I had previously covered the issue of using Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 technology to facilitate the design and use of an external graphics module or dock for laptops. This idea was put forward by Sony with the VAIO Z-Series premium Ultrabook and by Alienware through the use of a “card-cage” dock that worked with some of their laptops. Both these devices illustrated the possibility of allowing for improved graphics on portable or compact equipment, whether through a graphics module that has the graphics chipset integrated in its circuitry or a “card-cage” expansion module that allows you to install one or two desktop graphics cards in to that module.
But the Thunderbolt 3 technology which uses the USB Type-C connector as a physical connection has been known to have the same bandwidth as the PCI Express internal connection used to connect display cards to the motherboard in a regular computer. This appeals because there is no need to reinvent the wheel when designing an external-graphics-module solution for that portable-computing or low-profile computing product.
Now Acer have premiered a Thunderbolt 3 external graphics dock for their laptop products and had demonstrated it working with their Core-M-powered Switch 12.5 convertible laptop. This graphics module implements a NVIDIA GTX-960M graphics chipset in a small dedicated box and adds extra connectivity to the host laptop in the form of 3 extra USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet port and the ability to connect to external displays via HDMI or 2 DisplayPort connections. It also exploits the USB 3.1 subsystem by providing the ability to power and charge the host laptop via the USB Type-C connection thanks to a DC power-supply connection on the graphics module itself.
This has been able to show real graphics performance benefits using the 3DMark II theoretical graphics benchmark where the Switch 12.5 came in at 940 on its own graphics chipset and on 4048 when used with this dock. This device is the first of its kind to have a release price called for it with it costing around EUR€300, but there isn’t an estimated release date.
For Acer, it could be feasible for them to use the same external graphics docks across most, if not all, of their consumer and business laptop range that has the Thunderbolt 3 connection.
The question with the Thunderbolt 3 graphics-module application will arise is whether there will be the ability for one external graphics-module or card-cage module made by one manufacturer to work at their full potential with Thunderbolt-3-equipped laptops offered by other manufacturers.
If so, this could encourage computer manufacturers to use the Thunderbolt 3 technology on their portable, all-in-one or low-profile computers as a graphics-expansion option without needing to offer a graphics dock while computer-peripheral manufacturers can make external graphics solutions such as graphics expansion docks, desktop monitors with integrated graphics subsystems, and the like to work with other computers.
I see this concept appealing in a few ways:
An ultraportable computer being able to benefit from discrete graphics when used “at the desk” or “at home” thanks to an external graphics dock. This could open up the ability for a user to have one graphics dock at the office and another at home with these devices serving a “work-home-travel” computer.
The possibility of offering an affordable laptop or all-in-one desktop computer to most customers with the ability for these customers to expand their computer’s capabilities to suit their needs thanks to an external graphics module.
The ability for gaming-grade or workstation-grade computers that don’t offer much in the way of graphics-upgrade potential like laptops or all-in-ones to be upgraded to multiple-GPU performance and the latest graphics-processor technology thanks to an add-on graphics module or card-cage. In some ways, it could bring the separate-boxes “hi-fi approach” to the concept of improving personal computer equipment.
Once a level playing field is achieved regarding Thundberbolt 3 over USB Type C for graphics docks through the use of open standards, it can lead to the idea of allowing low-profile and portable computers to benefit from high-performance graphics.
InFocus, known for their range of value-priced projectors, had previously released the Kangaroo mini-PC which is about the size of a smartphone. But like most of the “Next Unit Of Computing” devices which represent the ultra-small “fixed-location” computers, this model used an Intel Atom CPU, 2Gb RAM and up to 32Gb solid-state storage. This made people think of them as being “toys” rather than tools.
But InFocus raised the game for this series of computers by offering the Kangaroo Plus “deluxe” version of their small-form-factor computer. Here, this is equipped with 64Gb of data storage capacity and 4Gb RAM which is considered iy most computer users to be a realistic amount of baseline memory. It was offered in response to customers expressing a need for real capacities on both the “primary-storage” RAM and the non-volatile secondary storage.
There is still the ability to use an Apple iPad as the display and input surface for the InFocus Kangaroo through the use of a special cable and an iOS app. It also works with the Kangaroo Dock expansion module so you can safely upgrade your existing Kangaroo pocket computer to the bigger-capacity model without dumping that accessory.
Could this be a sign of hope for small-form-factor desktop computers to have specifications that can allow for most elementary desktop uses? Would this also be a sign that these computers could end up being specified as part of a standard operating environment?
Previously, all the laptop vendors were trying to design their products to have a similar look to Apple’s MacBook product lineup. This ended up with the Apple MacBook product lineup along with the Apple iMac product lineup being seen as personal computing’s “Holy Grail” when it comes to design, construction and specification. This was involving computers that have the same slimline look to the Apple MacBook Air series along with some media-capable laptops like the HP Envy 15-3000 having a similar styling and capability to the Apple MacBook Pro.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 – considered to be the Holy Grail for Windows-based detachable-tablet 2-in-1s
But what has just been happening at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a run of detachable-tablet 2-in-1 computers that have a very similar look to the Microsoft Surface Pro. For example, when the keyboard is attached to the Surface Pro and the kickstand is brought out so it is used as a notebook computer, the setup raises the keyboard at a slight angle; while the tablet part is very much a glass-covered slate.
This ended up with the Microsoft Surface Pro, especially the latest generation, being considered the “Holy Grail” whein it comes to detachable-tablet 2-in-1 computers.
