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In the last few months I've had a hard time finding a reasonably priced dual core processor laptop in the consumer PC market. Most of the models I loved have been discontinued and moved off the shelves. You would think that they have been replaced by more powerful models, but no. Computer manufacturers are taking a step back in time and actually building slightly less powerful laptops but instead offering more portability and style. I take a trip down memory lane and look at the philosophy behind the next generation of laptops.

The gigahertz war

A few years back (2001) single core processors hitting speeds over 3.0GHz was what the consumer PC market was about. AMD was increasingly beating Intel at speed and price and gaining more ground with the Athlon series beating Pentium series to the ground. However as these chips got faster and smaller they consumed more power and chip manufacturers were faced with a horrible physics problem - Heat. Their faster and smaller chips were getting very very very hot and required large fans and heat sinks to cool them down.

The second core

Then came the idea that instead of doubling the processor speed, why not double the number of processors and multi-core was born. Instead of adding more speed to a chip, more cores were added to the same chip. This did not double the processors speed, but it made multi-tasking more efficient as the OS could schedule jobs on two cores, instead of one. This actually improved computer responsiveness as your virus checker would not hog up all of the processors. Given the increased responsiveness, individual core speeds could be reduced resolving the heat issue.

Intel's 65nm Core2 (2006) technology revolutionized multi-core and Core2 became by far the fastest and best multi-core processor series, this time beating AMDs Athlon X21. Multi-core and specifically the Core2 series was a technological breakthrough and single core processors quickly vanished from the market but most people did not notice as the second core came cheap and laptops with these new processors were not considerably higher in price. Single core offered no advantage over dual core and was just about to die.

The power struggle

The problem with Core2 was that it was still power hungry and consumed around 35 watts of power. So laptops containing these lasted only a few hours on battery. There was another fact, many people buying the Core2 Duo chipped laptops were only ever planning to use their laptop to check email and update their Facebook status. You had a processor, no, you had two processors capable of going at 1200000000 cycles per second and they were mostly sitting idle. There was too much computing power and not many who could make good use of it.

The rise of Netbooks

Hence the Netbook spinoff where an older, slower, less power hungry single core processor like the Intel Celeron M was used to make a more portable PC. The Asus Eee PC (2007) started this trend. Initially the idea was the Netbook would be substantially cheaper, smaller and consume much less power by eliminating extra peripherals like a DVD drive and using SD cards for storage. It could last 7 hours on a battery. The Eee PC became popular and then over popular. Unfortunately due to its over-popularity more manufacturers joined in with similar models offering additional features and chassis designs. In a sudden turn of events, Netbook popularity and prices rose and caught up with dual core laptop prices. Immediately the high street responded and raised dual core laptop prices higher and even removed good laptops from the shelves altogether to make space for netbooks. Due to the hype, majority of consumers failed to notice the lack of computing power in the netbook. Single core was back with a bang.

Intel Atom LogoIntel saw the sudden shift in consumer interest toward smaller, lighter and more portable netbooks and for the moment decided to invest time in optimizing the power consumption of the old Celeron cores and came out with the 45nm Intel Atom (2008) with a astoundingly low power consumption of 2W. The jump from 35W power consumption of the Core2 down to 2W of the Atom N280 was phenomenal. This meant netbooks could now last even longer on a battery and do more. Manufacturers could include larger displays and additional peripherals like a DVD-drive and Bluetooth connectivity without losing on the battery life. AMDs 64bit netbook processor Athlon Neo MV40 followed the Atom further adding to the confusion2. The visual distinction between laptops and netbooks got so slim that consumers and salesmen would easily confuse one with the other. And this is the way things stand today.

The future: An era of low-power processors

Intel Pentium LogoIntel has decided to incorporate the 45nm low power technology used in the Atom core and revive the older Pentium core processors. It will provide both single and dual core low power (10W) pentium processors within this series. While they are no match for the Core2, these new low-power processors will find their way into new slim laptops which will run cooler, offer 7+ hour battery life and much more computing power than needed for simply reading email. This should kill the netbook market causing netbook prices to fall considerably and the days of netbooks imitating laptops will hopefully come to an end. The Atom will survive though and find its way into other devices like mobile phones and portable tablets where currently the ARM processor rules.

Core iThe Core2 series is set to be phased out and replaced by the equivalent i-series and processors in these series will incorporate the low power 45nm technology. Core2 and i-series processors will however continue to stay very expensive and laptops having these will cost considerably more. The effect netbooks had on pushing prices up on powerful dual core laptops will not be easily reversed, because now price is their immediately visible distinguishing factor (you can't see the processors speed). Overall the consumer will benefit from even more choices and lighter more portable laptops that will do most jobs well, but they won't get cutting edge processors unless they are willing to pay significantly more.

What about AMD? They are still in the game and have announced their low power "Bobcat" CPU core.

The truly wireless era starts when you don't even need the power supply cable and you no longer need to frantically hunt for the power plug under your seat. That benefit however comes to us at a reduced speed. That is a power versus portability compromise you will need to make at present.