This weekend The New York Times published its annual catalog of the Year in Ideas. One of them, Good Enough is the New Great, is a concept derived from a story in the August issue of Wired (The Good Enough Revolution), which noted that some of the most successful gadgets and applications of late are a triumph of mediocre technology over the latest and greatest.
The Flip's success stunned the industry, but it shouldn't have. It's just the latest triumph of what might be called Good Enough tech. Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere. We get our breaking news from blogs, we make spotty long-distance calls on Skype, we watch video on small computer screens rather than TVs, and more and more of us are carrying around dinky, low-power netbook computers that are just good enough to meet our surfing and emailing needs. The low end has never been riding higher.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about this concept of good-enough computing. The success of netbooks in 2009 seems like an obvious example of good over great, but I'm not convinced that is what the netbook phenomenon is really all about. I think it has a lot more to do with demand for highly mobile computing at an affordable price. No sooner had netbooks hit the big-time then chipmakers began trying to address performance shortcomings such as the inability to play HD video. AMD's ultra-thin platform (formerly known as Congo), Nvidia's Ion chipset and Intel's upcoming Pine Trail platform are all designed to boost performance of netbooks.
In general, I think there's still room for significant improvement in performance and battery life of laptops. It's true that the typical $600 mainstream laptop on the shelf at Best Buy can handle most tasks. And there's more choice than ever in terms of size and weight, price, and performance. But if you think about it, we're still far from having it all in one laptop. Netbooks and thin-and-lights based on ultra low-voltage chips are highly portable, and have excellent battery life, at the expense of performance. Budget and mainstream laptops are priced right and have decent performance, but they are too bulky and battery life is poor. If you really want the best performance, you can choose notebook with an Intel Core i7 quad-core (Clarksfield) processor, but these are generally available only in expensive 17-inch desktop replacements that are marginally portable and designed largely for gamers. (Yes, Dell's 15-inch Alienware M15x also comes with Core i7, but it weighs in at more than 10 pounds.)
HP deserves credit for trying to build a laptop that has it all, but the Envy 15 illustrates just how hard impossible this is to do using current technology. The Envy 15 is reasonably portable, measuring one inch thick and weighing 5.4 pounds, and it has a Core i7 quad-core processor and a 1920x1080 15.6-inch display. But all that comes at a price. The Envy 15 starts at $1,800 with a 1.60GHz Core i7-720QM, 6GB of memory, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4830 graphics and a 500GB hard drive. The Envy 15 is also one of the few 15.6-inch laptops you'll find that doesn't include an internal optical drive to keep the size and weight down. And while performance was extremely good on CNET's tests, battery life was not. Numerous other reviews noted that the Envy 15 runs so hot that it is actually "uncomfortable to use."
The near-term roadmap doesn't offer much hope for closing this gap. In early 2010, Intel will release its first 32nm Westmere processors, including Arrandale for laptops and Clarkdale for desktops, but these will be designed for mainstream laptops, where the bulk of the sales are. In addition, these processors will include Intel's integrated graphics on the same chip for the first time. This will simplify system design, and should help lower prices, but unless Intel has made huge strides in the performance of its integrated graphics, these Arrandale-based laptops won't satisfy power-users. Of course, the 32nm chips can also be paired with discrete graphics, and later in the year we should get faster Westmere chips that come a bit closer to Clarksfield. AMD will release its first laptop platform (Danube) with a quad-core processor in the first half of next year, but like Clarksfield, AMD's 45nm chip is likely to be too big and hot for anything but desktop replacements. Meanwhile AMD's next ultra-thin platform, Geneva, and the Fusion chip with an integrated GPU that arrives in 2011, are targeted at the mainstream, and not the performance segment. The bottom line: Don't look for a thin 13.3-inch laptop that offers Core i7-level performance and solid battery life anytime soon.
Last week, I attended a semiconductor conference where chipmakers discussed their latest technology. There was a lot of talk at the show about a coming slowdown in the pace of innovation. Each new generation of process technology is tougher and more costly than the last, the argument goes, so does it really make sense to stay on this treadmill? But Intel execs--who noted (repeatedly) that the company has already shipped more than 200 million processors using high-k and metal gate technology while the rest of the industry is still figuring it out, and is already manufacturing 32nm chips in two factories--said they have no plans to let up. That's good news because today's laptop technology isn't anywhere near good enough.