Have you ever looked at the back of your desktop or the sides (and back) of your laptop and wondered why there are so many ports? Multiple USB ports, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, two flavours of FireWire (IEEE 1394 and the newer 800 standard), eSATA and on some models you’ll find DisplayPort and Express Card slots too. Regardless of their shape, name or quantity, in the end, they all do the same thing: allow your computer to talk to external devices or networks.
The computer I’m writing this post from has a grand total of 10 such I/O interfaces and until today this abundance of connection options was something I took a sort of pride in. After all, the more and varied ports on a PC, the more and varied devices you can connect to.
Today however, all of that changes.
Imagine a world where a single, small port on the side of your laptop is all you will ever need to connect to any peripheral or network – including external monitors. Now imagine that this port allows your computer to swap data with those connected devices at a staggering 10 Gbps (that’s 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and fast enough to transfer a feature-length full HD movie in 30 seconds) and that it can pass along up to 10 watts of power to those devices so they need not rely on additional power supplies. Truly plug and play. Now stop imagining.
Thunderbolt is actually the consumer name chosen by Apple and Intel for a technology that the two companies partnered on known as “Light Peak.” Not that Light Peak is a bad name, but Apple has a spectacular record for finding catchy names for new or existing technologies (consider FireWire, MagSafe and FaceTime just to name a few) so Thunderbolt it is. They’ve even designed a clever little lightning bolt icon to stamp on Thunderbolt ports and cables.
What makes Thunderbolt unique (other than its groundbreaking speed) is that it was designed from the ground-up to be display-friendly. While it’s true that you can attach external displays to USB ports, this has always been a bit of kludge – a clever workaround that forces USB to do something it was never intended to do. Thunderbolt on the other hand, includes both DisplayPort and HDMI technologies within its architecture. In fact, take a close look at the Thunderbolt port (top of this page). Now look at the current Mini Display Ports (image above). Yep, they’re the same shape. This means that existing Mini Display Port cables can snap right into Thunderbolt ports, no adapters required.
The other clever thing about Thunderbolt is that it can be daisy-chained. Apple has always been a big backer of daisy-chain technologies, first with SCSI, then with FireWire – and now Thunderbolt keeps that ability alive. In essence, this means if every Thunderbolt-compatible device had two ports, you could string them all together (up to 6 in total), one after the other, and plug the device that was closest to your PC (the monitor perhaps?) into a single Thunderbolt port on your computer. Voila – instant access to all of your devices and only one cable to keep organized. Sounds very Apple doesn’t it?
Is this the end of USB?
Not likely. At least, not in the near-term. The fact is, almost every single peripheral on the market today was built using USB, so it will be several years before people no longer need USB ports on their computers. And so far, no USB-to-Thunderbolt adapter has been announced (though that’s probably in the works as we speak). Where USB will be most greatly impacted is the development of USB as a future standard. USB 3.0 was only recently released and since then we have seen precious few peripherals with the new port and finding a PC that ships with a USB 3.0 port is very difficult indeed. My guess is that Thunderbolt will effectively kill any future investment in USB 3.0 making it a lame-duck technology.
And what of eSATA?
Since eSATA’s core benefit is higher transfer speeds when compared to USB 2.0, I have a feeling it too will eventually sunset in the face of Thunderbolt’s blistering speed and 10-watt power supply (it’s very hard to find bus-powered eSATA hard drives).
It might be a little naive of me to think so, but I’m hoping that the architectural simplicity that Thunderbolt creates will eventually result in lower costs for PC manufacturers. It just makes sense that a single port is cheaper to produce than 10. Whether this turns out to be the case and whether manufacturers end up passing along these savings to consumers is tough to call, but competition being what it is, I remain optimistic!
Apps, apps, apps. It’s all you hear these days isn’t it? We’re constantly being informed “there’s an app for that”. Of course, they’re all refering to apps that run on Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch and soon the iPad. But not for long…
Intel is attempting to take the netbook category of PC beyond its initial scope of a low-cost, portable PC, and into the realm of a dedicated platform for app developers, using the very successful storefront model pioneered by Apple for their touchscreen devices.
