Thursday, June 03, 2004

New developments

Toshiba have just announced a 60GB two platter version of their 1.8 inch hard drive, most famously found in the full size Apple iPod. Presumably there will also be a 30GB one platter version. Apple are also expected to announce a fourth generation iPod in a few months, which will have a colour screen on which you can display digital photographs, a more sophisticated operating system and a few other features. It will be interesting to see what the iPod evolves into. I doubt that that many people will use 60GB of storage, but there are lots of other features you could add while you keep the same form factor. Maybe the full size iPod is going to evolve into a PDA, or maybe Apple will find a clever way to make it a mobile phone as well, or various other thoughts. (Apple has been adding more features to subsequent models anyway). I think the trick is to keep the form factor, keep the music interface the same, and provide other functions as add ons that are easy to use but which do not affect the core functionality. Before long there will be higher capacity versions of either the 1 Hitachi drive used in the iPod mini or of Toshiba's 0.8 inch drive. Once we can get an iPod mini with a capacity of 15GB or so (as a guess, this will be two generations of product down the line - another 18 months or so) the iPod mini is likely to satisfy most people who just want a music player, so the thing that sells the full size version (if anything does) is going to be other applications. And this 60GB disk is something that is helping Apple go that way.

And of course one great thing about the iPod is that it is really pushing development of those small hard drives. If you decide you are going to build a laptop based on the full powered Pentium M CPU, a 14 inch screen, and a 2.5 inch hard drive (which is what most laptops are), you end up with a machine weighing five pounds or a little more and which looks like this. Most laptops are approximately thus (with another family based on 15.4 inch widescreens instead). The maximum specification of such laptops at present is a 2.0GHz Pentium M, and a 100GB hard drive, as this is as fast as Pentium Ms come and as big as 2.5 inch hard drives come. Having built such a computer it is hard to miniaturise, as it requires a fair bit of power (and consequently a fairly big battery) to run. If you want to build a smaller and lighter laptop you have to use a smaller and lighter battery, so you need to choose smaller or less powerful components.

As it happens, Intel has also released lower power variants of the Pentium M. Actually the chip comes in three varieties: there are the standard versions, the low voltage versions and the Ultra Low Voltage versions. I haven't noticed the low voltage versions so much, but the Japanese manufacturers have been doing all sorts of interesting things with the Ultra Low Voltage version. Readers of this blog will know I am sadly much enamoured with the Sony Vaio TR series. This is a laptop based around the ULV Pentium M, Toshiba's 1.8 inch hard drive, and a 10.6 inch WXGA screen that Sony has sourced from somewhere. The good thing about this machine is that it is just about the smallest and lightest laptop you can get that includes an optical drive. (Fujitsu has a very similar machine that is available only in Japan). The first version of this laptop included a 0.9GHz Pentium M, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, and a 30GB hard drive. The most recent version includes a 1.1GHz Pentium M, a DVD-RW drive, and a 40GB hard drive. I suspect that Sony will release another new version as soon as it can source a reasonable number of the 60GB Toshiba drives, at which point the TR series will have a 1.1GHz CPU and a 60GB hard drive. That's a little behind a typical larger laptop in terms of processor power, but otherwise it really isn't bad.

I want one.

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