X-bit labs CeBIT 2006 Coverage: Day 7

On the last day of the show we decided to take a look at Microsoft’s Origami in its incarnation from Asustek, investigate the possibilities regarding the official support of DDR2 800MHz memory by chipset designers, speak to a WD executive about perpendicular recording technology and 15 000rpm HDDs, check out Patiot’s world’s largest SD card and flash drive as well as to discover Blu-ray disc drives from Panasonic.

by Anton Shilov
03/17/2006 | 06:16 PM

Asustek Unveils Origami

 

There have been a lot of talks regarding the new project from Microsoft called Origami. Some said that the Origami is a rival for the iPod players from Apple Computer, some implied that the Origami is much more than just a player. At the CeBIT 2006 the world’s largest software maker officially revealed the details about the mysterious project, while Asustek Computer demonstrated what Origami actually is.

In Japanese the word “origami” means paper folding. The art of origami is to create different figures using paper. The origami can be very simple or very complex, depending on what the author of a particular masterpiece wanted to construct. So, when it comes to Microsoft, origami should mean flexibility, expandability, yet something light and exciting.

While the promises that the sneak previews brought were very forward-looking and impressive, the reality turned out to be far more prosaic. Microsoft called its initiative as ultra mobile personal computer (UMPC) and set some kind of guidelines for its partners who will make the “Origami” devices, such as Asustek Computer, Founder, Samsung Electronics, TabletKiosk and PaceBlade.

At the CeBIT 2006 show Asustek Computer introduced its Asus R2H, the company’s first UMPC featuring an Intel processor, core-logic and wireless controller. The device is pretty exciting, but too bulky to be an iPod rival. But Asus knows that and says that the product will be a “killer” for portable media players (PMPs) that can playback music and videos, because UMPC is basically a small form-factor tablet PC without keyboard, which may allow to use much more functions compared to the PMP, being not more expensive compared to them: typical PMPs cost starting from $500, whereas a UMPC price should begin with $600, or just a little more. Generally, Asustek’s R2H complies to the guidelines set by Microsoft Corp. and features built-in web-cam, Bluetooth, WLAN, etc.

According to current baseline physical specifications, Windows-based UMPC devices will weigh less than 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms), with a 7” screen size that offers the user a choice of text input methods. The touch-enhanced display can be used as an on-screen QWERTY keyboard (called dial keys) to navigate, or users can employ a stylus to input handwritten information. They can also input content with a traditional keyboard, linked either by USB port or wireless Bluetooth connectivity. UMPC devices will have a battery life of 2.5 hours or more, and feature 30-60GB hard drive for storage, with Intel Celeron M, Intel Pentium M or VIA C7-M processors. Some devices may include additional built-in features such as GPS, a webcam, fingerprint reader, digital TV tuners, and compact flash and SD card readers. UMPCs can be connected through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Ethernet networks. Some UMPCs will be able to connect via wide-area networking too. While the first generation of UMPCs will run Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, future models will run on Windows Vista.

We had an opportunity to play with the Asustek’s R2H during the CeBIT show for a while and, unfortunately, we cannot say that we were impressed. The obvious problem is that the device is too bulky and heavy to hold it with one, and even two hands, for a long time. As a result, you will hardly be able to use it like a book in an airport, park or train station. You have to sit near a table, which means that the gadget essentially turns to a notebook. But you cannot write emails, for example, on an UMPC as easily, as you can on your laptop.

So, generally, the UMPC just fills the gap between personal digital assistants (PDAs), PMPs and tablet PCs or ultra-portable notebooks. The market for such devices is unlikely to be very broad, but we will probably have to wait and see whether the UMPC will really turn into success even in that market.

Western Digital Speaks on Perpendicular Technology

Western Digital is probably the most popular maker of hard disk drives among performance enthusiasts, the company manufactures the products paying loads of attention to its customers’ needs and recently began actively promoting its Raptor X hard disk drive among gamers and performance-minded users by sponsoring LAN parties and other kind of gamers-oriented events.

During the CeBIT 2006 show we had an opportunity to speak to Mr. Klaas deVos, who is the company’s vice president for EMEA region operations, about the prospects of perpendicular recording method as well as about further performance enhancements of consumer-class hard disk drives.

The main priority for Western Digital is tremendous reliability of its HDDs for all types of audiences. WD point out that by going to WarrantyWeek.com we can find out that Seagate Technology and Maxtor Corp. were among the Top 50 U.S. warranty providers in 2005 (based on the data these companies submitted to SEC) with $76 million (1.1% of sales) and $135 million (4.9% of sales) warranty claims, respectively. Meanwhile, WD, even being much smaller company, did not come close to such figures as percentage of sails, the company said.

Being fully concentrated on quality, Western Digital has very cautious strategy when it comes to perpendicular recording technology. The company said that it would release its 2.5” HDD with perpendicular recording media in the second half of 2005, much later than Seagate Technology, and its desktop drive utilizing new media type will be available only by mid-2007.

The reason for this very conservative ramp of the perpendicular recording technology is the yield: currently the company has 98% or higher yield on typical 80GB platters. Being able to produce about 200 thousand HDDs per day and fully utilizing its manufacturing capacities, the company has to maintain the yield to sustain its market share. That said, if the yield of HDDs with perpendicular recording media drops as compared to current media, so will the company’s ability to supply enough hard drives to the users.

