What's new in laptop tech?

If you were expecting to see a host of new laptop technologies emerging at CES this year, prepare to be disappointed. Little has truly changed on the mobile front, and some of the innovations we'd expected to appear have been noticeably absent.

LED backlighting

Take LED backlighting. Apple was the first notebook manufacturer to incorporate the technology into its laptop screens, and we're surprised that the technology has not been adopted by more manufacturers.

In a conventionally lit screen, the CCFL (Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamp) is responsible for the majority of a laptop's power drain. LED is far more energy efficient, enabling the use of thinner and brighter screens. However, LED backlighting is more expensive, and does produce more heat than CCFL.

Dell has started to use LED backlighting, too, but there certainly doesn't seem to be a rush to embrace the technology.

Penryn and power-saving

It's fair to say that Intel chips dominate the mobile market, and the latest Penryn-based CPUs are being adopted by virtually all laptop manufacturers. The chip is basically a die-shrink of the existing 65nm dual core and quad core CPUs. By using a 45nm process, the chips can deliver more performance at the same clock speeds as previous chips, with the added advantage that they consume less power.

Intel could roll out mobile quad-core processors as early as June 2008.

Most importantly for mobile parts, Deep Power Down (DPD) technology will enable the chips to enter a very low-power state when idle, again helping to conserve precious battery life.

Battery technology has been slow to improve over the past few years and Lithium-Ion cells are still the power packs of choice for the mobile industry. We were excepting to see more fuel-cell announcements, and although Toshiba had a device powered by a Methanol fuel-cell prototype on display, little was said about it. Perhaps the company was feeling more ' Blu' than green.

The Tablet PC sideshow

Sideshow, Microsoft's much-vaunted secondary-screen system for laptops, has yet to see wide-scale adoption. Introduced with Vista, SideShow is supposed to enable you to perform tasks such as checking your email, or browsing the internet, without having to actually turn your laptop on.

Although we've seen it incorporated into Media Center remotes, so far few laptop manufacturers seem interested in the technology. Part of the problem seems to be that including the SideShow interface board and screen adds extra expense, without offering any tangible benefits for the consumer.

Two more Microsoft initiatives that seem to be taking on water are Tablets and Origami, aka Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPC). The trouble is that both of these are very niche devices. Few people actually want or need a touchscreen or handwriting recognition in a laptop-sized handheld. Even HP, one of the few companies to release a new Tablet PC, conspicuously avoided using the term in its press release.

Why the MID isn't a PDA

At IDF last year, Intel gave notice to its hardware partners that it sees Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) as a big growth area in 2008. MIDs or Ultra Mobile Devices (UMDs) are designed to be smaller than Tablet PCs, but powerful enough to run the full version of Windows. Intel had several prototypes on display at its stand, including devices from Toshiba and Aigo.

The 'smaller is better' approach is gaining traction elsewhere too. Asus has shown that its Eee PC, a cheap, low-powered mini-laptop running Linux, can win over hearts and minds. While smaller net-capable devices, such as Nokia's N810 and the new Sony Mylo are proving more popular, nicely filling the gap between mobile phones and full-sized laptops. Just like the now unfashionable PDA.

Perhaps the most compelling reason that these non-Microsoft devices are so successful is that they don't run Windows. They boot quickly, are simple to use and don't crash.

Considering that the CES organisers claimed that this year's show would be Carbon Neutral (we presume that doesn't include the thousands of air-miles flown by journalists, and the hundreds of tons of demo products air-freighted in), there was a distinct lack of green technologies on display.