As Intel launches its Sonoma chip set today, the processor vendor could be forgiven for feeling a little forlorn. Technical excellence disguised as just another evolutionary upgrade comes across as worthy but dull. The biggest advances -- integrated 3D graphics, high resolution audio, ExpressCard -- will be compared unfavourably to desktop capabilities, seen as inappropriate to portable life or just as solutions to problems that don't really exist.
Yet compare 2005's laptop with that from ten years ago. A 75MHz 486DX4? Thirty times slower than the Pentium M. Two hundred times less hard disk, sixty four times less memory, and as for wireless -- forget it. That's what ten years of incremental improvements gets you -- oh, and it all costs around two-thirds less. Intel's commitment to continual improvement has been a big part of this, and the company deserves applause.
However, one of the most important aspects of portable computing remains stubbornly fixed. Look back to 1995, and you'll find users comparing notes on battery life. Two or two and a half hours flat out, four and a half if you're miserly with screen and hard disk. Not so different to today's three to five hours -- no sign of the ten- or hundred-fold improvement we so complacently accept in other departments. In some ways, we've gone backwards: a 1985 TRS-80 Model 100 could run for 20 hours on one charge.
Battery technology remains the biggest problem in laptops. Everyone has a solution - Intel has a polymer alkaline design that can store twice as much power per gram as standard laptop batteries, which it may get to market next year. Or the year after. Every company worth its metal salts has a fuel cell design percolating away in a back room: many have been twelve months away from shipping for as long as anyone can remember. Do not rely on tomorrow's power.
Nevertheless, today's batteries are much better than those from 1995: roughly twice to four times the capacity. But each gentle nudge forward in storage is immediately used to power extra performance, not to extend battery life. Brighter, bigger displays are the biggest guzzlers: they're not always needed.
We'd like to see a little more imagination by chip makers and display manufacturers: just a couple of ultra-low power modes could get us back to twenty -- or even two hundred -- hours of useful life, even if you can't run 3D games or watch DVDs. More imagination, not better chemistry, is the key to a better life.