All of the contenders have the detachable keyboard supplied with the tablet even if you purchase the baseline variant in their product lineup. This is while they achieve that slimline look that the Microsoft Surface has attained as a tablet.
They also offer features that Microsoft wouldn’t provide as part of the Surface Pro’s spec like use of common “open-frame” connectors such as the USB Type-C connector. HP’s Spectre x2, for example, even adds an Intel RealSense camera for Windows Hello facial recognition.
As I have noticed over the last year, the Microsoft Surface Pro lineup has also been aggressively targeted at those of us who would buy the Apple MacBook Air or own one of these computers. This is through the use of style to woo these customers along with TV commercials that show you what you can do on the Surface Pro but can’t do on the MacBook Air and pages on Microsoft’s Website giving instructions on how to move off Apple’s Macintosh platform to the Surface.
Could this be another trend for computer manufacturers to achieve “Holy Grail” products for their product class which which other comptuer designers aspire to? But on the other hand, the desire to imitate can ruin the desire to innoviate and make products that carry their unique look and design characteristics.
This encompasses personal computing systems ranging from desktop and laptop computers that run “regular” or “traditional” computer operating systems like Microsoft Windows or Google ChromeOS to smartphones and tablets that run a mobile operating system typically Android. Apple hasn’t been showing their equipment at CES because of the way they see themselves as their own unit.
The key trends
Windows 10 – influences how this year’s computers are being designed
Microsoft Windows 10 and the Intel Skylake processor / chipset family have become established as far as personal computing system is concerned. This has led to most of the manufacturers refreshing their desktop and laptop product lines to take advantage of the new microarchitecture and operating system with what it offers. It doesn’t matter whether you use these computers for work or play; or at home, the office or on the road.
Expect the USB Type-C connector to be common on this year’s computers
Feature that are being made available include the USB 3.1 Type-C connector which offers data transfer and laptop power on one cable, Thunderbolt 3 which uses the USB Type-C cable as an effective way to provide PCI-Express data throughput along with mobile-optimised design based around reduced heat output and reduced power demands.
This has led to a situation where most of the manufacturers have engaged in a race to see who is the first with the lightest 15” laptop and the most svelte 13” 2-in-1 convertible or detachable computer. The latter goal has been brought on because of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book 2-in-1s as something to emulate or beat where these systems are being offered as a credible alternative to the Apple MacBook lineup. This has been brought about because of the Intel Skylake processor family offering more options for mobile-focused processors that can lead to fanless cooling and improved battery runtime. The latter benefit benefits designers due to the ability to supply a smaller battery yet yield the same runtime.
The display is being seen as a tool to differentiate the premium-grade laptops. This is based on an increasing number of laptops and 2-in-1s having a 4K ultra-high-resolution display along with some manufacturers offering OLED displays as an option in their premium models. From my personal experience with my Samsung Galaxy Note phones and their AMOLED displays, I have noticed that photos and videos do come across more vividly due to the improved contrast that these displays offer. This could mean that the OLED-equipped laptops could woo photographers and video editors away from the Apple MacBook Pro as their tool of choice.
This year has also seen a larger number of business-grade laptops and tablets being exhibited by the manufacturers. Why show business-focused computers at a consumer-focused show? Firstly, there is the concept of “bring-your-own-device” appearing in a large number of workplaces where workers could choose their own devices, perhaps with the employer subsidising the cost of the equipment. Then there is the concept of the Internet-based “cottage industry” where your place of business is your home, perhaps with extra rented premises as a shopfront or storage where applicable.
All the computer names are offering gaming-optimised desktop and laptop computers with two significant trends showing up this year. One of these is to have gaming computers rated to work with the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset at best performance. Another is to have highly-compact gaming desktop computers in a manufacturer’s lineup rather than the traditional “gaming-rig” tower computers.
Some of what the brands offer
Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1
Acer has premiered the Aspire Switch 12S detachable which uses Intel Thunderbolt 3.1 via USB Type-C connectivity. As well, there is a 4K ultra-high-resolution screen in the lineup but these computers normally have a 12.5” Full HD (1080p) screen. These detachables use a magnetic docking mechanism which shouldn’t be about messing around with a latch; while they maintain 2 USB 3.0 connections, microHDMI external display connection and a microSD card slot.
Acer Travelmate P648 Business Notebook computer
Acer’s TravelMate business notebooks have been brought up to date. One of these is the TravelMate P649 14-incher which come with WiGig short-throw Wi-Fi support, a USB Type-C port, NVIDIA GTX940M discrete graphics, start with 4Gb RAM but can be set up with 20Gb RAM, storage up to 512Gb SSD or 1Tb hard disk, MU-MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi for the latest routers, amongst other things. It seems like this computer could be called as an “all-rounder” work-home computer. They even offered the ProDock expansion module as a recommended “desktop-computing” accessory for this laptop, because this can provide 2 USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet wired network adaptor, and the ability to connect display devices via DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI or VGA.
The gaming scene didn’t miss out, thanks to Acer refreshing their Aspire Nitro range of gaming computers uprated to current expectations including Skylake technology. The Black Edition even sports an Intel Realsense camera for 3D scanning and Windows Hello facial recognition.
Acer Iconia Tab 8 family Android tablet with Kids’ Center
There is the Acer Liquid Jade Primo smartphone which is Acer’s entry in to the Windows 10 Mobile foray. This has the USB Type-C connectivity along with 3Gb RAM and 32Gb storage. But Acer hasn’t forgotten about Android with their Iconia One 8” family tablet that runs Android Lollipop 5.1, 9 hours battery runtime and has 16Gb storage and 1Gb RAM. Acer also added to this tablet the “Kids Center” software which is effectively an app corral for kids.
