Intel proposes Florence as the notebook of the future

Intel is working on a reference design for mobile products that expands upon a convertible Tablet PC blueprint to incorporate a double-hinged design, the company said Tuesday.

Intel's Mobile Platforms Group has built a nonworking prototype of a concept idea known as "Florence" for future notebook designs, said Nick Oakley, an industrial designer in the group. The main idea was to combine the portability of the Tablet PC with the ease of data entry provided by a laptop's keyboard, he said.

Several Tablet PC makers, such as Toshiba Corp., have released models that can be used as either Tablet PCs or conventional notebooks. These convertible devices come with a display that swivels to cover the keyboard when used in Tablet PC mode. The Intel device has both a base that rotates to enter Tablet PC mode, and a keyboard with its own, separate hinge.

"With tablets, you can stand up, walk around and make notes. But with notebooks you're fundamentally lap-bound or desk-bound. What we tried to do was make a stab at trying to find a way to make a tablet work as well as a notebook, where you can hold (the device) like a tablet, and can use a little keyboard, but you're not taking up valuable screen real estate with a soft keyboard," Oakley said.

The prototype can be opened and closed like conventional notebook, he said. To use Florence like a Tablet PC, the base of the unit rotates almost 360 degrees underneath the 12.1-inch display, disabling the keyboard once the base passes through 180 degrees, he said. But if the user wants to enter information with the keyboard while the device is in Tablet PC mode, he or she can bring the keyboard down below the display while the base remains folded behind the display.

The seven millimeter-thick keyboard could then be folded up against the display, leaving a small gap at the top of the display that could still show information such as incoming e-mail or a calendar appointment, Oakley said.

Intel designed the notebook for a world with always-on Internet connections, where users roam between LANs and WANs (wide area networks) just by walking around, Oakley said. The ability to walk down the hall to a meeting while still having quick access to both the keyboard and the display will appeal to many users, while users accustomed to Tablet PCs can keep the device in that mode while they travel, he said.

Oakley stressed that Florence is just a prototype, and its main goal is to get people both inside and outside of Intel thinking about future notebook designs. "By creating concepts, you ask questions of users that feed back into how Intel goes about developing technology road maps," he said.

The multiple hinges could present a problem, Oakley said. Failed hinges are one of the most common ailments reported by notebook owners, and future designs will have to ensure those hinges are sturdy, he said.

The PC industry is tilting more and more toward mobile devices as wireless networks grow closer to widespread deployment, processor performance increases, and cooling technology allows desktop functionality to come in smaller form factors. Notebook sales are growing at around a 15 percent rate, while desktop sales are stagnant, or falling, analysts have said.

Intel develops and demonstrates reference designs for desktop and mobile PCs from time to time, often at its Intel Developer Forums. The Santa Clara, California, company demonstrated something similar to Florence called Newport at its Spring IDF in San Jose, California, last February. At that show, Intel also displayed a number of ideas for next generation desktop designs, such as Statesboro, a digital home media device.

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