AppUp is the name for Intel’s netbook app platform. It is a downloadable application that will work on any Intel-powered PC – not just Atom-based netbooks – and provides a one-stop-shop for browsing and acquiring apps that have been built specifically for netbooks. AppUp is currently in beta and will only install on WinXP and Win7 machines.
Unlike the majority of programs written for the various Windows OS flavours, AppUp apps are specifically geared for the small screens and the low-power Atom processors found on most netbooks.
Once you install AppUp, it will appear as an icon on your desktop and Start menu (if you choose this during the install). Launching AppUp takes a surprisingly long time given that it is supposed to be a starting point for small and fast apps for your netbook, but this may be a reflection of the program’s beta status. The AppUp interface – much like the apps it provides – is a simplified experience that favours large buttons and minimal text, the entire UI runs at 1024×600 resolution which means it takes up 100% of the typical netbook screen. It can’t be increased or decreased or even repositioned, so for people who own HD-level netbooks (typically 1366×768), or for people running it on non-netbooks, it will simply stick to the top-left corner of your screen. Once you launch AppUp, it will ask you to sign in.
In a move that will hopefully be reconsidered once AppUp leaves Beta, Intel forces you to provide a credit card during sign-up. Without this, you can’t access the store at all, even if you’re only interested in the free apps. This will surely prevent many would-be users from joining – especially given that netbooks are a favourite amongst the student population, a group that doesn’t typically have their own credit cards.
The overall UI is divided into two main tabs, “Store” and “My Apps”.
In the Store, you can find apps using the built-in search tool, or browse by “favourite categories” (there are 18), or by three other classifications: Staff Picks, Top Rated, Most Downloaded and New Releases. Depending on the app, downloads are free, or paid. While you can choose to display only Free or Paid or All apps once you are within a category e.g. “Business”, there isn’t a global listing for all Free apps.
Clicking on a listed item takes you to the app’s download area where you can read a short description, see screenshots if available, and check out user reviews and ratings. You can only submit a review once you’ve successfully downloaded and installed the app.
The My Apps tab works just like the home screen on an iPhone/iPod Touch: this is where you can launch any apps you have downloaded. Installed apps appear as large, friendly icons which can be displayed as a grid, or a list, and can be sorted by Title, Rating, Free, Paid or All. There doesn’t seem to be a way to customize this screen to display specific apps, which is also something that should be reconsidered for the full release.
Also present on this tab are a collapsible lists showing you your most recent downloads, downloads that are either in progress or pending, and any updates that might be available for apps you already have.
App sizes are fairly small, averaging about 30-50Mb each. For a first test, I downloaded the free app Boxee, a program that is designed to turn your PC into a TV-based media center. The download and install process went well, albeit a tad slow given the speed of my net connection. Running Boxee was also smooth and it looked great as a full-screen experience, though being in Canada means NetFlix and Pandora options are not available.
Unfortunately, this is where my experiment ran into trouble. I wasn’t able to successfully download and install any other apps after Boxee. More frustrating was that AppUp suddenly decided I didn’t have an internet connection. This might not be such a bad thing if it only meant that I couldn’t browse new apps and do downloads, but for some reason it locked up the “My Apps” tab for ages before finally letting me see the apps listing. Once I could see it, my one and only app (Boxee) took several minutes to launch. An internet connection is apparently a very good thing when using AppUp!
Such things are not unusual with Beta-ware, but judging from some of the reviews on the apps, I’m not the only one encountering bugs.
Although at first it seems as though you need to have the AppUp program running in order to use your downloaded apps, this isn’t actually the case. Your downloaded and installed apps appear in your program menu and you can run them even if AppUp isn’t open.
Intel is on to a very good thing with AppUp. The netbook market is already much bigger than anyone anticipated. Millions of units sold means that there is already a significant base of users who are potential AppUp customers. iPhone app developers who have spent considerable time and resources creating small screen experiences for that device should take a serious look at AppUp. If your plans already include a larger-screen experience aimed at the forthcoming iPad, an AppUp port might well be worth your while – it’s hard to imagine that there is going to be massive overlap between these two audiences.