Acer has fielded a few Chrome OS computers to the foray with the Chromebook 11 which has 9 hours battery runtime, a Celeron processor and starts with 2Gb RAM but can go 4Gb RAM; and a Chromebase 24 all-in-one desktop which uses an Intel Core-family CPU and uses 8Gb RAM.
ASUS didn’t show up much in the way of laptop computers but presented their Zenfone Zoom which is a camera smartphone that uses a 10-element Hoya 3x optical-zoom lens. This phone is not as bulky as other camera-smartphone hybrid designs.
Dell revamped their Latitude range of business portable computers by offering the Latitude 11 500 series of business-focused tablets , the Latitude 13 7000 series of Ultrabooks and the Latitude 12 7000 series of detachable 2-in-1 tablets.
The Latitude 12 7000 series 12” tablets are effectively Dell’s answer to Microsoft’s Surface detachable tablet range, with an option to have the display resolution as 4K resolution as an option or Full HD (1080p) as standard; Intel Core M3, Core M5 0r Core M7 processors; 2 USB 3.1 Type-C ports with a USB Type-A adaptor supplied, 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity and an Intel RealSense camera. These 2-in-1s will offer 8Gb RAM and 512Gb storage. There is also the Latitude 11 5000 which is a closely-specced 11” variant of the Latitude 12 7000 2-in-1. The Latitude 13 7000 13” Ultrabooks will have the InfinityEdge “narrow-bezel” look, Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type-C and a fingerprint reader and NFC / RFID reader. Other members of the Latitude 5000 and 7000 business portable-computer lineup have been revamped to newer expectations with Intel Skylake technology, all USB connections being USB 3.0 or better, Thunderbolt 3.0 and 2560×1600 screen resolution at least. One of the systems even has support for WiGig short-throw high-bandwidth Wi-Fi wireless connectivity.
The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 is Dell’s entry to the bargain-basement laptop market with at least US$199 buying you a Windows laptop that has Celeron or Pentium processors, 2Gb or 4Gb RAM, 32Gb SSD storage and the 1366×768 display resolution.
For the gamers out there, Dell’s Alienware gaming brand has fronted up with some Oculus-ready gaming computers. They even put up the prospect of offering a gaming laptop with an OLED screen to improve those games graphics.
Hewlett-Packard (HP) have premiered their Phoenix x360 convertible notebook which has a variant equipped with a 15.6” display. This series implements the Intel Iris graphics engine and a 4K screen with OLED offered as an option. At the moment, HP are claiming this Skylake-equipped computer to he the thinnest lightest 15” convertible notebook on the market. These computers are equipped with a USB Type-C connector and have their sound subsystem tuned by Bang & Olufsen which is part of a trend affecting HP laptops.
They have also released a larger version of the Pavilion x2 detachable tablet, which is another attempt to answer Microsoft’s Surface tablet range. It will come with low specs like a Core M or Atom CPU depending on the price range. The keyboard has a magnetic attachment mechanism rather than the usual mechanical latch used with most detachable tablets and the screen will come in at 12.1”.
The HP Elitebook Folio – as part of one’s office, whether that’s the main one or the café.
For business users, HP has released the Elitebook Folio whcih can lay flat for collabberation in the main or secondary office. This very thin Ultrabook has 2 USB Type-C connectors, a sound system that works well for voice communications, dedicated call-control keys, a piano hinge and, like a lot of this year’s computers, will have a 4K touchscreen option. As well, it is built on an aluminium chassis rather than a plastic chassis. You could achieve a good long workday and a few coffees from your favourite barista at your “second-office” café before the battery goes flat even if you go for the 4K touchscreen display variant or have the display at maximum brightness.
Other business computer options premiered by HP at this year’s CES include the Elitebook 1040 G3 14” notebook based on an aluminium chassis and using Core processors, Full HD or QHD displays. This is along with HP launching the Elitebook 800 family of business notebooks, available as 12.5”, 14” or 15” variants. HP have also added in a privacy filter feature to their latest Elitebook lineup as a deal-making option to prevent others like baristas or neighbouring aeroplane passengers from snooping on your work that is on the screen.
HP have not forgotten about the gamers and have premiered the Envy Phoenix performance gaming desktop which is pitched at today’s virtual-reality gamers.
Lenovo have come up with a large lineup of very interesting computer equipment.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet with additional options
Firstly, they have released the ThinkPad X1 as a family of portable computing devices rather than one notebook computer. The first of these is the ThinkPad X1 Tablet which is a highly-modular 12” detachable tablet set to answer Microsoft’s Surface. It has USB Type-C charging. Core M horsepower, up to 16Gb RAM and a 2K IPS screen. But its piece de resistance is the fact that there are clip-on modues that extend its functionality further. One of these is the Productivity Module which is a 15-hour external battery while another of these is the Presenter Module with a pico projector and HDMI video connectivity and the last of these is the 3D Imaging Module with an integrated Inntel Realsense 3D camera.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga convertible notebook
The X1 Yoga is a 14” convertible notebook that carries through the Lenovo Yoga 360-degree hinged convertible design weighs in about 2.8lb and has a pen integrated in the tablet. This has a 2560×1440 OLED display as the top-shelf option or an LCD with similar resolution or a Full HD LCD at cheaper prices. It has that standard HDMI connector for external displays, uses Core M horsepower, is equipped with an Ethernet socket for Ethernet or HomePlug AV2 networks, and can have up to 16Gb RAM and 1Th SSD storage.
