This week Intel has highlighted a trend that signals the advent of laptops that behave increasingly like smartphones.
At its annual Intel Developer Forum the chip giant discussed a technology that may signal more futuristic laptop designs like the impossibly-thin 12-inch MacBook and HP’s cutting-edge EliteBook Folio 1020. The key to these innovative laptops is that inside they are less like traditional PCs and more like smartphones.
Intel’s newest chip, Skylake (or officially, the 6th Generation Intel Core Processor) has some features in common with smartphone processors from Qualcomm and Apple, according to EE Times, a publication that closely tracks Intel and the chip industry. And an analysis of the new chip at Ars Technica also refers to the new chip’s increasing similarities to smartphone silicon.
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Without wading into the weeds – which can get very deep very quickly with chip architecture – Intel’s principal goal is to make laptop processors more about saving power than about large jumps in performance. That of course has been the guiding principle for the Apple processors that power the iPhone. In short, while incremental increases in an iPhone’s performance is always a goal, the overriding objective is to maintain long battery life.
You might say that the mobile version of Skylake – due to arrive in laptops by the end of the year – is Intel’s attempt to keep pace with Apple. As smartphones become the equivalent of the digital Swiss Army Knife – an analogy at one time applied to PCs – Intel needs to emulate the best things about the iPhone’s processor. In addition to maintaining good battery life, that means focusing more on image and video processing (important for cameras) and less on traditional number-crunching.
New Trend In Extreme Laptop Design
While the traditional large laptop with a 15-inch screen and speedy Intel processors will always be around, a segment of the market is morphing into something that falls between a large smartphone and a traditional PC.
Apple got the ball rolling with the introduction of the 12-inch Retina MacBook earlier this year. It’s a mere 2 pounds (only a bit heavier than the original iPad) and the emphasis is on portability rather than performance. And like the original MacBook Air introduced in 2008, it has been criticized as being too slow, too thin for its own good (read: only one connector), and basically impractical. Of course, as the MacBook Air evolved it went on to be one of Apple’s most popular laptops and changed laptop design forever.
Also, like the original Air, the Intel chip inside dictates the new MacBook's design. That chip – Intel’s Core M series of “fanless” processors – will improve when it moves to the Skylake chip architecture. Future Apple MacBooks will offer not only better battery life but a boost in the capabilities of the graphics chip (adept at handling images and video), another hallmark of Skylake.
But it’s not just Apple. I’ve been using one of HP’s most advanced laptops, the 12.5-inch EliteBook Folio 1020, for the last couple of months. Like the 12-inch MacBook, it's a candidate for a future Skylake chip, is extremely thin, uses a Core M processor, and is fanless (though smartphones are fanless, virtually all laptops to date have used fans to keep the processor cool).
Because it’s fanless and uses a Core M chip, HP designed the 1020 to be as light as possible (depending on the model, the weight of the 1020 is as little as 2.2 pounds, similar to the 12-inch MacBook). My experience with 1020 over the last couple of months has been very positive: it’s almost as light as a tablet but delivers the performance expected of a more traditional laptop.
But neither HP nor Apple want you to think of it as just another laptop. By using processors that will increasingly adopt the characteristics of smartphone silicon, both companies want to push the laptop out the box it's been in for years. Skylake should make that possible.