If you own an Atom-powered netbook, you owe it yourself to download AppUp and try it out. I realize the credit card requirement will put off some of you, but it’s a minor inconvenience for the ability to access a growing library of apps that were built from the ground up for your screen size and processor power. Then head back here and tell us what you thought.
Okay, so the iPad wasn’t quite what people were hoping to see when Steve Jobs took the stage last month to unveil Apple’s latest gadget. But let’s not dwell on the past. Instead, given what we know of the iPad’s specs, how can app developers take an overgrown iPod Touch and turn it into a device that we can’t imagine living without?
Here are two activities that would make the iPad worth the price of admission for me…
1. The best darn universal remote – Period.
I’ve been a long-time fan of Logitech’s Harmony universal remotes. They combine ease-of-use, no-hassle programming and fairly intuitive help feature when things go awry. But their touchscreen edition – the Harmony 1100 – is $399 U.S., only $100 less than a base iPad.
Why not use the iPad instead? I’m not the first person to think of this. Add-on and app developer ThinkFlood, which has already created a universal remote solution for the iPhone/iPod Touch, known as RedEye, is now working on their next iteration for the iPad. ThinkFlood uses Wi-Fi to communicate with their infrared transmitters which means walls and other objects aren’t an issue. It’s superior to other solutions that use BlueTooth.
ThinkFlood transmitters aren’t a bargain at $188 U.S., but their app is free as are all updates that they release.
2. Appliance/electricity monitoring
Helping people make more efficient use of their electricity and other energy sources is something that a number of the big tech companies are working on. Google’s home-grown PowerMeter initiative gathers data from the smart meter on your house and displays the stats on your iGoogle homepage.
Intel has created a proof-of-concept called the Home Energy Dashboard, an OLED touchscreen panel that is intended to display the vital stats of your home’s energy consumption. Using a new wireless technology known as ZigBee (a wireless protocol similar to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi intended for tiny, power-sipping sensors and other home appliances), the panel can also gather consumption information directly from individual appliance from around your home. Similar to PowerMeter, the idea is that by simply seeing your energy use in real-time, you are more likely to engage in conservation. Unfortunately, Intel’s concept is just that – a concept, with no pricing or availability dates.
A similar execution by SilverPac, will cost $600 and is scheduled for a Fall 2010 release.
But why buy a dedicated device when the iPad could easily fill this role? It only lacks ZigBee communication but I’m sure a small ZigBee dongle could be fitted to the iPad’s dock connector, or better yet, someone could build a ZigBee-WiFi bridge that would facilitate communication between the two protocols.
The app could be created by Google, which would make sense if it displayed PowerMeter data, or by individual utilities. Here in Ontario, home owners who have a Toronto Hydro Smart Meter can already access their energy consumption online. A recent Toronto Hydro program called PeakSaver, gave away free iPod Shuffles and a $25 rebate check to customers who agreed to let the utility take control of their AC systems during high-demand periods. Giving away free iPads would make an even smarter (if more expensive) incentive for reducing electricity needs during peak times.
So there you have it – a Universal remote and a home energy monitor. Two potential uses for the iPad that go outside the traditional spheres of web surfing and media consumption. What else would you like to see the iPad do?
Update Feb 18, 4:25 PM
If you’re still doubting the case for an iPad as an uber-remote control and/or energy monitor, check out what the President of Savant AV, Jim Carroll, has to say about the release of the device. He’s very impressed by the iPad, and that means something. Savant is the creator of a whole-home automation system based entirely on Apple technology. I recently had a chance to see the Savant system in action and was amazed by the way everything in your home could be controlled from a touch-screen interface. Savant’s control scheme not only looks a LOT like the iPhone interface, they’ve created an app that can run the whole system from an iPhone or iPod Touch. Clearly a specialized version of this app for the iPad’s larger screen is the next move for Savant. I have no doubt the combination of Savant’s automation technology and the iPad will be positively drool-worthy!
