Toshiba’s resident portable computer visionary speaks about hardware design, Vista, and the future of notebook tech.Compared to computing juggernauts,Dell and HP, Toshiba would appear to have a small presence in Australia. In truth, the company consistently rates highly in market share – in Q4 2005, IDC reported Toshiba came top of the pack in Australian notebook sales.
With notebook technology continually pushing against the thresholds of mobile technologies, aesthetics, and battery design, who better to talk about notebook design than the man behind Toshiba’s innovation and product strategy, Mr Masa Okumura.
Okumura takes notebook design seriously, seeing it as the manifestation of many philosophies.
“We strive for innovation, quality, value and aesthetics. In addition, we encourage the creative energy,” he says.
In particular, Okumura points to the design of the Portege R400, which is easily the most attractive notebook we’ve seen from Toshiba. Working from the outside in, the glossy white exterior is a clear departure from traditional PC-based notebooks.
“The casing is made of UV-coated plastic that provides 33 times more scratch resistance than standard clear coat painting. Adhering to the Microsoft Windows Vista Hardware Design Language Guideline, the Portégé R400 iconic design is avant-garde yet consistent, distinguished yet alluring; thus, appropriate for work, public, and social settings,” adds Okumura.
The R400 features some extra frills, like the small screen running along the thin edge of the notebook. The Edge Display will show new email or calendar appointments, even if the lid is closed or the notebook is in standby. We’re not too sure about the usefulness of this, but we were drawn to the R400’s latchless screen, which can be folded back into Tablet PC-mode. We’re still yet to see a real uptake of Tablet PCs, however Okumura remains confident.
“Tablets have been slow to penetrate the mainstream notebook market but new designs, innovative technologies and Windows Vista will hopefully inaugurate a change in user perception. Users are beginning to discover how practical tablets can be. Students use tablets to take notes in class and business professionals use tablets to diagram a chart. In Australia one in two notebooks sold through our education program (SNAP) in 2007 was a tablet – we see this as a great indication of students adapting to this technology,” says Okumura.
The Vista tax
Notebooks aren’t designed in isolation – the impact of demanding applications creates further challenges for notebook designer than desktop makers. The two big factors to consider here are heat dissipation and battery life, where the more demanding the application, the more thermal and power management is required.
So how does Vista’s relatively power hungry Aero Glass interface affect new notebooks coming to market? According to Okumura, the power drain isn’t as bad as you’d think.
“Compared to XP, Vista requires extra power to run the high-end processor, graphics card and memory capacity to deliver rich visual effects, but the relative impact to battery life (in modern notebook PCs) is minimal,” says Okumura.
The power consumption may not impact your battery too much, however the heat it generates can require extensive airflow management.
“As operating frequencies increase and packaging size decreases, the power density increases while the thermal budget and airflow become more constrained within the system.
“Our approach is simple: meet or exceed all the guidelines for the thermal requirements imposed. One method is to use 3D modeling where a virtual chassis is created and various computer generated tests conditions were applied to predict thermal performance. By doing so, Toshiba engineers can determine the best in-line airflow pattern and component placement location,” adds Okumura.
A wireless future
Gone are the days when all a notebook needed was the Wi-Fi chips in a Centrino chipset to connect to an access point. Increasingly, notebook users want all types of wireless access, including 3G, Wi-Fi and, in the near future, the superfast wireless USB replacement, Ultrawideband. According to Okumura, these technologies have already found their way into the R400.
“The R400 already has 3G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and UWB antennae built-in. Both 3G and WiMAX deliver always connected usage; however, cost and coverage are always factors in any wireless implementation with faster and faster throughputs,” he says.
Unfortunately, while Ultrawideband (UWB) is available in the US, approval is still pending with Australian authorities. When it does get the nod, you can expect to see technologies like UWB port replicators, letting you dock your notebook wirelessly.
Finally, we can’t end a Q&A on notebook design without talking about fuel cells, and according to Okumura, it looks like we won’t be upgrading anytime soon.
“Battery technologies have not improved as greatly as other technologies. Lithium Ion will still continue to be the best choice for commercial usage for some time.”
Toshiba has been working on Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) in notebooks for a number of years, but there’s still uncertainty as to when it will become commercially available.