The birth of the InfoWorld WorldBooks

What sort of laptop could PC makers create if they were willing to think outside the boring old box?

Windows notebooks offered for sale in North America are stuck in evolutionary stasis. The reason is simple: A small number of Asian manufacturers build major brand notebooks. Exterior design and interior components shared across vendors lower manufacturing costs and bring "new" models to market faster. Efforts to enliven the genre tend to be focused on superficial shelf appeal. Large speaker grilles, Windows Media Player transport buttons, and blue LEDs (borrowed from gamer/enthusiast desktops) typify low-value bells and whistles that can be inexpensively overlaid on a formulaic design. More than one observer has posited that such gewgaws serve the added purpose of distracting buyers from the absence of purposeful ingenuity and backsliding build quality.

Innovative leaps in notebook design do exist. When InfoWorld's staff attends conferences that draw a globally diverse crowd, we find a fascinating variety of devices perched atop tables in the press room. When vendors create notebooks, tablets, and unclassifiable species of portable devices for sale to Asian markets, they throw caution to the wind. It's as if Western notebook buyers are presumed to have an aversion to innovation.

[ See "The best notebook money can't buy" to explore the interactive Flash illustrations of InfoWorld's ideal notebooks, the WorldBook Ether and WorldBook Meteor. ]

With the goal of challenging that assertion, InfoWorld assembled a team of technology experts from its staff and charged them with the goal of designing a genuinely innovative notebook. We subjected our project to the limitations that any manufacturer faces when it starts whiteboarding a new notebook. Components must either be available now in sufficient quantity to support volume production, or have component manufacturers' contractual commitment to availability at a supportable price within the next 12 months. As you'll see, it's unlikely that our design could be taken from brain trust to working prototype in a year, but the time constraint was necessary to limit the number of feature options that could be brought to the table.

Another realistic constraint we applied to our imaginary notebook design was cost. We set a target retail price for the machine, established acceptable profit margins, and worked backward as best we could in the few weeks we allocated to the project. Some of our cost assumptions are based on radical changes in the global economy. Wage stagnation, the displacement of thousands of skilled manufacturing workers, cheap real estate, low interest rates, revenue-starved municipalities, outrageous transportation costs driven by fuel prices, and the likelihood of federal tax incentives and subsidies for technology companies that keep their operations stateside steered us toward designing, manufacturing, subcontracting, and supporting our devices in the United States. We won't put a pretty face on this -- we're counting on exploiting present painful economic conditions, betting that they will persist for the duration of our startup, and that government efforts to improve matters will dramatically lower startup and operating costs. We'll give as good as we get, going to extraordinary lengths to protect local ecology and otherwise be a model corporate citizen. Doing right by the community begets positive consequences. This wouldn’t be worth doing if we couldn't plan long-term improvements in quality of life, particularly with regard to education, where we decide to locate.

Finally, all features and components had to earn their way in or out according to practical value added. If something new to this class of computers was added, contribution to users' productivity had to exceed its incremental cost many fold. When we removed something to lower weight or size, or to free up space for something we added, what we took out could not reduce productivity. That’s not to say that we weren't willing to challenge the expectations that users apply based on prevailing notebooks. Just running down the laundry list of our notebooks' specifications will have readers shaking their heads and chuckling. Every feature added or left out is supported by a solid rationale. You may not agree with it, but you'll see that our decisions got some careful thought.

To get to perfect, start with exceptional
Now that you understand we imposed realistic limitations on our design, the stage is set to introduce the most perfect portable device that will never be built. We set as a goal the creation of a single converged device that satisfies all of a business traveler’s needs, eliminating the cost and inconvenience of a separate phone, PDA, and media player while executing the functions of all of these nearly as well as a discrete device.

We dubbed our systems WorldBook, in part as an homage to Apple designs that incorporate envelope-pushing innovation and exceptional build quality, and because no one on InfoWorld's design team had the marketing expertise to cook up a better name.

Our designs are rooted in a cross-breeding of Apple's MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. We like MacBook Air's skinny profile and low weight, but we also like MacBook Pro's screen size and the night-and-day contrast in user experience offered by MacBook Pro's discrete graphics processing unit (GPU). We decided to split the difference with a machine that drops the built-in optical drive for reasons explained below, adopts MacBook Air's flat battery pack (ours is user-replaceable with four screws and carries a three-year warranty), and employs an AMD/ATI hybrid GPU with 256MB or 512MB of video RAM.

Like that of the MacBook Air, the WorldBooks' case is domed, a shape that is inherently crush-resistant. Our notebook also has no display latch. MacBook Air’s lid uses magnets to keep the unit closed, and a bead of rubber around the perimeter of the display forms a continuous seal between the lid and the keyboard surface. The display will not bow in the center over time the way MacBook Pro's display does, with its flat lid and rubber pads. The MacBook Pro's domed form is easy to carry without a bag, and it slides easily between items when you do use a bag.

The thin, domed, clamshell-like design spurred a lot of lively debate over must-have peripherals versus those that can be attached externally. The simplest delineation is the one that Apple used: Whatever you normally use on a plane is built into the notebook. Whatever you use at your desk is an accessory. The slim clamshell design also requires doing away with tall ports and peripherals. Even a slimline, slot-fed optical drive is too tall to build into a domed chassis, and given optical drives' heavy power draw and high failure rate, it didn't take much convincing to leave it out.