  

Speaking about possibilities of introducing the Raptor drives with 15 000rpm speeds, Mr. deVos said that this would happen only after the performance-mainstream consumer drives will transit to 10 000rpm speed, a transition he did not expect to happen before 2008, if not later.

DDR2 800MHz Becomes Official?

We already mentioned in our CeBIT day 1 coverage that more and memory chip manufacturers ship DDR2 devices officially capable of working at 800MHz frequency, we have already reported some time ago that AMD64 processors with built-in DDR2 memory controller have appropriate dividers to clock memory at 800MHz. So, what is holding PC2 6400 memory from breaking into the market in 2006?

Probably the lack of support from Intel Corp., whose latest Intel 975X chipset only supports dual-channel PC2 5300 (DDR2 667MHz) memory. But is there a lack of support actually? As one representative for a memory module manufacturer said, “JEDEC would ratify the PC2 6400 standard when Intel wants it.” And an Intel representative said that the DDR2 800MHz JEDEC standard has been finalized, which means that it is only a matter of time before the DDR2 in its 800MHz incarnation becomes an official standard.

 

Probably, mainboard makers know something that we do not, as there are several companies, including Abit Computer, Asustek Technology and Gigabyte, who demonstrated their Intel 975X- and Intel 965-based mainboards with “unofficial” support for 800MHz or even higher speed-bins dual-channel DDR2 memory, an interesting thing to consider.

But here is one more fact to think about. We do know that Intel’s code-named Conroe processors in their Extreme Edition incarnation will use 1333MHz processor system bus. Theoretically, dual-channel 667MHz memory should be enough to feed the chip with the data. Nevertheless, another maker of high-performance memory module maker implied that Intel is expected to officially support PC2 6400 already this year. Could it be Intel 975XE?

While the unofficial information may change in the last minute, the competition in the market of microprocessors for desktops is so high that any means of gaining performance may be accepted.

Panasonic Unveils Blu-Ray Drives for PCs

Matsushita Electronics, which is best known for its Panasonic brand, has been renowned for its consistent support and pushing of the Blu-ray disc format. Just like Sony Corp., Panasonic has no compromises when it comes to the HD DVD, but in the light of the absence of the latter from CeBIT show this year, it was really interesting to see whether the second largest promoter of the Blu-ray tech is ready with actual products.

At the show the company demonstrated a lineup of its Blu-ray optical drives for personal computers. One was 5.25” drive for desktops or workstations, two others were for either small form-factor PCs or notebooks. We’ve heard from some sources that all of them are going to mass production in the Q2 2006, or, Q3 2006, at the latest; but so far it is unclear when and whether Panasonic itself plans to install Blu-ray drives into its notebooks. Given that Matsushita supplied its optical drives for IBM mobile PCs sometime ago, it will be very interesting to see whether Lenovo integrates Blu-ray devices into the ThinkPad laptops this year.

In addition to its new-generation optical drives, Panasonic demonstrated its already announced recordable and rewritable Blu-ray discs, which are already not something new.

This year Panasonic did not demonstrate its Blu-ray disc recorder that it sells in Japan , but showcased its new BD player for the living rooms with HDMI output. The player is small and sleek, but currently no one have an idea when such a player will be available on the mass market and for which price. Moreover, even such a large company as Panasonic has only one player for the Blu-ray discs.

Certainly the latest plasma television from the company, which is about 2.5 meters in diagonal, with 1080p resolution was also showcased.

So, the Blu-ray situation is very unclear, especially in the light of the fact that Sony pushed back the release of the PlayStation 3 console that features the technology.

Apart from the lack of content for the Blu-ray, there is also, at least, one significant factor that may hold Blu-ray from quickly gaining market share. The Blu-ray electronics and media are harder to produce compared to contemporary DVD or even the HD DVD products. New equipment required to manufacture appropriate devices and media needs to be tuned up so to gain acceptable yields. The problem of the low yields is not only in high manufacturing costs, but it means that you produce lower amount of devices and lose market share to your competitors, who can produce more. At the end, the companies will be trying to choose the right time to start mass production of their new generation devices as precisely as possible.

PDP Demos World’s Largest SD Card and Flash Drive

Patriot Memory is definitely not a new company on the memory module market and users, who are particularly interested in the advanced memory modules, know the brand pretty well already. The company is certainly less known for its flash business, probably because flash memory products are not promoted as widely as high-speed memory modules. But at CeBIT 2006 PDP Systems, the owner of Patriot Memory brand-name, showcased 8GB secure digital card, absolutely largest SD card in the world as well as the world’s largest USB flash disc.

Unfortunately, such a demonstration can only be considered as the proof of the company’s technological excellence, rather than a product that is really required by the market. The majority of devices that use SD cards, such as digital cameras, cannot address more than 2GB of memory, moreover, even 2GB cards cost pretty a lot and are not tremendously required even for 8MP cameras. Therefore, it will be sometime till 8GB cards will enter the scene.

But Patriot has one more interesting product in its booth: 8GB USB flash drive. Even though people hardly carry that lot of data from one place to another, such a drive can be used as a standalone drive for storing mission critical information, or even for back up purposes.