Since Asus started the netbook craze a little over two years ago with their diminutive Eee PC, the netbook category has exploded. Nearly ever major PC brand (with the notable exception of Apple) has one, and prices have continued to drop as features and screen sizes have grown.
It’s no surprise that these little machines have become a hit: most models offer Windows XP, a 9″ or larger screen, built-in Wi-Fi, webcam, media card reader and a power-sipping processor that can last 5 hours or more on a a 3-cell battery. Higher-end models offer Solid State Drives, Bluetooth and multi-touch functionality. All this, starting at around $300.
There’s no doubt, netbooks offer superb value and portability for the money. So why then are a whopping 30% of all netbook purchases returned to the retailer where they were sold? The number comes from a recent Yankee Group report which concludes that consumers just aren’t well enough informed about the performance characteristics of netbooks before they buy.
Surprisingly, these consumers are not walking in to their local big box electronics retailer on a whim, and buying the first PC they see under $400. The same report claims that “consumers typically make a buying decision about a particular brand after hours, days or weeks of research—long before they ever walk into a store to purchase an item.”
If consumers are doing such due diligence yet are still unsatisfied with their purchase, it means that PC manufacturers, and all of us in the media, are doing a poor job educating buyers about netbooks before they even begin their research into which model is right for them.
The way to correct this apparent confusion is to start with some defintions that are meaningful to the average consumer. What is a netbook and what are the real differences between netbooks and their look-alike, but larger cousins, the laptops (or notebooks)?
Intel, the maker of the chips that are used in the vast majority of netbooks and notebooks, coined the term and has used it ever since to describe ultra-portable PCs that use their Atom processor. If we go with that as a starting point, any portable PC equipped with an Atom processor is a netbook, whereas any other CPU will make it a notebook.
But why does the processor matter? Aren’t size, weight, feature set etc. all important factors in identifying netbooks? Yes and no. While it’s true that most netbooks are small, with screen sizes never larger than 12″, and thin (often 1.5″ 1.5 cm thick) and light (some even as light as 2 lbs), it’s also true that they are no match for a notebook in the brains department.
And regardless how small and cheap a PC may be, if it can’t run all the software you could normally run (in the way that you normally run it) it’s not a notebook.
Well that sounds pretty clear: Atom processor = netbook, anything else = notebook. Right? Well…
It turns out that while Intel feels the netbook label is all about the CPU, other experts and some manufacturers disagree.
Sony just announced a machine they say is the world’s lightest laptop: the Vaio X.
And if the price is anything to go on, I’d have to agree. At $1300 it had better not be a netbook. But guess which processor is under the hood of this baby? Yup. An Intel Atom.
CNET, as recently as August of this year, argued that we should do away with the moniker altogether, claiming that “Netbooks are nothing more than smaller, cheaper notebooks,” and that “the distinction between the two can now be considered little more than marketing speak.”
The same article doesn’t mention anything about the difference in processing power between the two categories, which is a shame, because it can really make a difference. How much depends on the CPU comparison, but Tom’s Hardware benchmarked the Atom against a fairly slow Celeron chip, and the Atom did not fare well. The Celeron was 35% faster, across the board. Remember the Vaio X? Still wondering about that $1300 price tag? Me too.
That sounds like a real knock against the Atom, but when you consider that the Atom consumes far less power than the Celeron, things begin to make sense, and it brings us back to the reason why netbooks are appealing despite their lack of processing power: Their tiny size, and super-efficient internal components means that though they aren’t workhorses, they can go much longer without plugging in to a wall.
What consumers should remember is that while the line is blurring between netbooks and notebooks, there are some real differences in terms of performance. Want a super-portable PC that can give you quick and easy net access from a Wi-Fi hotspot so you can check your mail, surf the web, watch some videos and stay up-to-date on Facebook? Want to go up to a whole day without a recharge? Get a netbook.
But if you need a portable PC that can mutli-task, edit video, play 3D games, run Photoshop and do it all without grinding to a halt, you want a notebook.