The Skylake-driven iteration of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon notebook
The X1 Carbon is a follow-on from the legendary business notebook which I reviewed that has a carbon-fibre housing. It comes with similar specifications to the X1 Yoga and has military-specification construction and there is the option to have it run with Intel i7 processors while you have the same “elasticity” that you have with RAM and storage types and capacities as the X1 Yoga.
Lenovo ThinkCentre X1 all-in-one business desktop
It is followed on with the ThinkCentre X1 all-in-one desktop computer that is as slim as one of today’s typical computer monitors. This has a 23.8” Full HD screen; Intel i7 Skylake processor; 16Gb RAM and an option of 500Gb or 1Tb hard disk, 512Gb solid-state drive or a 512Gb self-encrypting drive or OPAL self-encrypting drive for storage; 1080p Webcam; DisplayPort input and output; SD card reader and 5 USB 3.0 sockets. It connects to home or business networks via Ethernet.
There are some more of the ThinkCentre and ThinkPad product families being offered for business users. One of these is the ThinkCentre Tiny which is Lenovo’s latest small-footprint computer but this is designed to be able to be attached to one of their monitors as part of a “ThinkCentre-In-One” all-in-one computer design.
Lenovo ThinkPad T560 business notebook
The ThinkPad T Series manifests this year in the form of the T460 and T560 laptops, which continue the heritage that this series embodied. The T460s is a lightweight durable Ultrabook with a 14” screen while the T460p is equipped with improved graphics in the form of discrete graphics and WQHD screen. The ThinkPad X260 is a 12” Ultrabook that has an option of an add-on battery pack that gives this machine a runtime of 21 hours – enough for a long-haul flight to the other side of the world. The ThinkPad L460 and L560 are focused on military-specification durability.
Lenovo ThinkPad 13 durable budget notebook – can be supplied with Chrome OS or Windows 10
But the ThinkPad 13 budget notebook is the shining star when it comes to a purely secondary computer although it is pitched at the education market. It is available as a version which runs on Windows 10 or as a version that runs on Google Chrome OS. This unit implements military-specification durability, Intel Core i5 horsepower and up to 16Gb RAM and 512Gb storage. The Windows 10 variant has the IBM/Lenovo thumbstick on the keyboard, an HDMI external-video port, 3 USB connectors as well as a USB Type-C connector. This is while the Chrome OS variant has 1 USB connector along with 2 USB Type-C connectors. Personally, I would see this as a budget small-enough “portable typewriter” computer that is comfortable for answering emails, writing blog posts or completing that magnum opus while away from home or office – think of your favourite café or bar.
Lenovo Yoga 900 – now available as a Business Edition computer
Let’s not forget that Lenovo also offered the Business Editions of both the Yoga 900 and MIIX 700. These add on features that allow for improved security and allow for management by a business’s own IT department or IT contractor. This will also mean that they may be available at value-added IT resellers that pitch to the business community.
Improved watchband hinge in the Lenovo Yoga 900S Series
Speaking of the Yoga 900 Series, there is the Yoga 900S which is a deluxe edition of the Yoga 900 with an improved watchband hinge and is available in that “Champagne Gold” finish reminiscent of early-1980s Marantz hi-fi equipment or a platinum-silver finish. Lenovo says that the Yoga 900S is the thinnest 360-degree convertible laptop on the market.
Lenovo IdeaCentre 510 all-in-one – aimed squarely at the Apple iMac
Lenovo is taking aim at the iMac by offering the IdeaCentre 510s 23” touchscreen all-in-one with narrow bezel which is equipped with a drop-down module that houses some USB ports and a Webcam. This comes in wiht Intel Skylake Core i7 processor, NVIDIA GT930a discrete graphics and has up to 1 Tb hard disk and a 256Gb solid-state drive for storage.
Lenovo Y Series Razer Edition gaming desktop
Lenovo are trying their best to conquer the US gaming market by offering a run of gaming-focused computer equipment. This is in conjunction with them developing and publishing a game that would appeal to the core-level games. The Ideapad Y900 17” gaming laptop, which I reckon is a desknote, has the Core i7 processor, NVIDIA GTX980M discrete graphics, and up to 64Gb of DDR4 RAM. The IdeaCentre Y900 Razer Edition, which comes with a Razer mouse and keyboard, has the multi-colour lighting effects and Robocop look that will appeal at that frag-fest. It comes in with an Intel Core i7 CPU, 32Gb RAM, NVIDIA GTX750Ti discrete graphics and up to 2Tb hard disk and 256Gb solid-state drive capacity.
The IdeaCentre 610s small-form-factor desktop looks like a home appliance or wireless speaker and has a micro projector that docks on to it. This again comes with an Intel Core i7 Skylake CPU, NVIDIA GTX750Ti discrete graphics and up to 16Gb RAM.
Let’s not forget that Lenovo are showing the Vibe S1 Lite metal-body smartphone to the American market. This implemtns a 1080p Full HD screen and a selfie flash.
Samsung are not just offering Android smartphones and tablets but are introducing Windows 10 tablets to the US market. For that matter, they are applying the Galaxy Tab Pro model name also to tablets that run Windows 10 and have offered the Galaxy Tab Pro S which is a Windows 10 2-in-1 tablet that looks like the Microsoft Surface Pro, implements a Super AMOLED display, Intel Core M processor, and can fast-charge its battery in 2.5 hours to lead to a 10.5 hours runtime.
