Intel have for decades enjoyed near total domination of the Commercial PC market, providing the core components – CPUs and Chipsets to the OEMs and to their credit have continued to innovate. As they add more features and improve the performance of their silicon platforms enabling OEMs to innovate their PC design by making them thinner and lighter, there’s a feeling that this still doesn’t address the ever-increasing User Experience demands.
With the proliferation of consumer devices in the modern workplace (smartwatches, smartphones, tablets etc) there’s a concern that so much choice can both distract and even overwhelm users. The lack of time spent un-interrupted by these ‘skinny’ clients, whilst providing unrivaled connectivity can become a distraction to those who simply need to focus and concentrate on our business tasks. Research suggests that even in the face of so much choice the notebook PC continues to be the main go-to business device. During 2020 it is predicted that the ‘Millennial’ generation will become the dominant demographic group in the workforce. What organisations like Intel therefore need to ensure is that the needs of this generation are being addressed by their future technologies. Unsurprisingly the ‘User Experience’ and usability will play a big part.
User Experience Targets
Based on the User Experience targets above, I think it is safe to say that the notebook PC as a device is not going anywhere, but its usability and the experiences you get from it can be improved upon.
Intel recently released a high-level blueprint of how they and the PC OEMs are looking to deliver these experience improvements to users; its known in the industry as Project Athena.
Project Athena – Laptop Innovation Rooted in Human Understanding
It’s worth noting that Project Athena is a 2-3 year view so it’s not about dropping in a ton of new technologies in one hit, but we are already seeing some encouraging progress.
Project Athena focuses on three main areas – Always Ready, Adaptive and Focus.
CPU chipset efficiencies will continue to drive improvements in battery life but inbuilt AI capabilities will also help with this – The much heralded 5G and WIFI 6 or AX standards once they arrive ‘en masse’ and have greater coverage are expected to not only deliver faster speeds but be much more robust and reliable due to the increases in the available spectrum they operate in.
The 2-in-1 form factor which is the touchscreen notebook with near 360-degree hinge continues to gain share from the traditional simple clam-shell device as it offers the best user interaction – touch, pen, keyboard.
AI is going to play a part in improving such areas as voice recognition and enabling ‘Do not disturb’ features to ensure outside distractions are kept to a minimum. Monitoring when there’s a reduction in user interactions will enable the device to intelligently reduce or suspend power-states to those parts of the sub-systems that are not in use. This will result in power saving and improving battery life.
A more ‘Tablet-like’ experience in a package that delivers enhanced performance is the target with features that include a < 1 sec from lid up to login time, whilst utilising Intel’s next generation mobile CPU core technologies. Persistent memory provided by Intel’s Optane technology also plays a big part in improving performance and decreasing wait times.
Whilst Project Athena maybe a 2-3 year vision its far from being pure ‘vapour-ware’ today. HP Inc has recently announced the first to market Athena v1 commercial product with their Elite Dragonfly notebook.
All notebook PCs that conform to the Project Athena specification will feature the Intel distinguishing label, shown to the right.
The design criteria from Intel to conform to the Athena standard is expected to evolve as the supporting technologies develop. Version 1 is believed to be based roughly on the following target criteria –
- Chassis Design – 15mm Z height (allow 17mm this year under right conditions)
- <1 second from lid up to logon
- No performance degradation when unplugged from power cord
- >16 hours of battery in video playback mode
- >9 hours continuous intensive browser usage
- 4 hours of battery charged in 30 mins
The Benefits of Project Athena
With the goal of Project Athena being to drive the next wave of innovation into notebook PCs we can expect to realise the following benefits and improvements over traditional Notebook PCs –
- Improved productivity and User Experience
- Usability – All day battery-life with rapid charging and intelligent use of AI
- Connectivity – Provided by Thunderbolt 3, WiFi 6 and 5G
- Performance – Latest CPU and next generation Optane storage
- Design – Thinner, lighter designs that feature multiple input methods
- User satisfaction – A more responsive ‘without delay’ user experience
What Next ?
