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May 1996 Features

The New Notebook

By Jim Forbes, Silicon Valley Bureau Editor

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The New Notebook

Look out, desktop PCs--your replacements have arrived. The new generation of notebooks offers larger, brighter displays and improved battery life, plus other goodies that eliminate the gap between desk-tethered and portable machines.

The most important innovation? A new display technology from veteran electronics firm Sharp. The Super High Aperture display (used in 10.4- and 11.3-inch active-matrix screens) increases the contrast, brightness and color saturation by boosting the amount of light passing through each pixel.

Most current 9.5-, 10.4- and 11.3-inch active-matrix screens offer aperture ratios of about 50 percent. Aperture ratio measures a screen's efficiency and its ability to transmit light and color; the aperture of an LCD panel refers to the size of the lit pixel area. The dark region surrounding each pixel contains conductors and other circuitry that control the pixels.

An active-matrix color screen is made up of specially coated and treated glass, transparent electrodes, color filters for red, green and blue, plus slivers of metal deposited in rows and columns on the glass. Transistors sit at the junctions of these rows and columns.

Most new Pentium notebooks with TFT (thin film transistor) active-matrix screens can support an 800x600-pixel Super VGA display. Each of the pixels contains three elements, one for each primary display color. The diagonal size of the screen affects the size of the pixels, so the greater the screen's diagonal dimension, the larger the pixels and the brighter the screen.

Super High Aperture active-matrix screens have larger transparent areas, and the electrodes deposited on the glass are narrower. These features combine to form a screen that allows more light to pass through the cells, resulting in blacker blacks and more deeply saturated colors. The displays are also more energy-efficient, generating brighter images on less battery power.

Initially, these displays will be available only in the 10.4-inch form factor. But by year's end, Sharp is expected to supply 11.3- and 12.1-inch displays as well.

These advances in active-matrix technology come at a time when TFT screens outsell older passive-matrix displays by about 2-to-1. The one-two punch of brighter screens and reduced power consumption is a knockout with manufacturers and consumers alike-or so industry analysts predict. By the end of 1997, they say, the only application for dual-scan passive-matrix displays will be inexpensive machines sold to the mainstream consumer market.

Who's Zoomin' Who?

The new display type is only one of several key notebook components that will change this year. Zoom Video, a new PCMCIA-based display enhancement, is also expected to take off.

A Zoom Video PCMCIA card takes 24-bit RGB video and pumps it into a notebook video controller. The controller then turns the signal into a 30MB-per-second video feed. This provides a method for playing full-motion video, showing 3-D graphics or adding a TV tuner to your notebook.

Although it's not expected to go mainstream until late 1996, Zoom Video is available now. And support for Zoom could speed the drive to adopt new screen technology.

Faster, Pentium!

One technology the notebook market may not be so quick to adopt is Intel's 150MHz Pentium for laptops. Some question if this chip will gain a toehold in the notebook market. The problem? It delivers only a slight performance improvement, and with an expected power rating of 8.5 watts, the 150MHz Pentium for the notebook is a hot-running chip.

"Nowhere is it written in stone that a manufacturer has to use a new processor simply because it has Intel's name on it," says an engineering manager with a top-10 notebook maker. "We think there will be a fair number of PC makers who may produce only small numbers of 150MHz Pentium notebooks, or elect to stay away from this processor altogether."

If notebook makers shun the 150MHz Pentium, what kind of processors will you find in top-of-the-line portables next year? Intel executives say the chip to watch is its P55C Pentium, to be unveiled later this year. Instructions in this chip's firmware will make it better suited to multimedia computers.

The P55C processor is particularly appealing to notebook makers that market their machines to mobile professionals. The 150MHz notebook version of the chip is designed to support full-motion video; systems manufacturers will position the units as presentation platforms. The desktop version of the chip should enter the market at 200MHz.

The P55C has a number of nifty new features, according to Intel engineers. It contains microcode that helps it handle video, graphics, audio and other multimedia-related data forms more efficiently. At 32KB, the internal cache is twice as large as that of the current Pentium design. And better branch predictive algorithms enable the chip to perform many operations faster than the existing Pentium.

In addition to a vastly improved microarchitecture, the P55C boasts on-chip power management function support, a characteristic that should improve battery life. Intel expects this feature alone to appeal to notebook makers.

Using code licensed from Intel, rival chip makers Cyrix and AMD are also expected to produce P55C-compatible microprocessors for notebooks.

The first notebooks to use the P55C are due to begin shipping in early 1997. Configurations should be ample: large hard disks (1.2GB), at least 16MB of RAM and 12.1-inch active-matrix Super High Aperture color screens. Such systems are likely to support 3-D, full-motion video and 24-bit color displays. Sounds almost like a desktop, doesn't it?

Notebook Fashions

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