They have also shown the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge Android smartphones which will be equipped with a microSD card slot.
As for laptops, they are offering the Notebook 9 in 13” and 15” variants with a choise of Intel Skylake Core i5 or i7 processors, Full HD displays, 2 USB Type-C connections, and have them in metallic housings. Their Chromebook is the Chromebook 3 which will be equipped wiht an 11.6” 1366×768 display, a dual-core Intel Celeron processor, a choice of 2Gb or 4Gb RAM, and 16Gb storage.
LG Gram 15 laptop – how lightweight it is
Their South Korean rival, LG, are offering some computing equipment of their own. They have launched a pair of budget smartphones in the form of the K10 and K7 smartphones. As well, they launched the ultra-light Gram 15 laptop which they say is the lightest 15” laptop. It has the Full HD IPS display, a choice of an Intel Core i5 or i7 Haswell CPU, a USB Type-C connector and a Cirrus Logic audio DAC for its sound. They also launched the 15U560 15” mainstream home laptop which has a 15” 4K display driven by NVIDIA 940M discrete graphics, 8Gb RAM, and powered by Intel Skylake Core i3, i5 or i7 processors. Storage is up to 512Gb SSD or 1Tb hard disk and this laptop comes in a white finish.
Huawei have introduced fingerprint sensors across its phone and tablet range for this year. Examples of these include the Mate 6P 6” phablet and the Mate 8 6” phablet which is highly tuned for performance. There is also the MediaPad 10” 1920×1200 Android tablet which runs Android 5.1 Lollipop. This iPad alternative comes with 2Gb or 3Gb RAM and 16Gb or 48Gb storage.
Yezz Sfera have shown up with a smartphone that implements a 360-degree camera but could this catch on? Another newcomer called E.Fun fronted up to Las Vegas with a pair of budiget-priced laptop computers – a 14” notebook with a 1366×768 display, 32Gb onboard storage and a microSD slot, along wiht an 11” convertible notebook with similar specs except for 64Gb onboard storage.
Alcatel have fielded a small tablet in the form of the One Touch Pixi 3 which can work wiht 4G LTE mobile broadband. This 8” tablet works using Windows 10 Mobile, similar to what the Windows smartphones work on and it will support Contunuum for Mobile when it is used with a keyboard and mouse.
This is while Archos have presented a US$50 entry-level smartphone in the form of the Archos 40 Power 4” Android unit. This will have an 800×480 screen, 512Mb RAM, 8Gb storage, a microSD card slot and runs Android 5.1 Lollipop. Archos expects that this phone will run for 2 days before the battery dies but this depends on how many apps are running at once.
Nextbook have also fielded a range of entry-level detachable-tablet 2-in-1s driven by Atom x5 horsepower and equipped with 2Gb RAM and an HD touchscreen. Other features that are common include a microSD card slot, 802.11g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, the mobile-phone-standard microUSB port and a microHDMI port. The 9” 9A and 10” 10A units come with 32Gb storage while the 11” 11A comes with 64Gb storage.
Maingear have fronted up with a gaming computer that is based on an all-in-one design. As well Gigabyte have refreshed their Aorus X5 gaming notebook lineup with Skylake internals, Fusion keyboard, 4K display option, USB-C connectivity.
Razer have proven the concept of using Intel Thunderbolt 3 over a USB Type-C connection to work with user-attachable outboard graphics modules. This is by demonstrating their Razer Blade gaming laptop being hooked up to and working with a card-cage that houses a performance graphics card.
Intel have come up with their own consumer hardware in the form of a smartphone under their own brand and equipped wiht a RealSense camera. They also revamped their line up of Compute Sticks that plug in to a display’s HDMI port by releasing an entry level variant with an Atom x5 CPU, 2Gb RAM and 32Gb storage; along with better models that implement Core M3 or M5 CPUs and have 4Gb RAM and 64Gb storage. These units use a power adaptor which is actually a USB hub, thus making sure you are not forfeiting a USB port for power.
MSI are flexing their muscles amongst the gaming community by offering the Gaming 27XT all-in-one gaming computer which has an outboard card cage for a desktop-grade graphics card. This lets gamers and video enthusiasts upgrade the display card at any time without the need to take the computer apart. The computer cam put up 330W of power to the display card.
They also released the GT72 Dominator gaming laptop with a Tobii EyeX eye-tracking sensor which allows game players to control the action wiht their eyes. There is also the Vortex Compact Gaming PC which is a cylindrical modular small-form-factor gaming PC with dual NVIDIA GTX 980 SLI display cards and implements 360-degree Silent Storm airflow cooling. This is demonstrative of a trend towards highly-compact but powerful gaming computers rather than the large towers thar have always represented the gaming rigs.
What is being highlighted in this year’s Consumer Electronics Show 2016 in Las Vegas is that everyone is offering personal-computing devices that are pitched at every user class and wallet. This is underscored with the goal to benefit from what the new chipsets offer thus leading to slimmer and lighter-weight laptop and 2-in-1 computers along wiht higher-resolution displays.
There are times where a product is identified as being able to “tick the desirable boxes” for a product of its class. Here, it has the right combination of build quality and functionality and the manufacturer performs incremental changes to that product when they evolve the model without destroying what it’s about.
