A Solar-Powered PC for 2011?

While I’m in the mood, freshly inspired by the e.quinox project, I want to write about a few more super-efficient ‘PCs’ that I’ve been using recently. Both are based on ARM CPUs and show they way for 2011. Later in this article I’ll talk a bit more about technologies to watch out for.

The first device is the €299 Toshiba AC100, a laptop-style device with a 10” screen. It runs a relatively powerful Tegra 2 ARM-based CPU core and and the Android operating system. It’s also available in a 3G version for about 70 Euros more. The device weighs 800gm, a lot less than netbooks, and has a great keyboard. There’s not much internal storage but it will take SD cards for up to 32GB external storage. It plays HD movies and comes with some productivity software. Unfortunately there’s a problem with standby. The device tends to come out of standby and leave the screen on which drains the battery and leaves you with an empty device the next time you go to use it. It you ignore using standby mode, you can get about 7 hours screen-on, Wifi-on usage out of the device which is pretty good considering it only has a 24hr battery. The AC100 will get an upgrade to Android 2.2 soon

The second device I’ve been using is one with a 7” screen. Again it runs Android and this time it’s a tablet form factor. It’s the Samsung Galaxy Tab. It’s a lot more expensive than the AC100 (600 Euro) but it fitted with GPS, 3G, a reasonable camera/video camera and has 12GB of usable internal storage. It’s also a phone! (EU version) With a 15Wh battery inside (5v charging) it will run for 6-7hrs in a connected, screen-on state. In terms of electronic engineering it’s one of the most efficient high-end ARM-based devices I’ve tested and a fantasticly lightweight converged product. A keyboard dock is soon to be available too so it will be interesting to try this out as a ‘PC’

600 Euro is a lot of money though so how about 400 Euro for something very similar. The Viewsonic Viewpad 7 is much the same as the Galaxy Tab but uses an older processor. I’d argue that the price-point is more suitable for mobile usage and I bet that the price will go to 350 Euro very soon. I have had some hands-on but hope to get some real testing underway soon. This one has USB On-The-Go support too so you can plug in a normal keyboard/mouse. It’s looking like a great travel companion at a great price. Yes, it’s also a phone! I’ll be doing testing on this iver the next few weeks at Carrypad

What’s Intel up to?

Intel are still moving forward and could come back into the ultra-mobile PC picture in 2011 with two new platforms and a new operating system. Moorestown and Oaktrail are new platforms that support extended standby modes and power control that can turn off various parts of a chip when it’s not being used. Unfortunately, Windows won’t be able to take advantage of the new hardware but a new operating system called MeeGo will. MeeGo is a core operating system being developed by Intel and Nokia for both ARM and Intel platforms. We haven’t seen any new devices yet but we’re expecting something very soon and given that it’s based on a desktop operating system we should see a productivity slant and connectivity that out-does the Android/ARM-based offerings I mentioned above. It could be worth waiting to see what turns up before buying a solution for ultra low-power and ultra-mobile usage.

Solving the screen problem

As the processing platform tends to a 1W-average envelope, there’s one component that’s starting to look more and more of a problem. The screen. 5 years ago we had CCFL-backlit screens which took 2-3W in a 7-inch panel. Today we have LED-backlit screens and OLED screens that, in normal use, can take 1-2W in the same size. This needs to drop significantly in the next 2 years. We’re starting to see some interesting transflective technologies coming through that use ambient light and offer a greyscale image in sunlight. It’s perfect for outdoor use.  One device that will offer this as an option is the Notion Ink Adam.

Pricing is not clear at the moment but if will be a 10 inch device running Android and offering the Pixel Qi display technology as an option. In outdoor use, battery life could double.In indoor use, there’ won’t be much difference because the backlight will need to be used as in a normal LED-backlit display. If the build quality is good on this one and if Android develops to include large-screen applications and a better browser, mouse and keyboard support, the Adam could be a serious option. Android 2.3 could help this along and if it launches soon (rumors say November) then we’re likely to see it in products before the new year. By Mid 2011, Android could be quite the well-developed large-screen operating system.

Battery Technology.

Just don’t get me started. In the last 4 years we’ve seen close to zero advances in Li-Ion / Li-Poly technology and nothing new to challenge them. All I can say is that I really don’t expect any major breakthroughs in 2011.

As mobile technology and mobile operating systems really come together we can start to see some major advances in usability and battery life and if the screen problem is sorted out, a real boost to outdoor mobility.