Intel's smallest chip, and is used in a range of power-efficient devices where it can increase energy efficiency, extend battery life and still maintain what the manufacturer calls "full Intel Core microarchitecture instruction set compatibility." The Atom processors also offer multiple threads to improve performance and increase overall system responsiveness. The line currently tops out at a 1.86GHz clock speed, with 1.6GHz units the most prevalent in today's models.

The screens are primarily TFT (Thin Film Transistor) technology, although some manufacturers may be experimenting with the amazing new OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) variety. As costs come down in various areas - screen, RAM, flash memory, etc. - the performance benchmarks will doubtless rise. However, these "small laptops" are never going to be a power user's first choice, as they have a different niche. These are the first of the pocket PCs that our world is going to be full of in no time, according to some observers.

Solid memory choices
One of the more interesting developments in computing technology finds a home in many new netbooks. Instead of an 80 to 160GB hard drive, some netbooks feature SSDs (Solid State Drives), flash memory arrays of up to 32GB, for storage. These SSDs are shock-resistant, draw little power, have superfast access times and make for a much "greener" computing device. Perhaps it makes sense to see the next generation of laptop components debut in a reduced form factor (at a reduced cost, too).

The lowest entries on the price chart usually have some flavor of Linux as the Operating System (OS), but a price premium of only $25-50 gets you into Windows XP territory. Some few models may offer Vista, but with Microsoft's apparent decision to dump Vista as soon as possible this is probably not the best choice. There are currently no Apple netbooks, and not even any good rumors of one, although the current Mac OS can be hacked various ways to run on PCs with a variety of processors. Still, it's a "PC-and-Windows" phenomenon for now.

First "communicator"?
Just about every netbook has a webcam built in, usually a 1.3MP at best, but that is more than sufficient for basic "cam" functionality. With videochat applications, Skype and other "connectivity" programs, the days of mobile A/V chatting have apparently arrived, although it will doubtless be an "early adopter" kind of activity. However, as the first waves of netbooks give way to a second and third, and a year or two of use (and abuse) wring out some of the problems, we may see this technology really take hold. And there is one word you should know that will help focus this kind of technological fortunetelling. That word is "convergence."

With the phenomenal smart phones being released, and the parallel progress being made in A/V, telephony, WiFi, computing and communications, some hybrid of netbook, PDA, phone and media player will no doubt appear on the horizon. With the power of a desktop computer in your hands, you will carry your work on the same device that gives you instant, worldwide, two-way video chat and connects you to the Internet, too. But there are some practical applications that go far beyond mobile Facebook and watching TV.

Specialized uses
Once the "vertical integrators" get hold of these units, every kind of industry and every kind of special application will have a platform in people's pockets. With simple technology that exists today, security professionals could log in to surveillance cameras worldwide to check on property, processes and people. You could have full control of pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras in Chicago as you go about your business in L.A. Take the netbook from your pocket or briefcase, sign in to your network and "do your thing."

Other specialized uses will be forthcoming. You may even develop one yourself, since the pieces of this puzzle can be combined in lots of ways to support any number of personal or business endeavors. That "digital convergence" that we've been hearing about these past few years has already arrived, as witness these amazing new netbooks. It's all in the process of being tweaked for this, that and the other thing, as well. With these new tools, it's not that we will do amazing new things we've never done. We will do the amazing things we know about, but from farther and farther away, with greater and greater control, at low cost and even less hassle. Get a netbook and consider yourself "digitally converged."

- - - - - - - - - -

After founding his first security firm in 1990, Scott McQuarrie built several security-related companies into regional and national powerhouses over the ensuing years. Since 2000 he has focused his sales and marketing efforts on the Internet, which opened up a virtually unlimited, international market for his flagship product line, EZWatch Pro.

The EZWatch Pro brand has come to stand for world-class expertise in electronic security, video surveillance and the myriad technologies involved in both fields. From small houses to gigantic international airports, there is an EZWatch Pro solution to meet any and every residential, business, commercial and government security challenge

No comments: