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May 28, 2010


Pretty soon everyone will be talking about 4G. Who has 4G and whose 4G is better or faster. Somehow, marketing from all wireless camps has latched onto the cool-sounding terms 3G and 4G, though they're avoiding "3.5G" or "3.75G" you often find in tech specs. That's probably because three and a half sounds like not quite four.

Anyway, Sprint is now making noises about 4G and you can actually buy 4G smartphones using the Sprint network. Since Sprint is a bit in the ropes, being first may not mean all that much, but it's still good to know how things developed and where they are headed.

A couple of years ago, a product manager from one of the rugged computing manufacturers asked me what I thought of WiMAX. At the time WiMAX was a buzzword for really fast next generation wireless. I told him it was probably too early to worry about it and it wasn't clear what would happen. This is still true in 2010, but WiMAX is now available as "Sprint 4G" though technically it's the same network as the CLEAR brand name 4G network from a company named Clearwire.

Who's behind Clearwire? None other than Craig McCaw, the trailblazer who once compiled McCaw Cellular and then sold it to AT&T in the early 1990s. Where does Sprint fit in? Well, McCaw and Sprint both owned spectrum in the 2.5GHz (in fact, they own almost all of it) and decided to pool resources, with Sprint making additional investments until they were the majority stockholder of Clearwire.

Does this mean it'll be clear sailing for Clearwire/Sprint in the emerging 4G arena? Not really. Problem is, this time both AT&T and Verizon are backing an alternate 4G technology called LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution (how do they come up with these terms?!). LTE uses the 700MHz band and physics dictate that waves in that spectrum can go farther at lower power levels and also have less trouble being received in buildings. This potentially means that LTE, in addition to being backed by the two largest wireless providers, also costs less to deploy.

For now, Spring and Clearwire claim that their 4G WiMAX network allows mobile download speeds of 3 to 6 mpbs with speed bursts over 10 mbps, and upload up to 1 mbps. Sprint and Clearwire sell both 3G/4G Mobile Hotspots (made by Sierra Wireless) and 3G/4G USB modems that look like standard USB memory keys. Clearwire offers unlimited usage for US$40/month plus a small lease fee for the modem (you can also buy it). That sounds like a good deal, but for now the map for that is quite limited.

More speed is exciting, but at least based on my various devices that use 3G, I'd be thrilled to have reliable 3G coverage wherever I go before I jump to 4G.

Posted by conradb212 at 03:57 PM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2010

Intel vPro technology—what is it all about?

If you follow chipmaker Intel, you know that the company not only loves code names, but also special technologies that are then used to market certain chips or chip families. At some point it was "with MMX" that made Intel Pentium chips special in hilarious commercials showing Intel engineers in astronaut suits. "Hyper-threading" was big for a while, and for the latest families of Core processors, Intel stresses "Turbo Boost." Another Intel technology that gets a little less attention is vPro, but vPro is now becoming part of the marketing message of some ruggedized mobile computing products that have been upgraded to include Intel's latest Core i5 and Core i7 processors.

So what is vPro all about?

vPro is an Intel technology platform that allows remote access to a PC regardless whether the computer is booted up or the power is even on. It is intended to allow remote management, monitoring and maintenance while maintaining strict security measures. While vPro componentry needs to be included in the processor, it's a platform rather than just a technology feature, one that requires a combination of chip, board, firmware and software. vPro also includes other Intel technologies such as Intel AMT (Active Management Technology), Intel Virtualization Technology, Intel's TXT (Trusted Execution Technology) and, of course, a network connection.

While remote access and management of PCs is commonly available through software such as VNC, VNC alone may not be capable and secure enough for all corporate purposes. With vPro, VNC can still be used, but it is now the Intel AMT part that facilitates secure communication with the PC, and in conjunction with the whole vPro platform, it is not only possible to control a remote PC, but aso to start it up and—even more amazingly—log in and perform certain function even if the OS is corrupted or missing. That's because the vPro engine/platform is available at a very low system level.

How can such vPro-based remote access be used? Well, there could be a system where dispatch sends job requests to a mobile computer in a filed office or a vehicle. The request will boot the computer if it is off, and then either perform a job or prompt an operator or driver to do the job and report back. It can then turn off the computer remotely, even shut down the OS. As long as the computer still has power, it remains remotely accessible (remotely waking up a PC is usually done via a hardwire LAN connection.

Panasonic highlights vPro in the recent introduction of its Toughbook 31 rugged notebook that use the vPro-enabled Intel Core i5 processor. Panasonic even features a video that shows the use of vPro technology between a dispatch with a vPro console and a Toughbook-equipped service truck. It demonstrates how the remote console can wake up the Toughbook, run a job, then shut it down again.

Motion Computing, too, stresses the advantages of vPro in their announcement of the upgraded Motion C5v and F5v tablet PCs, stating that vPro technology will enable their customers to experience enhanced remote management capabilities so IT can secure and/or repair a tablet from any location, even with power off.

So that's vPro, a set of technologies to remotely access and control computers securely. While remote access and control is not new, being able to do it securely, and with power down and no OS booted can definitely come in handy. Not everyone will need or use vPro, and setting things up for remote access and management is not entirely trivial, and so most users will simply enjoy the very significant performance increases of Intel's latest Core i5 and i7 processors.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:18 PM | Comments (0)

May 06, 2010

"Moorestown" — Intel's new Z6xx Atom platform and how it fits in

On May 4th, Intel introduced the next generation of its initial family of Z5xx Atom processor. Codenamed "Moorestown," the Z6xx family, together with a new I/O controller and signal processing chip are meant to make Intel competitive in the booming smartphone and internet access device market. On paper at least, the new processor family looks very good and may yet help Intel establish itself in the device market (which, interestingly, they abandoned when they sold the XSCALE application processor business to Marvell a couple of years ago). But before we go into details of Moorestown, let's backtrack and see how Intel's whole Atom venture began and developed.

"Silverthorn" and "Diamondville"

The Intel Atom processors have been around for over two years now. Initially, Intel launched two different product lines, the Z5xx "Silverthorne" processors geared towards mobile internet devices (MIDs), and the N2xx line of "Diamondville" processors for standard low cost PCs and netbook class devices.

The Z5xx versions of the Atom processor had a 13 x 14 mm package footprint and used the also new “Poulsbo” System Controller Hub. The processor had about 47 million transistors—more than the original Pentium 4. Bus frequency was 400MHz or 533MHz, and the Thermal Design Power (TDP) was between 0.85 watts for a low-end 800MHz chip, and 2.65 watts for a 1.86GHz Z540 version. The chipset used about 2.3 watts, which meant total CPU and chipset consumption wasn’t even 5 watts, far less than any of Intel's standard mobile processors. And the chipset had hardware support for H.264 and other HD decoding (but required the appropriate codecs to take advantage of it!). However, as the combo was targeted for internet devices, there was only PATA and no SATA support, though SATA could be added.

The Atom N2xx "Diamondville" family, released a bit later, was very similar to the Z5xx, so much so that to this date, I've yet to find someone who can convincingly describe why a manufacturer would pick one or the other, or what truly differentiates the two families. The Z2xx was a bit larger, measuring 22 x 22 mm, and the most popular model—the 1.6GHz N270—also had a, for Intel, very low Thermal Design Power of just 2 watts. The N2xx processors did not come with a newly designed chipset, but used lower power versions of the standard Intel 945 chipset and a separate ICH7M I/O chip. There was no HD decoding or hardware acceleration, but the chip did support the SATA interface.

The initial Atom processor families did not use two cores for cost and power conservation reasons. Instead they used Intel’s older HyperThreading technique that can process two threads, yet increases energy usage by only about 10%. Intel also developed a more power-efficient bus and a cache that could be disabled when it was not needed. The Atom Z5xx further used a new "Deep Power Down" C6 state, and similar advanced power management was available in the Atom N2xx.

What happened next was interesting. While Intel probably had high hopes for the Z5xx chips in the emerging "mobile internet device" market, it was the "Diamondville" processors, and more specifically the 1.6GHz N270, that almost singlehandedly created the new category of "netbooks" (well, the term had been used before, but never to describe a separate class of mobile computers). Despite the N270 chip's modest performance, consumers bought millions and millions of those little netbooks, most likely because of the low price that made netbooks an impulse buy as opposed to spending more for a "real" notebook computer.

The N270, however, was the sole bright spot in the Atom lineup on both sides of the Atom family, as neither the desktop-oriented N230 nor the entire mobile internet device Z5xx family did much of anything. The Z5xx chips were used in some industrial products like computers-on-modules, small form factor CPU boards, industrial tablets (such as the Handheld Algiz 8, the Mobile Demand T7000, the Logic Instrument Fieldbook, or the WinMate I980), MCAs (such as the Panasonic H1 or the Advantech MICA-101), or clamshell UMPCs (such as the Fujitsu UH900), but by and large there seemed no truly compelling reasons to go with Silverthorne.

"Diamondville" gets a little boost

On the Diamondville netbook side, the problem with the Atom N270 was that despite being used in all those netbooks, it was barely powerful enough to drive even those small, inexpensive computers. Anyone trying to do video or games on a netbook came away sorely disappointed. As a stop-gap solution, Intel released the very slightly more powerful N280 (1.66GHz clock speed instead of 1.6GHz) for netbooks, and the dual-core N330, which was really a dual-core version of the little-used desktop N230. With Atom video performance lagging, NVIDIA came up with the NVIDIA Ion Graphics chipset that was supposed to work better with Atom N-Series chips than Intel's own chipset, but it didn't come in time to make it into any of the first generation netbooks.

"Silverthorne" gets tougher

For embedded computing, in March of 2009 Intel quietly expanded the Z5XX platform with larger form factor versions that carried a "P" in their name, and then a special "large form factor with industrial temperature options" version marked with a "PT." This added the Atom 1.1GHz Z510P and 1.6GHz Z530P as well as the 1.1GHz Z510PT and 1.33GHz Z520PT. The P and PT versions used a larger 22 x 22 mm package (which is the same size as the N2xx chips) that used a different "ball pitch"—the spacing of the little balls of solder that replace pins on the underside of these tiny processor packages. That was probably done because the 0.6mm ball pitch of the original Z5xx series required high density interconnects (HDI) on the printed circuit boards, and those are more difficult to do and also more finicky, not what you'd want in the kind of rugged devices the chips were actually used. As far as temperature range goes, 32 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit is considered "commercial," whereas -40 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit is considered "industrial." Interestingly, only the "PT" series processors support the industrial temperature range; the "P" series versions are listed with the same commercial temperature range as the initial chips.

RuggedPCReview's assessment in 2009 was that "the moral of the Atom story is, at least for vertical market manufacturers: pick an Atom chip that Intel is likely to support for several years, and make certain the drivers are fully optimized and all the power saving features are fully implemented. Atom can deliver superior battery life and acceptable performance, but manufacturers must carefully target those products so customers won't be disappointed. We've seen Atom-based machines that use hardly less battery power than devices with much more powerful processors. That won't do. And we've seen some where non-optimized graphics drivers made the machines painful to use."

"Diamondville" begets "Pinetrail"

In December of 2009, Intel announced the next generation of Atom processors, or really the successor of "Diamondville." The new "Pinetrail" generation of Atom processors included the single core N450 (heir to the N270) and, adding yet another letter class, the single core D410 and the dual-core D510, both meant for low-end desktops. The big news here was that Intel reduced the chip count from three to two by integrating the graphics and memory controller into the CPU itself. The old ICH7M I/O controller chip was replaced with the Intel NM10 Express. That meant fewer chips to mount, somewhat lower power consumption, and—not mentioned by Intel—one less reason to seek third party chipsets such as NVIDIA's Ion. Reducing the chip count from three to two was nice, but the Z-series processors already had that. Graphics seemed somewhat improved, but not enough to make a huge difference, and there was still no HD playback hardware support. Our assessment was that we could not "help but feeling that Intel looked out for itself more than adding compelling value for consumers."

So for now, the N450 and the slightly faster 1.83GHz N470 are taking care of the netbook market, but what of the ever more important MID and smartphone market that Intel tried to address with Silverthorne? By now it was very obvious that Silerthorne had zero impact on that market and no one was going to base a smartphone or anything like it on an Atom Z5xx chip. Intel might have suspected as much, as even in the early days of Atom, their roadmap included codename "Moorestown," a system-on-a-chip platform.

Silverthorn replaced by "Moorestown"?

Well, Moorestown was officially introduced on May 4th, 2010. It includes the "Lincroft" Z6xx series of Atom chips, the "Langwell" Platform Controller Hub MP20, and the "Briartown" Mixed Signal IC (yes, Intel loves its code names). In its press release, Intel mentioned "significant power savings while increasing performance" in a design scalable across a range of devices including "high-end smartphones, tablets and other mobile handheld devices."

So what does Intel promise for the Z6xx platform? Nothing very specific as of yet. Power "breakthroughs" include much lower power consumption at idle and with audio active (i.e. music playing), and 2-3X reduction while browsing or playing video. That's good. Intel also promised a full 1080p video experience (really already possible with the Z5xx chips, albeit perhaps not "full"), with clock speeds up to 1.5GHz and low-power LPDDR1 memory for smartphones and 1.9GHz and faster DDR2 memory for tablets (current Z5xx series chips range from the 1.1GHz Z510 to the 2.0GHz Z550. Intel highlights that the new chips result in greater than 40% reduction in package area and a greater than 50% reduction in board area for the Z6xx and MP20, so their combined package real estate is less than 400 mm2, and the board area required less than 333 mm2. The new "Langwell" Intel Platform Controller Hub MP20 has a package size of 14 x 14 mm (same as Apple's A4) with a 0.5mm pitch and uses 65nm technology. That's down from the 22 x 22mm Poulsbo. The Z6xx chip itself is also on a 14 x 14mm package (see below).

From an architecure standpoint, the new 1Z6xx CPUs integrate a lot of the functionality that used to be part of the Poulsbo chipset, such as graphics, decoding/encoding, memory controller, etc., leaving the "South Complex" "Langwell" chip to concentrate on I/O. The graphics core integrated into the "Lincroft" CPU is the same as that on the older "Poulsbo" chip, but the core can now run at up to twice the frequency and has been optimized for power and performance. Video decoding remains the same, but there's now 720p H.264 and MPEG4 encoding and also H.263 videoconferencing encoding. Intel says that 3D graphics performance should double.

The "Briertown" "Mixed Signal IC" is meant to integrate components such as audio, touchscreen, voltage regulator, display and comms drivers and such. Intel stressed that it will be available from mutiple sources (such as Freescale, Maxim and Renesas).

While more performance was desirable, less power consumption was essential if the new chips are to have a chance in the device market. So Intel did some major work on power states. Instead of the older system-wide power management, much greater power savings are now possible by giving each subsystem its own power management capabilities. So whenever any part of a "Moorestown" system is not needed, it's turned down or off. Intel refers to those savings mechanisms as "power islands" on both the MP20 hub and on the Z6xx chip and it's all done with an involved combination of software, hardware and firmware features. The sum total of all this is that the three chips that make up the Moorestown platform combined use less power under load than the first gen Menlow platform did when running idle.

That's impressive, but also necessary. What Intel envisions for Moorestown-based devices is a range of form factors, from smartphones to sleek tablets with 10 days standby, two days music playback, over five hours of video, multi-tasking/multi-windowing/multi-point video conferencing, 1080p playback and 720p recording, and and "PC-like" internet.

With Moorestown Intel is clearly taking another run at a market where it is simply not represented. Apple has set the bar for smartphones and tablets very high, and really nothing less than the kind of performance and battery life found in Apple products will do. The performance of current Atom-based systems, those assisted by NVIDIA chips not included, ranges from perfectly adequate to rather anemic, especially with video. It's Moorestown's task to potentially change that.

NVIDIA likely won't be happy. Just when the first Atom N450/N470-based nebooks with its Ion graphics appear on the market, Intel throws another curve by including graphics into the very processor of the next generation of "internet device" Atom chips.

For embedded systems and rugged/vertical market systems developers, the ongoing fragmentation of the Atom platform into two families, and the rapid obsolescence of the two most frequently used chips (the N270 and the Z530) is also not very good news. While more performance is always better, if the Moorestown platform turns out to be that much quicker and more economical, then products based on the older chips will have suddenly become a lot less desirable.

Now what?

As far as the future of Moorestown for smartphones and mobile internet devices goes, Intel will not only have to overcome ongoing confusion about their two Atom families, but it will also face formidable competition from the ARM processor architecture camp. That includes Nvidia's Tegra, the Qualcomm Snapdragon, TI's OMAP and others.

And then there is Apple. The iPad's A4 chip, also ARM-based, is Apple-only and thus not direct competition, but with the iPad Apple has shown what is possible with a tiny processor running at just 1GHz. The iPad is uniformly seen as an excellent performer with very quick browsing and excellent video playback. The iPad does not only not need a fan; it simply never warms up at all, not even after runnning video for hours. And with the iPad's ability to run video for ten hours or more, Intel's set goal of "over 5 hours" of video looks modest at best.

So Moorestown has a great deal to prove, and Intel has a lot to lose. If the platform succeeds, the N-Series branch of the family will suddenly look quite obsolete, which will require another tweak. If it fails, Intel's reputation of being behind in mobile chips will be confirmed yet again. No one's ever counting Intel out, but Atom, netbooks notwithstanding, has been a struggle.

Posted by conradb212 at 10:42 PM | Comments (0)

May 04, 2010

Publishing and the iPad

This has nothing to do with rugged computing, but everything with publishing and how information is presented and distributed.

As a former print publisher, I spent some time comparing different approaches to magazine publishing on the iPad. Given the amount of hype about the iPad being the savior of publishing, I am surprised there is not an iMagazine app or some such. I mean, Apple could take the lead here yet again, creating the iTunes of the magazine world.
As is, everyone's doing their own thing, with Zinio, of course, having the lead with its hundreds of electronic titles. Problem is, they're not doing a thing different for the iPad. The PDF versions are faithful 1:1 equivalents of the print mags and it all works well, though a slight lag until each new page snaps into focus is annoying. And I am NOT willing to fill out long, cumbersome forms with address and credit card info to subscribe to a mag when it should all be 1-click.
Time Magazine rolls their own, for now at the absurdly high price of $4.95 per issue. Their approach is sort of a hybrid between PDF and web design and totally new stuff. It's very innovative, but takes some time getting used to. On the other hand, there really is no need to simply transform print to screen, even if it's print retrofitted with electronic stuff (links, video, forms, etc.). 
So Time is experimenting. Pictures that may be tiny in a magazine due to space constraints can be large, with text below it and you need to scroll down. When you zoom in to make text readable, pictures don't necessarily zoom with it; they don't need to. And how cool is it to have a full-page portrait of Lady Gaga or Bill Clinton and when you rotate to landscape, it becomes flawless high-definition video and they speak to you.
The iPad brings us another step closer to electronic publishing, a big one. But for now, no one is taking the definite lead. With the iBooks app and iBook store still a million miles behind Amazon, Apple probably has its hands full with filling in the many blanks, and an iMag app and store may not come to pass anytime soon, or ever. So Zinio and others have a window of opportunity, but it'll take more than selling individual mags for US$4.95 (Time) or making people put up with lag and an antediluvian 20th century style signup (Zinio).  

Posted by conradb212 at 05:54 PM | Comments (0)