Unleashing the Atom
Intel's newest line of processor chips, the Atom series, could help change the way we think about computers and mobile computing.
For years the chip makers have been releasing new processor chips, each one bigger and faster than its predecessor, but the Intel Atom series breaks that trend. At 1.6GHz it is still a powerful chip, but no match for the dual core Centrino that you'll find in the latest PCs. Instead, the Atom is designed to be physically small, as small as a one pence coin, cheap to produce and have a low power consumption.
Low power consumption is the crucial factor. It is so light on power that it doesn't need a cooling fan and that opens up the possibilities of building it into laptops, organisers, and even mobile phones. At least 25 manufacturers are working on new machines using the Atom but first off the mark with a solid offering is Acer with the Aspire One which is expected to go on sale in the UK in July.
The Acer machine is certainly interesting. It is an attractive laptop with a good quality nine inch screen (1024 x 600 pixels), 512MB of memory, built-in WiFi, sound card, WebCam and an 8GB solid state disk drive. The use of a solid state drive (like the memory card in your digital camera) and the absence of cooling fans means you have a PC with no moving parts and therefore it should be entirely silent in operation. Early reports say the Aspire One weighs less than a kilogram and Acer claims a battery life of up to six hours. If that sounds good, the really astonishing part is that it is expected to cost just £199 which would be the biggest shake-up to PC pricing since Amstrad rocked the computing world with its £500 budget PC back in 1986.
One way that Acer is keeping the cost down is by using the increasingly popular and very well respected Linux operating system instead of Windows. There will be a Windows XP version of the laptop but that will need a hard drive fitted, have shorter battery life, take longer to boot, and be around £100 more expensive. The Linux version will be designed to make it really easy to get on the internet, with all of the web-browser and email software pre-installed and ready to go. It is also likely that Acer will include additional software such as the powerful Open Office suite which will let you edit word documents and spreadsheets. And remember, all of that is included in the price of the machine, and already installed for you.
If the price comes in at under £200 then I think Acer has got the formula exactly right. Machines like this are designed primarily to let people use the internet and at this price and with built-in WiFi it becomes so much cheaper and simpler to kit out an office, or to give family members their own laptops for accessing the home broadband connection. For the UK market, we should see the machines in the shops in plenty of time for the return to school and college in September.
Atom processors and machines like this from Acer and others could affect us all significantly. Already Microsoft has extended the support life of Windows XP to cater for these machines, instead of trying to force them into running the more power-hungry Windows Vista, but even so it may lose out to Linux. Mobile computing should become much more mobile, with more emphasis on centralised storage of company files and web-based applications. Hopefully the Atom design will also spill over into desktop computing and we'll finally have small, silent, affordable and maintenance-free boxes on our desks for day-to-day office work. We may even see new design trends, such as building the "PC" into the back of an LCD screen which would really reduce desktop clutter, not to mention the electricity bill.
So if you were planning on upgrading your laptop in the near future, hold on for a few weeks and see what the Atom-based machines will have to offer.
18th June 2008
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.