We were sorely tempted to eliminate the RJ-45 Ethernet port from both models. An RJ-45 necessitates carving a maw into a streamlined case, and a USB-to-Ethernet adapter makes a simple and inexpensive substitute. In the end, we compromised, omitting the RJ-45 from the ultra-mobile Ether (for the sake of an additional USB port) but leaving it in the desktop-replacement Meteor.

To address these compromises on Ethernet and DVD, we designed a small external system-powered device we called the DiscDock. This is primarily a gigabit Ethernet and DVD burner dock with a USB hub, and we later added other cheap and handy add-ons like a DVI port for a computer monitor, an HDMI port for HD video and audio, and an unpowered eSATA port for an external hard drive. We never got around to settling how this dock would connect to the WorldBook. USB wouldn't drive Ethernet up to gigabit speed, but it would be better than 10/100. ExpressCard seems ideal, but it would take much longer to design the dock, primarily because the cable between the card and the dock would have to be custom-made. In either case, a separate video cable from the DisplayPort would be needed to drive the displays.

Under the cover
The notebook portion of WorldBook is fairly straightforward, with some innovative twists that only gearheads would notice in the specs but which benefit all users. The platform is AMD’s "Puma," utilizing AMD's Turion X2 Ultra dual-core CPU, AMD M780G chipset, and the ATI/AMD Radeon Mobility 3800 GPU. The CPU has 1MB of dedicated L2 cache per core, on-board memory, and bus controllers, a HyperTransport 3.0 scalable I/O bus, independent voltage and frequency control for each core, and a slew of power-saving features that will remain latent due, in part, to manufacturers' tendency to spend little time tuning systems and pre-loaded OSes for anything other than generic Intel x86.

Being devoted to one supplier and a cohesive platform, and knowing that the least capable model in our product line will always be a 2.4GHz dual-core Turion X2 Ultra with a discrete GPU, we don't have to dumb anything down. We'll trade the usual deep discounts on component pricing offered to exclusive customers for a couple of months split between Dresden and Ontario (AMD and ATI engineering operations, respectively), sponging up all we can from their engineers.

ATI's standard display driver will need some adaptation for our GreenZone power conservation. WorldBooks have a 16:9, true HD aspect ratio display. This is great for spreading out multiple windows or documents horizontally, or, of course, enjoying widescreen presentations and movies. When you're not deeply multitasking, when all you're doing is word processing or checking your e-mail, as much as two thirds of the backlight power is wasted. GreenZone shuts off the backlighting for the left and right sides of the display, leaving a 4:3 ratio virtual display in the center. This amounts to yanking the cord from your widescreen monitor and plugging in your old squarish CRT. It's not something a notebook GPU is designed to handle.

The GPU can offload a number of math-intensive tasks from the CPU. MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 video decoding and encoding provide a stirring example of the power savings that can be derived from offloading. When decoding video with the GPU, the CPU can practically idle. An unaided CPU can be overwhelmed by software MPEG-2 processing, and decoding Blu-ray or Transport Stream (HD cable box, for instance) on an x86 CPU is a cruel thing to do to innocent silicon. ATI's integrated graphics processor accelerates MPEG-2 playback, but when graphics memory is shared with the CPU there is always a price to pay.

We see great potential in the use of GPUs for cryptography. We configured full disk encryption into WorldBook, and we're planning to borrow the GPU's resources to make encryption work in real-time during periods of heavy demand. If you're auto-saving a Word file every five minutes, software disk encryption will suffice. If you're reindexing a 50GB database, building a huge development project, or transcoding high-def video down to an iPod, hardware encryption will be a big help.

Always-on communications
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are present, as you'd expect. Apple made the world safe for 802.11n, drafty though it is, and on a very good day you can get a 300 megabit link. 802.11n makes wired Ethernet optional for many uses. Bluetooth is adequate for cellphone and VoIP, and it's key to our design that the WorldBook operate just as a cell phone does for taking incoming calls. Very few are acquainted with Bluetooth's usefulness for wireless headphones and remote control because neither has been implemented well in the mainstream. WorldBook will change that with a sensitive and powerful Bluetooth radio, keyboard injection drivers for Bluetooth remote control (AVRCP, or audio video remote control protocol), and stable drivers for high-fidelity Bluetooth stereo audio. The Wii remote is the least expensive Bluetooth remote control on the market. Wouldn't you use it for presentations if your system supported it?

The Embedded Smartphone, which we sometimes refer to as WorldBook's System-In-System (SIS), is an independent ARM (advanced RISC machine) microcontroller running a cut-down Linux kernel. Calling it a smartphone is a bit misleading, because it is useful whether the optional cellular radio module is installed or not. While the notebook is running, the ARM system will supply the brains for the touchpad/tablet, drive the LCD panels on the lid and under the touchpad, and support the running of small Java and Flash applications on those displays. ARM microcontrollers have their own RAM and flash memory. WorldBook will feature an SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) memory card slot to expand the ARM system's memory and to work as low performance solid state storage for the notebook. The ARM CPU will be wired into the WorldBook via PCI-Express, so the notebook and ARM systems can communicate and borrow each other's resources.

A key element in our power design is to overlay RAM with flash memory. Once an OS and its drivers are installed, a memory image of the system's booted state can be saved as a snapshot and restored to RAM at boot time. This process is often called hibernation, and making it work requires a lot of effort from the OS. With custom firmware, the system could transparently power up from a memory snapshot, demand-copying pages from flash to RAM so that users can begin using the system without waiting for the entire snapshot to load. If flash is not used in hibernate mode, it can be used to store the system boot image and device driver cache, eliminating disk spin-up and seek delays from the boot process.

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