The other leading commercial PC OEMs are expected to follow HP Inc’s lead in releasing Athena v1 class devices so I would urge you to take a look at the Dragonfly to judge it for yourself.
Contact your Computacenter Account Manager to find out ways we can help you understand more about Project Athena.
Despite the proliferation of devices now available it’s good to see recent surveys showing the continuing relevance of the humble PC.
One such recent Intel survey questioning the ‘Importance of the laptop’ concluded that over 80% of respondents agreed with the statement – “I often use my computer when I need to get things done that matter” and a further 70% agreed that – “I feel that the time I spend on my computer is time well spent”. It’s results like this that endorse that the PC is still, in the main, the preferred weapon of choice for productivity and getting the work done for most people.
The business tasks and workloads we ask our PCs to deliver continue to increase. More and more multitasking as well as numerous applications running in the foreground and background are in danger of making what is an essential work tool slow down our productivity and detrimentally impact our user experience.
Whilst silicon manufacturers do a fantastic job evolving their CPUs to keep a pace with our growing power-hungry requirements, we have started to see other aspects of the system becoming more of a bottleneck to performance. A number of years ago it was considered a big advancement when IT decision makers started realising the benefits and approving the use of Solid-State Drives (SSD) over the traditional ‘spinning’ Hard Disk Drives. Whilst SSD does indeed offers greater performance over its spinning rival they still lag behind the performance of their volatile memory DRAM cousins that make up the PCs main system memory.
Introducing Intel Optane
To increase the performance of the SSD, Intel has developed Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage. Conceived originally as a Datacenter technology, Intel has created a single drive device that combines Optane memory and their high-speed SSD (QLC NAND) technology.
Products based on Intel’s Optane technology represent a different approach to the traditional SSD. A unique characteristic of Optane is that the memory is significantly faster than that used in current NAND SSD drives. Unlike DRAM or main system memory, Optane is Non-volatile which means data written to it will remain even after the PC re-starts.
Despite the Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage solution consisting of both an Optane and NAND SSD memory the user only sees a single HDD. Behind the scenes Intel have an intelligent memory controller and their Rapid Storage Technology driver which is where the workload optimisation takes place. The drive constantly monitors how the user works on a daily basis – which applications are used most, or data is accessed most frequently. These common tasks are then moved dynamically into the higher performing and optimised Optane memory.
What are the benefits of Intel Optane?
Users are rarely working with only one application at a time so demand systems that can cope with their multi-tasking needs. Even those users that may not think they are multi-tasking with applications typically are due to the increased number of background tasks being run. User experience remains a challenge, and this is where Intel Optane can help by providing:
- Improved performance – A more responsive PC that reduces time spent waiting for thing to happen.
- Security – Support for industry standard encryption, including secure erase.
- Ease of use – Despite there being two components, the user and IT support will only see a single storage device.
By utilising Intel Optane, organisations can continue to benefit from today’s demanding applications whilst allowing users to get more work done faster, improving both productivity and user experience.
Intel Optane in Action
Adding more system DRAM memory to a PC has long been the popular choice in attempting to increase its responsiveness, but with Intel’s claims of roughly 2x performance increase over a standard SSD, an Optane enabled SSDs could offer a better option for increasing performance and ultimately the user experience.
The graph below highlights the potential performance gains of Intel Optane when considered as an alternative approach to doubling up on system memory.
Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage options is currently available in the following capacities –
- 256GB SSD featuring 16GB of Optane memory
- 512GB SSD featuring 32GB of Optane memory
- 1TB SSD featuring 32GB of Optane memory
What’s next for Intel Optane?
The leading PC manufacturers are already including Intel Optane storage options and configurations on the majority of their latest commercial products.
If you are looking to add additional DRAM in the hope of increasing PC responsiveness and performance, talk to us about how you can test the Optane technology for yourself as it is likely to deliver an improved end user experience… and who doesn’t like happy users.