Atom, Alienware m15x, and the next iPhone: The future of Super Devices

Posted by Rob Enderle, Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

Analyst Opinion - I’ve been a big advocate of the concept of “flexible”. For more than a decade I have been talking about it in terms of modular computing. IBM was the first to actually create a prototype modular computer, but it was really Apple that in effect came closest to creating one with the iPod which, while limited, can morph from handheld music system to movie player to clock radio to car sound system, depending on how it is accessorized.  This is trend is continued by the iPhone and iPod Touch, which add phone and web capabilities and made the iPod more a computer and less an appliance.  Opening the platform to developers starts the final step, which will likely be reborn under Intel’s Atom platform.  

But these devices are just part of the ultra portable segment. What about those of us that need more power?

Well, at the other end you have the first hybrid gaming/workstation class notebook that can be used as a daily carry laptop, Alienware’s Area-51 m15x.  The notebook can  change from an AC Power only gaming screamer to a notebook computer which actually has a battery life we can measure in hours and not minutes.  In thinking about both Atom and the m15x, I wondered if we are actually seeing the birth of technology superheroes, somehow strangely related to the DC comics. Atom is a guy who does incredible things even though he is really small like Intel’s Atom, and Superman  (m15x) is a “mild mannered reporter” who can leap over tall buildings and stop bullets.  

In a very real sense, given the range these products are attempting to encompass, if there were a class of products called superhero products, these would likely qualify.   To me, this means they are harbingers of a future world where we will be increasingly searching for the perfect single offering and will be able to find more than one of them.  Let’s chat about each of these briefly and what they bring.

Atom:  True power in your pocket

The idea of Atom is to have a fully capable x86 processor in a device that is small enough, and power efficient enough, to compete with smart phones in terms of both size and battery life.   Other limitations like storage capacity are being worked on by companies like Samsung who have become very aggressive in high capacity flash and micro drives, and both AMD/ATI and Nvidia are creating advanced small form factor graphics systems that will be suitable for such a device.   

Much like it was with Centrino for notebooks, Intel will be doing the same thing for this platform and the Centrino with Atom technology offering will be their premier packaged effort for this market.    For developers, this should result in a faster time to market and an increasing number of applications and widgets which can run on both this new class of super Smartphone/super media player and a the full spectrum of PCs whether they be Apple, Linux or Windows.   This should eventually remove a lot of waste now being created in porting between these platforms and in retraining developers making for more good applications on all platforms. It should help the iPhone, and others like it, really address the big negatives keeping it out of business.

 
Hybrid Laptop:  The Birth of the super laptop

I’ve been using this m15x for several days now and the only word that keeps popping into my head that seems to describe this thing is “Super”.   While this is no Macbook Air and weighs in over 3x that product, it is a full high-end desktop gaming rig in a laptop computer which actually can be used for work. In terms of raw power, it has the Intel Core 2 Extreme processor, the 8800M GTX graphics system, turbo memory, 1200p video and Blu-ray.   What makes it unique is that it can step down its processor and switch to Intel integrated graphics to drop power its use from 70 watts to 30 watts, which is in the range of a large production laptop.  Both ATI/AMD  and Nvidia are working on a more advanced version of this but, for now, the m15x is the only product I know of that does this that is shipping.  

While the most battery life you can currently get without swapping out batteries (this is one of the few laptops that allows for hot swapping batteries) is 3 hours, which is far from class leading for a 15.4” product, it is usable. It is also the first laptop with this much power that comes close to being practical.   To put this in perspective, in use, with a full battery load this laptop actually has more battery life than the Macbook Air, which doesn’t allow for a battery swap - hot or otherwise.    

If you get a chance to see one of these in real, it is worth the effort as the active lighting system is actually really cool. But the price of entry isn’t cheap with configurations that will range from around $1500 to more than $5000.
   

Wrapping Up: Super Devices of the future

It almost feels like I’m writing back in the 1920s when folks seemed to be going crazy imagining the super technology we would have at the end of the last century.  But, in all seriousness, I do think we are really starting to see the creation of a class of truly super products that can span a broader spectrum of uses than we have ever seen before and that actually work.  

While some concepts, like the new submarine car, seem a tad bit too insane, others like the Atom and m15x imply a coming wave of no-compromise products that will allow you to transcend the limitations we’ve been living with.   Whatever we call these future devices, hybrids, Mobile Internet Devices, Ultra Mobile PCs, or just cool, I think we’ll like this change. I know I will like it a lot.   


Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts.  Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them.  Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.