The Evolution of the WinTel PC to be Revealed

The next evolution of the Personal Computer (PC) running Windows and Intel Architecture (WinTel) will likely be shown this week at Microsoft’s “Build” conference for software developers.  If reports are accurate, I will predict a seismic shift in the WinTel world.

Most news reports expected an early build of Windows 8 running on a tablet with an ARM processor (typical processor used in smartphones and tablets) to be shown at the conference, but news leaked to CNET’s Brooke Crothers that Windows 8 will be shown on a Samsung tablet computer running on an Intel processor.  Crothers expressed surprise because it ran counter to conventional wisdom that ARM processors are far more energy efficient than typical Intel processors used in PC desktops and notebooks.

Tablets like the Apple iPad have less than half the battery capacity and size of a typical notebook computer, yet the iPad can play video for more than twice the duration (11 hours).  More importantly, tablet computers are “always on” because they can standby for days or weeks at a time on a single battery charge without ever being shut down.  This is impossible for conventional Intel processors and notebooks running on Intel chips. They are typically limited to 5-15 hours of standby time and must be shutdown or at least put to sleep.  Long battery life and the always on capability are some of the key differentiators driving the explosive growth in Apple iPad and Android tablets.  Microsoft actually produced a Tablet PC ten years ago, but the machines failed to gain traction. They were several times heavier, cost several times more, and only had a fraction of the battery life of the modern Apple iPad.

Crothers inferred the possibility of tablets running on more energy efficient Intel’s “Sandy Bridge” processors and Intel “Atom” processors, but those products are not nearly good enough in terms of run time or standby time.  The NVIDIA’s Kal-El quad-core ARM processor many tech writers were expecting to be demonstrated won’t be ready at the end of the year.  It’s still possible that Microsoft could simply demonstrate a tablet based on existing dual-core ARM processors that are already on the market, but that isn’t consistent with leaked news of an Intel based solution.

Intel Moorestown and Medfield

The obvious answer that seems to be escaping everyone is Intel’s new breed of processors called “Moorestown” and “Medfield.”  Moorestown went into production in 2010 and Medfield went into production in February of 2011.

These processors are compatible with the 30-year-old Intel architecture used in all PCs, which means they will run existing PC software without any modification, but these two chips lack some Input/Output (I/O) capability such as the PCI Express bus.  The lack of this I/O helped reduce energy leakage according to analyst David Kanter of Real World Tech, and this allows the chips to be 50 times more efficient in standby mode compared to existing Intel chips that require 1.6 watts in standby mode.  That means Intel’s Medfield processor needs less than 0.032 watts of power in standby mode – a Medfield based tablet with the 25 watt*hour battery used in the iPad tablet can idle for 32 days without being turned off.

Given that these super efficient chips from Intel have been out for more than a year, one might wonder why they aren’t already being used in the market.  For one thing, Microsoft Windows can’t run on Intel chips without all of the legacy I/O functionality like the PCI bus.  But that will change with Windows 8, as will be demonstrated in the next few days.  This isn’t even the first time Windows 8 was demonstrated on these legacy-free Intel processors.  Windows 8 was demonstrated on Intel Moorestown at CES 2011.  Whether or not Microsoft will demonstrate Windows 8 on Intel Medfield (or Moorestown) remains to be seen, but that seems to be the only rational course of action, since no other Intel product can match ARM processors.

Windows 8 closing the touch gap

Besides the heavy weight and poor battery life, Microsoft’s Tablet PC required the use of a special stylus pen that was difficult to use, and easy to lose.  Apparently even Hitler couldn’t bring himself to use the Tablet PC stylus.  Apple’s responsive multi-touch user interface and capacitive touchscreen on the iPhone and then the iPad forced everyone else in the industry to drop the stylus for tablet navigation.  Windows 8 will close the touch gap with the new optional “metro” interface that arguably surpasses the Apple iPad.  The touch responsiveness gap can apparently be closed by eliminating the mouse double-click wait state, but one can only assume that this will be incorporated into Windows 8′s Metro interface.

Better late than never

Among many tech writers and analysts, Microsoft and Intel were effectively perceived as dead men walking with the imminent death of the WinTel PC approaching.  The lack of faith in these two companies is somewhat understandable given the amount of time it takes them companies to respond to immense threats.  Less than two years ago before the introduction of Apple’s iPad, no one even knew if tablet computers were a viable product category.  Before anyone knew it, Apple was threatening the entire Personal Computer industry with something other than a Personal Computer.

But Intel and other microprocessor makers operate on a 5-year concept-to-product cycle and Microsoft operates on a 3-year Operating System (OS) cycle.  Even when it’s obvious that the WinTel world needs a massive evolution to compete with Apple iPad, it will take years to adapt.  But perhaps this week we’ll see just how the WinTel world will adapt.


[Cross-posted at High Tech Forum]