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?

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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.

An internal Serial ATA (SATA) hard drive is a given. The desktop replacement contingent went all out for capacity and RPMs, power conservation be hanged, while the green party gathered around a driveless design. We built the lighter model of WorldBook, the Ether, to use solid-state disk (SSD). There might be a mobile SSD solution out there to pull off the rack, but assembling a fine one from components is no great effort. The access speed issue of flash can be addressed by a battery-backed static RAM cache, with the battery serving the purpose of making cached reads and writes safe even if power is interrupted. We also dreamed up the idea of a striped flash array that spreads reads and writes across modules, RAID-style.

It's got game, er, PowerPoint
We invested the greatest amount of forward-looking risk in the expectation that ATI/AMD's Hybrid Graphics would support a switched mode. Hybrid Graphics is a chipset feature that allows the use of either power-saving but slower integrated graphics, which uses system memory for video memory, or very fast but less efficient discrete GPU. Right now, Hybrid Graphics is an OEM design shortcut, and notebooks will ship with either integrated graphics or a discrete GPU.

It is conceivable that a system using ATI/AMD Hybrid Graphics could be designed to switch between integrated and GPU modes. You might choose integrated mode for battery operation and switch to the GPU when you're on the charger. Switching would not be a simple matter. It's complicated enough that it might require rebooting, or at least hibernation. In the ideal case, the system will shift between integrated and GPU, or a combination of the two, as needed.

We could talk about making room for coming 3-D GUIs and applications, but we're all grown-ups here. Even the serious-minded prefer a notebook that has the ability to run games, even if they don't use computer games now. We certainly want our desktops to be able to run games, and no notebook makes the grade as a desktop replacement unless it can render HD-resolution 3-D graphics in real time.

If you're looking for suit and tie justification for a discrete GPU, realize that accelerated 3-D graphics also means accelerated compositing and bitmap manipulation. If you're delivering a presentation to a large group using a high-resolution projector or, say, a huge plasma monitor, integrated graphics won't be able to fill that screen with layered and animated graphics, embedded video, and broadcast-grade slide transitions without stuttering. That takes a GPU.

Now go read the specs
Security, power, and multimedia are among the areas detailed in WorldBook's specifications and marketing materials that don't engender much controversy, and therefore require relatively little explanation, which fits since we're out of time anyhow.

WorldBook can replace a notebook, cell phone, PDA, cellular data card, digital media player, and desktop computer. Any notebook could do that. We just ignored the conventional wisdom that says it shouldn't be done. We're not planning to make phones, PDAs, and the rest, so unlike other contenders, we aren't worried about competing with our own products.

You might notice that WorldBook is also designed to be home theater-friendly. Out of the box, its HDMI and coaxial digital audio outputs jack straight into any modern HDTV and surround sound amplifier. It plays media from hard disk or SD cards, streams media from Internet and LAN sources, and acts as a streaming media server. If you add the DiscDock, you add DVD or Blu-ray playback. Add the USB HD tuner/capture box, and you have a high definition hard disk recorder that archives programs to DVD. You can add TiVo, DVD recorder, and AppleTV to the list of devices that WorldBook replaces.

A notebook should do all that it's capable of doing, without being limited by convention. It requires nerve and imagination, assets that, we admit, were in ample supply while we dreamed up this notebook that will never exist. We did our best to keep it real, and for all the details we covered, we found consensus on a great many issues. WorldBook will never be, but it could be. Somebody could build it a year from now. If you could buy a WorldBook, would you? And if you wouldn't buy it, what would you change that would make it irresistible? As much of a challenge as it is, look at the specs and the marketing materials as though the machine actually exists. Tell us what you think. After all, we built the WorldBook for you.

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