Personal Computers


Intel Gets Game, HP Does Voodoo, Sony Bites the Big One

I visited two of the greatest cities in the United States last week. First, I was in San Francisco where Intel made a credible attempt to show that it intends to stay the market leader despite anything rival AMD has done. Then I went to New York to talk to folks about Hewlett-Packard’s congressional hearings and to attend one of the most impressive HP product launches that firm has had in awhile.

While I was in New York, Sony continued to demonstrate partial good judgment by announcing a broad battery recall.

Intel’s Got Game

Intel has been under a huge cloud for much of the last four years. AMD has continued to step up and often it seemed like Intel had decided to take a long nap, one it didn’t intend to wake up from. However, at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) last week, the firm successfully showed that it intends to hold on to its leadership position.

Woven throughout the keynote presentations were examples of how the company has been able to dramatically improve performance with its current Core 2 Duo line. This line, which is burdened by a name that is surprisingly difficult to pronounce, has been winning benchmark after benchmark test of late and is such a dramatic improvement over what the firm had earlier this year, one might wonder whether both products actually came from the same company.

However the big news wasn’t the new Core 2 Duo product, but the fact that Intel has pulled a new quad core product into the year. This new offering could be available for participants in the high end of the gaming market before year’s end, or in time for the holiday buying season.

You could almost see the drool puddle underneath the power gamers in the audience as Intel shared its game demos. With the ability to do physics on the processor, this part, coupled with a good graphics card, could provide a more realistic experience than anything on the market if games are written to take advantage of it.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with new technology, games largely remain single threaded at the moment, and that means most, at least for now, won’t get the performance bump that otherwise would be possible. It was an impressive demonstration nevertheless, promising good things to come.

Pushing the Envelope

For those who are worried that the number of cores on chips might get out of hand, Intel fueled those fears by showcasing an 80-core science experiment. This was largely to re-emphasize its intention to continue to lead the market. Despite the fact that this 80-core part currently has little practical use (as is the nature of a science experiment), it did showcase that the firm is working on advanced technology. This did a nice job of highlighting Intel’s desire to keep pushing the envelope to assure market leadership.

Where the firm really shined, however, was in an area very dear to my own heart: power conservation. Whether it is the global need to reduce greenhouse gasses, or the more personal goals of achieving lower utility bills and longer battery life, Intel demonstrated solid progress with desktops, laptops and servers which had been re-architected beyond the processor to assure more efficiency.

Overall, this was a very powerful show for Intel, which largely succeeded in restoring confidence in the company for many observers. Of course, this confidence may erode somewhat, however, when the firm’s layoffs begin this week.

One interesting tidbit I observed while attending the show was how incredibly close Intel is getting to Apple and how incredibly upset Intel is with Microsoft. Also noted behind the scenes was growing speculation that the new Apple iTV device could break all sales records for a post-Christmas launch and a general opinion that Windows Vista is actually in better shape than had been thought. Vista could end up faring better than expected when it launches.

HP Buys Voodoo

If there was ever a month where HP needed a little voodoo, this month would be it. As a result of an investigation to find the source of board leaks to the media, HP is being probed for allegedly using unsavory — and possibly illegal — techniques to do so. Not only have a number of people left the company involuntarily as a result, a few of those left have spent some quality time talking to Congress. All of this was going on while the board member who triggered this firestorm vacationed on his obscenely large yacht.

You would think that any number of HP executives would be buying voodoo dolls to get even with that power broker, but instead the company, which has been cranking incredibly hard of late, dialed it up a notch. Not only did HP launch an impressive line of products last week but it followed Dell’s lead with its Alienware purchase and bought VoodooPC.

Now some of you may recall that my current favorite laptop, when price is no object, is the Voodoo Envy. This product combines a stunning choice of colors with a small size and an impressive set of features. Well, just like the old Remington Shaver ad, apparently HP liked Voodoo’s products so much it bought the company.

I know of a few amazing things that HP was working on in the lab for gamers and, evidently, the Voodoo folks are going to take those amazing things and make them even more incredible. If they can make this work, what should result are some impressive products that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

The hot new products that will result from HP’s latest purchase will show up next year. This year, HP’s most impressive offerings were its wireless 37-inch high-definition TV, its new Media Center desktop and laptop PCs, and its new home storage system which, when connected to HP wireless TVs, Sonos, or other networked media players, can eliminate the need to leave a PC on all day and all night. The company also showed a variety of flat panel TVs — I’m a big fan of the piano black finish on these and on their new laptops. They just look stunning, off and on.

All of this amounted to a job well done by HP, but it also proved that the circus going on in Congress with some of the company’s ex-executives is having little impact on its ability to continue to drive its business.

Sony’s Battery Business

Sony must be looking forward to the end of this painful year, but most of the damage it has endured this year has been self-inflicted. Its handling of the battery quality problem has been the worst I’ve ever seen, and it has many of us speculating that it may have to exit this business segment because of the way it has treated its customers during this crisis.

By the time this is all over, we may no longer be allowed to take notebook batteries on planes, and this is all thanks to Sony, which should have done a broad recall when it discovered the danger. Instead it put the burden on customers. Lenovo was the firm most recently hit with this battery issue, but recalls over this problem have hit Dell, and even Apple, hard.

Although Sony has now done a broad recall it may still have not recalled all of the damaged batteries it has manufactured, and the wording of the recall downplays the overall danger. This would suggest that, were someone to be harmed by a battery that should have been returned, that person will likely take Sony to the cleaners claiming Sony’s rhetoric misled them. Sony should study how much fun this kind of thing has been for the tobacco companies. In the end it is likely that volume buyers will now refuse to buy Sony batteries for good reason and that may force Sony out of the battery business.

There are also indications that many of the laptop fires, like the latest involving a Lenovo battery, are due to poorly made third-party laptop batteries. Unless we stop using those and get all of the batteries currently under recall out of the system, there are likely to be more catastrophic problems in the future. It could happen to you; make sure your battery is safe.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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