One example that showed up in the mid 1980s were the mid-tier VHS video recorders that Panasonic offered to the PAL / SECAM (Europe, Australia, etc) markets through that era. The cost-effective front-loading video recorders “ticked the boxes” for essential “home-video-recorder” functionality such as an infra-red remote control which controlled the machine’s tape transport and changed the channels on the unit’s tuner. This function effectively “modernised” older and cheaper television sets instantly because you were able to change channels with the video recorder’s remote. For Australia, it also meant added UHF TV reception to the older TVs that could only pick up VHF TV channels through the use of a mechanical “click-click-click” rotary tuner. Their trick-play functionality had just the picture-search as well as a still-frame when in pause. But these machines still did the job for reliability and durability through their era, whether it came to playing many rented video movies, recording TV content or adding remote control to older TVs.
Another example that occurred in the mid-1990s, was a series of Sony hi-fi MiniDisc decks including the MDS-JE520. These provided functionality that exposed MiniDisc as a cost-effective record / edit / play format for community radio, drama groups, churches and allied user groups. These users benefited from the ability to edit their recordings in a non-linear method and label them as they see fit with the label text appearing on the machine’s display. But one function that appealed to this user base was the “auto-pause” function that stopped the deck at the end of a track while cuing up the next track. This gave these MiniDisc decks “playout” abilities where pre-recorded content can be played out on demand without it “running on” to the next item.
Dell XPS 13 – when it first came about
But what these devices have is the ability for a manufacturer to provide essential functionality along with the desired performance and reliability at a price that is affordable for most people in the market for this kind of equipment. As well, the manufacturers were able to refresh the products with newer technology without losing sight of the original goal for that model and its positioning.
Dell has underscored these values with their XPS 13 range of 13.3” “portable-typewriter” laptop computers of the kind that would suit someone who does a lot of travelling or makes use of a café as a second office. I have reviewed a Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook when Dell first started this range of computers. These Ultrabooks were positioned not as “Yoga-style” 2-in-1s that can become a tablet but more as a traditional notebook computer. Nor were they intended to look like an Apple Macbook. Rather they were about the core functionality and the build quality they offered.
Each time Dell refreshed the XPS 13, they provided the technical improvements that were to really benefit the user experience rather than add unnecessary features. This included a very narrow bezel which allows for a smaller 13” notebook while touch-enabled variants were equipped with an Intel i7 processor. Of coures, the baseline models had the Intel i5 processor, 8Gb RAM and 256Gb solid-state drive which means that you have some room to grow while you have a highly-performing laptop thrifty on battery consumption.
What this is all about is to make a product that combines the right mix of features and specifications, the right build quality and be priced right for the users and keep it that way whenever the model is refreshed. Then the manufacturer could be on a winner.
A trend that is starting to surface is that the cost per gigabyte of a solid state drive is approaching that of a traditional “spinning-disk” hard drive. This has started to appear at the 256Gb capacity-per-unit level but what is also happening is that the traditional hard disk is increasing in capacity per physical unit. This situation is appearing in the form of hard disks having capacities in the order of eight or more terabytes.
Where I see this applying more are desktop computers that implement a dual-disk setup for their fixed storage needs along with modest-specification portable computers that have storage needs with 256Gb or less.
NAS units will still have the regular hard disks but these will increase in capacity per unit
The former application would have a solid-state drive containing the operating system and other software programs so as to permit quick loading while the hard disk ends up being used to store user-created data and other “long-term” data. The latter application would be in the form of a modestly-specified modestly-priced laptop computer or 2-in-1 that has the advantages of a solid-state battery like increased durability, no operating noise and the ability to run on its batteries for longer than normal.
As the research increases. this parity could hit the 512Gb mark thus appealing to most computer applications, especially portable computers. There also need to be other issues sorted out like improving disk bandwidth and supporting “scratch-pad” operations with random read-write needs without compromising disk reliability.
Who knows what this could mean for computer design especially with portable or aesthetically-significant applications?
InFocus, associated with value-priced projectors, has stepped out further with a US$99 Windows 10 desktop computer that is as big as one of today’s smartphones or a small USB hard disk. The idea is picking up from the “Intel Compute Stick” idea with computers as big as a Chromecast and plug directly in to a display’s HDMI port.
The Kangaroo has the same computing power as an entry-level netbook therefor can do some basic computer tasks. This would be in the form of an Intel Atom x5 processor, 2Gb RAM and 32Gb flash storage. There is also a microSD card slot for storage expansion along with a fingerprint reader for improved data security courtesy of Windows 10 Hello.
But the Kangaroo comes with a clip-on expansion module that has an HDMI display connection along with 2 USB ports with one being a USB 2.0 port and one being a USB 3.0 port. It has 802.11ac Wi-FI and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity and can run on its own battery for 4 hours.
A feature that was of interest was for a user to connect the Kangaroo to an Apple iPad and use the iPad as the mobile desktop’s user interface. This is facilitated with the iPad and Kangaroo hooked up using the standard Lightning-USB charge / data cable and both devices running OSLinx remote-access software. But I would like to see the OSLinx software also made available for “via-USB” connection to tablets based on other platforms.
It is one of these highly-pocketable computers that may be talked of as a “general purpose” desktop that may be rolled out as an alternative to a low-end Windows notebook or Chromebook. Because it runs on Windows, it could appeal to schools and businesses who want it as part of a standard operating environment for essential computing tasks. This would also include point-of-sale terminals and the like where a small footprint is highly desired.
