The Future of Computing - What Will Laptops be Like in 2011?

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When it comes to making predictions, the Pew Internet Trust has the luxury of looking many years out and prognosticating, among other things, that our portable device in 2020 will be our primary connection to the Internet, the division between work and personal time will blur, and the “transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness.”

Our objective here is far less ambitious. Here we want to look at recent developments in the laptop area and make a guess about what is coming in the next couple of years.

For example, LED strips are beginning to replace CFL (fluorescent) display light sources in several of the current laptops, and not all of them are high-range. This can logically be expected to continue.

Onslaught of the Cheapies

2008 was the year that the buying public embraced low-cost laptops. This had two major forks – the netbooks and the low-end notebooks, although the specs of the commodity-priced notebooks were not all so low-end. Six to seven hundred dollars at a big box store bought a pretty decent, usable laptop running some version of Windows Vista. We can comfortably predict that this will continue at least until 2011, and that more features of the current high-end devices will trickle down to these machines.

What features? Solid state drives (SSDs) will be one. Currently, they are found on some netbooks in the smaller sizes and some high-end notebooks in the larger sizes. In the next few years, we can expect SSDs to become pervasive on all laptops and notebooks. Pointing the way are Toshiba, who announced a 512 GB notebook SSD in December 2008 and Intel, cautiously testing the market with the remarkably high performance, but expensive and smallish (80 GB) X-25 SSD.

Netbooks Will Become More Powerful

Netbooks and ulta-thin notebooks will get closer together performance-wise, with netbooks able to play and export to a TV high-definition video and even process resource-intensive video encoding. This will be possible by marrying the Intel Atom chip with a powerful graphics coprocessor and then off-loading the graphics processing to the graphics chips. Such a solution is entering the market soon, in the form of an Atom-based system board with a two-chip nVidia GeForce 9800m GPU. This tiny motherboard features HDMI-out dual-link DVI, and Ethernet, USB, and eSATA connections – all in an ITX form factor that fits comfortably in one’s palm. With these likely to start appearing in 2009, it might be justifiable to wait if contemplating the purchase of a netbook-class device.

This technology may have application to desktops and entertainment systems, too. Imagine a low-powered, paperback book-sized appliance that can push 1080p to a high-definition TV and do video encoding and transcoding, too.

Mainstream Notebooks will Inherit High-End Features

We can expect that the mainstream laptop of 2011 will, like its cousins the netbooks, become lighter, thinner, and more powerful. Quad-core processors will be common by then with some CPUs even having the graphics controller directly on the chip.

We are already seeing the movement to dual graphics – discrete and integrated – on some laptops. This will continue to be popular, but some other laptops will feature external graphics adapters. In a variation of dual graphics, these laptops will feature integrated graphics for portable use and an external graphics box for fixed-base use.

Desktop users have long been able to easily upgrade RAM, video cards, and hard drives, but this has not been the case, at least for video, for notebooks. External video adapters will change this. ATI, the graphics unit of AMD, is leading the charge. Imagine being able to upgrade the graphics capability of your laptop by simply changing the external graphics adapter. Imagine being able to play Blu-ray and future high-definition formats, as well as the latest, most demanding games, on your low-power, economical laptop.

Laptops Become the Charging Station for Other Devices

No new technology can be expected to revolutionize notebook batteries by 2011. There’s a chance however, that as our notebooks become the biggest device that we carry, additional battery power may be provided in order to recharge the smaller, lesser devices we also carry. I expect that USB ports, or their successor, will remain powered in low-power conditions in order to make the laptop a portable charging station.

Update: This feature has appeared on the Toshiba NB200 netbook. One of the USB ports is powered whenever the battery has power.

Next: Windows 7, Some Tech Fading Away, and the Summary

Windows 7 to Rule

Windows 7 will also play a prominent role.

All notebooks will be running a 64-bit operating system by 2011. Cheaper laptops will come with 4 GB of RAM, while high-end models will have 8 GB or more.

I don’t expect Linux to make the jump from netbooks to commodity-priced notebooks. I expect the opposite to happen. Windows 7 will displace Linux on all but the cheapest netbooks. We’re already seeing part of this. The return rate of Linux netbooks compared to Windows XP is currently four times higher. These returns were probably from adopters moving from Windows XP who found the learning curve of Linux, justified or not, as being too high. Whether these folks had unrealistic expectations based on what they paid for their machines, I can’t say.

Microsoft is also making changes in Windows 7 to better accommodate SSDs. These include turning off disk defragmentation when an SSD is detected, “trimming” data to decrease deletions and unnecessary writes, partitioning the SSD in order to minimize read/write cycles, and creating a Windows-approved certification program for SSDs.

Some Technology to Fade Away

As processor performance, power consumption, and graphics capability can be expected to improve, some technology will be left behind. Microsoft’s “Sideshow,” the small, second screens found on the outside of some current laptops will not be with us by 2011. They will fade away because of one simple expedient: folks don’t carry their expensive laptop around without it being in a case. That’s beside the fact that current implementations, like in the Asus W5Fe, make the laptop bulky and ugly.

Seldom one to beat a dead horse, Microsoft now wants to apply Sideshow and gadgets to remote controls (Media Center gadgets, anyone?) and to Windows Mobile Phones. No kidding. If the laptop manufacturers won’t include Slideshow bulges on their laptops, Microsoft says they can beam the Slideshow to your phone.

I don’t think they’ll find any interest here, either. By 2011, the cell phone will be handling email and SMS just as they do now. What information would the laptop, which should be powered down or at least in a low-power state when transported, possibly have to add that the phone can’t handle? One wonders.

Touch screens can be expected to show up on some high-end notebooks, but folks will soon find that they really don’t want to get finger-prints all over their screens or, really, lift their hands from the keyboard. This may appear to be a trend by 2011 because Windows 7 will also have multi-touch touch screen support, but I don’t think it will endure. I see more usability of this technology in kiosks and ATMs.


Here’s the summary.

Netbooks will become more powerful while staying as compact as they currently are. They will run Windows 7 and have lower-end solid state drives, and be capable of displaying, exporting, and transcoding video. They will become our inexpensive, disposable entertainment machines as well as our personal Internet devices.

Commodity-priced notebooks will inherit features from the higher-end models, including LED screen lighting and SSDs. Some will have optional external graphics for driving multiple displays or enabling gaming and high-definition video. Some will have switchable graphics with both discrete and integrated graphics on the system board. They will be more gaming-capable than this class of machine is today.

Top-end laptops will sport quad-core processors, 64-bit operating systems, 8 GB or RAM or more, and large, fast SSDs. These laptops will be thinner, due to improvements like laminar cooling, and lighter, due to refinements in component miniaturization. They will become a primary or only PC for many folks, and easy adaptability in the form of multiple docking stations and external graphics will allow them to become mobile desktop replacement machines useful in multiple locations.

Windows Sideshow will be forgotten, and Linux will be limited to the lowest cost netbooks, making Windows 7 an object of envy for these users.

What about pervasive computing? I don’t think we’ll be close by 2011, but by 2020 I suspect that we’ll have more ways to communicate with our computers than we have now. By 2011, I think we’ll be talking to our computers more, but they’ll be reading back to us, not really answering.

And that’s my predictions for where netbooks and notebooks are heading in the next three years. Please check back with me in 2011 to see how well I did.