Other users may also see it as part of one or more special-purpose computing projects like automotive or marine computing applications or simply this computer could serve as a personal sidekick to a tablet like an iPad.
The Android and Windows platforms do have some things in common such as the ability to share URLs and contact cards via NFC or Bluetooth. As well, these platforms offer native out-of-the-box support for various industry norms at the hardware and software level like USB Audio device classes, DLNA network media acces, FLAC audio codecs, and MicroUSB connections for power and data.
This is augmented by another facture that people who value open-frame computing setups that are vendor-agnostic are likely to run a Windows-based desktop, laptop or tablet computer alongside an Android-based smartphone.
But there are some questions about whether both these platforms are coming to a crossroads in both the desktop and mobile contexts. Issues that have been raised is the availability of mobile-platform software for the Windows Mobile platform as well as Microsoft developing for the Android platform.
Windows 10 in its desktop and mobile phones will tie in with Android for stronger open-frame computing
This disparity is being addressed by Microsoft releasing the so-called “Project Astoria” software to reduce the effort needed by a software developer to port an Android app to Windows 10 and have it work on both desktop and mobile setups and the XBox One games console.
Another attempt that Microsoft was trying is to include the ability to sideload Android app APK files as part of a leaked preview build of Windows 10 Mobile. Here, these files would run in a sandbox of their own so as to assure system stability and security.
On the hardware side, manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Sony including the VAIO personal-computing spinoff, and Lenovo are increasingly targeting Apple’s customer base by offering 2-in-1 notebooks, tablets and smartphones that have that same luxurious cachet and performance level as the iPhone, iPad and MacBook.
It is also in conjunction with Microsoft porting an increasing amount of their productivity software to the Android platform along with writing Android-specific native clients for their online services. A good question that may be worth answering is whether Google will write native clients for their online services as Windows 10 Universal apps.
I see this ending up where Microsoft and Google could effectively give their mobile operating systems equal functionality for “home” and “work” use and support a tighter integration with Android, ChromeOS and Linux to increase the number of choices for personal computing options. Here, these platforms will end up forming a strong “open-frame” computing beach-head that competes effectively with the vertically-integrated platform that Apple offers.
The SD card specification is also an expansion-interface specification
When people talk of the hardware issues concerning the Internet Of Things, a technology that is being constantly forgotten about is the SDIO expansion connection.
What is the SDIO expansion connection
This is a special SD card slot that also serves as an expansion interface in a similar vein to the PCI Express, miniPCI or ExpressCard slots used on desktop and laptop computers and, in a similar way, the USB port on most computing equipment. There are improved variants based on the iSDIO specification that take the load off the host device and allow it to work at its best.
It does have validity as an expansion interface for low-profile devices due to the size of the standard SD slot and it is then feasible to design add-on peripherals that extend slightly larger than the standard SD card.
But the SDIO technology is sadly being forgotten about as a low-profile expansion interface for many different computing-device applications including the Internet Of Things. This is more so if the goal is to either sell a device at a lower cost with reduced functionality but allow the user to add functionality as they see fit and when they can afford it, or to make a device be “futureproof” and satisfy new requirements.
Where I see SDIO being of value is with wireless network interface cards that add network or other connectivity to a device. This can be performed at the time of the device’s purchase or later on in the device’s lifespan through the user retrofitting a separately-purchased SDIO card in to the device.
An SDIO expansion module wouldn’t take up much room inside the device and can lead to a highly-integrated look for that device. It would appeal to a self-install application where the appliance has a user-accessible compartment like a battery compartment or terminal cover and the user opens this compartment to install the SDIO expansion module. Even a professional-install application can benefit especially if the idea is for a technician to install a highly-comprehensive “upgrade kit” or “functionality kit” in to a major appliance – a circuit board that is part of this kit could have one or more SDIO expansion slots.
This is compared to a USB setup where you need to deal with a relatively-large puck or dongle which can stick out of the device and not provide that finished look. There is also the issue of keeping a USB port open for local ad-hoc mass-storage or input-output requirements.
The issue of being able to add options to an existing device is real when it comes to the “durable” class of devices which are expected to have a very long service life as is expected for most devices targeted at business users or for so-called “white-goods” which are expected to run for at least 7 years, if not 10 years. Here, the ability to add extra functionality to these devices through their lifetime to suit newer needs is important as a way to get the most out of their lifecycle.
SDIO could benefit digital photography by allowing the user to add a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth SDIO card to a high-end digital camera or camcorder. A similar SDIO slot could be integrated in to a Speedlite flash or advanced LED movie light to allow for remote lighting and camera control courtesy of a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth link. The concept of camera control from a lighting device would appeal to some photographers who have the camera on the tripod with its shutter locked open and take the flash around different angles to illuminate the subject – the wireless link could also serve to remotely control the camera by using a shutter-control button on the flashgun..
This could lead to remote control of the camera using a mobile device with that device’s screen also working as a viewfinder. In the case of video recording, the camera could also share SMPTE timecode data with an audio recorder and, perhaps, another camera to work well with multi-camera or advanced “sound-off-camera” recording setups.
For sharing the finished product, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth cam play their part in this role with the ability to support file transfer to a computer or mobile device. A Wi-Fi setup may also allow the camera to exploit DLNA or Miracast setups to allow one to show the pictures on to a large TV screen. In some cases, a camera may have integrated support for file-share, photo-share or social-network functionality thus using the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth technology simply to upload the pictures or footage.
Electromechanical door locks
These devices, especially the “smart locks” that are starting to appear on the market, could benefit from the SDIO technology. For example, Assa Abloy offers a tubular deadbolt under the Yale and Lockwood brands which supports a “dual-mode” entry system where you can either enter a user code on a touchpad or use the regular key to open it. This deadbolt also has support for a “home automation” network module based on either Zigbee or Z-Wave technology, something that can be achieved by the user sliding that module in to the inside unit to integrate this deadbolt with a home-automation system.
Here, an SDIO slot in the interior unit in these locks can offer this kind of extended functionality. For example, a Bluetooth LE (Bluetooth Smart) SDIO card could make these locks work with platform-based smartphones or a Wi-Fi, Zigbee or Z-Wave SDIO card could integrate them with cloud-based monitoring and management services.
Similarly, this could come in handy with other usage classes like hotels.where, for example, Bluetooth could allow the card-based door lock to become part of the device ecosystem in the guest room. Here, this could be used to reset heating, alarm times, etc to a default setting when a new guest enters the room or implement Bluetooth Beacon technology to add value to conference settings.
Embroidery sewing machines
The premium “embroidery” sewing machines could implement an SDIO slot in order to allow the user to add Wi-Fi or Bluetooth functionality to these units. This would come in handy with firmware updates or to allow the user to upload patterns and OpenType fonts to these machines for use with particular embroidery and monogramming projects.
This latter application comes in to its own as the manufacturers supply “CAD” software with these machines so that people can create their own unique embroidery designs for their special projects.
Here, the SDIO cards could work as a way to network-enable these machines to work with the computer software and the home network.
Large and small household appliances
Companies who sell advanced household appliances and HVAC equipment could use SDIO to add some form of network connectivity after the appliance is installed. Here, the user can be encouraged to see these appliances, which have a service life of at least 7 years if not more, as being future-proof and able to answer current needs and expectations.
This is more so as these appliances move towards “app-cessory” operation where extra functionality is added to these devices courtesy of mobile-platform apps. Similarly, some manufacturers implement this kind of technology to communicate operating information to other appliances. An example of this is some GE washing machines and clothes dryers recently sold to the US market use a wireless link to transmit information about the load just washed to the dryer so that an optimum drying cycle for that load can be determined by that appliance.
This could benefit people who buy mid-tier appliances that are enabled for this kind of connectivity but purchase the SDIO modules and install these modules in the appliances themselves as they see fit.
The SDIO expansion standard can be valued as a option for adding connectivity to the Internet Of Things, whether at the point of purchase or at a later date. It also preserves a highly-integrated fit and finish for the application before and after the upgrade.
The Sony VAIO Z Series ultraportable with functionality expanded by an add-on module
There have been some successful attempts at developing outboard expansion modules or docking stations that add discrete graphics or a better discrete-graphics solution to a laptop computer which wouldn’t have internal room for this kind of performance.
One of these was Sony with their VAIO Z Series that I reviewed previously which had an expansion module that housed a Blu-Ray drive and an AMD discrete graphics chipset. This used an Intel “Light Peak” connection (Thunderbolt over USB) between the devices to provide for high data throughput between the host computer and the expansion module.
Another of these was one of the new Alienware gaming laptops that could connect to a so-called “Graphics Amplifier” which was an expansion module for some of the Alienware R2 series gaming laptops that could house one or two PCI-Express graphics cards. This brought forward the idea that a laptop could have desktop gaming-rig performance just by adding on an expansion module.
Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module that connects to selected Alienware R2 gaming laptops
Both these solutions implemented manufacturer-specific connection methods which restricted which devices can connect to these “external-graphics” expansion modules.
But the USB 3.1 standard with the Type-C connection allowed the same connection to be used to connect other devices via different logical connection methods like Intel’s Thunderbolt. This was effectively “opened up” as a high-performance connection for expansion modules when Intel launched “Thunderbolt 3” which has throughput equivalent to what happens on a computer’s motherboard.
An Alienware gaming laptop that can benefit from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module
This led to some reference designs being presented at the Intel Developers Forum 2015 for external-graphics docks of the Sony VAIO Z or Alienware Graphics Amplifier ilk that are able to work with laptops that have the USB Type-C and Intel Thunderbolt 3 connection. In their own right, they are expansion modules which add extra connectivity to the laptop but also they give it access to improved discrete graphics chipsets. One of these was modelled on the Alienware Graphics Amplifier by virtue of allowing the use of fully-fledged graphics cards of the kind expected in that tower-style gaming rig.
The equipment that was shown proved the concept that you could use Thunderbolt 3 over a USB 3.1 Type C physical connection to provide an external discrete-graphics solution for an ultraportable laptop computer or similarly-small computer design. This proves that it can be feasible to use these modules for an “at-home” or “at-office” solutions where performance is desirable but allow for a lightweight computer system.
Similarly, a manufacturer could offer a laptop or all-in-one desktop with the integrated graphics but allow their customers to buy a graphics expansion module at a later date should they want something with more graphics acumen. Here, they can simply plug in the graphics expansion module and play rather than opening up the computer to install a graphics card. There is also a reality that as newer graphics chipsets come along, the person can purchase a newer expansion module or, in the case of those units that use PCI-Express desktop cards, install a newer graphics card in to the module to take advantage of these newer designs.
It simply underscores that fact that USB 3.1 Type C opens up the concept of expandability for tablets, laptops, all-in-one and small-profile desktops even further by use of external modules that offer different functions to suit different needs at different times.
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