(Th)Air and Back Again – A MacBook’s Tale

What 13″ laptop is 1.1″ thick and weighs 5lbs?

An Apple MacBook, from 2008.

Why is that relevant? To put the MacBook Air into context. When the MacBook Air was released in 2008, its svelte 3/4″ “thinness” and 3lbs was a revelation, showing what mobile productivity could feel like. Today, nearly every consumer 13.3″ notebook >$500 is 3/4″ thick and less than 3.5lbs, touchscreen included. Even the MacBook Pro, which is a distinctly more capable machine, than the Air, is hardly thicker at all and only 0.5lbs heavier.

Meanwhile, the new 12″ (retina) MacBook is 25% thinner and 1/5 lighter than an 11.6″ MacBook Air and provides 12.5% more screen area (not to mention a drastically increased resolution). In comparison, the new MacBook is once more a mobility revelation. Importantly, the form factor size and weight reductions did not come at the expense of solidity, much performance (within 15% of a latest generation MacBook Air) or battery life. I played around with a co-worker’s MacBook, recently, and it is mind-boggling object to behold.

And it’s because of this progress that I believe we will soon see the MacBook Air, as we know it today, go into retirement. I’m guessing two versions of an “all new” MacBook will take its place, one with the same 12″ size as the current MacBook, and another in the 13.5-14″ range and 1/3 pound heavier, to give it some distinction from its smaller counterpart. Similar to the original announcement, the release should happen in late Q1, in time to address the college graduation season and continue to be fresh, going into back-to-school.

Skylake-Y seems like a shoe-in, with its performance profile very similar to Broadwell-U, in all but the most intensive, long-running operations, where the limited thermal headroom will crimp performance. In order to hit the psychologically and advertising-important “starting at $999″, I think the smaller, 12″ version will come with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. The larger ~14” version likely starts at $1299, with an upgraded processor and 256GB storage.

The odd-duck MacBook Pro with optical drive notwithstanding, Apple hasn’t long carried 3 notebook line-ups for long, so unless one believes instead the new MacBook or the MacBook Pro line will disappear, it’s only natural that the in-between MacBook Air merges into the more distinctive option, shortly. It’ll also help with the naming, back to good old Pro and non-Pro.

Surface Book/Pro 4 Sleep Battery Drain (Skylake IGP edition)

If you have a Surface Pro 4 or a Surface Book, chances are, you’re experiencing pretty awful sleep (Connected Standby in particular) battery drain. This power state is designed to enable connectivity and near-instantaneous wakes, while consuming extremely little power think 10 days of battery life, in this state).

In order for this state (Intel calls the system state S0ix, or an active-idle state) to work, a combination of operating system, system firmware, and device drivers need to all act appropriately. The Intel integrated graphics devices appears to be a common cause of battery drain in sleep for Skylake-based systems. Sleep study reports (you can view them by running “powercfg sleepstudy” from an elevated command prompt) indicate the graphics device is active on the order of 15-17% of the time, while in sleep, causing 1W+ drain.

However, an updated Intel graphics driver, released December 22, 2015, version 15.40.14.64.4352, has improved that somewhat for my Surface Pro 4. Check it out – can you guess when I installed the driver?

sp4_sleepstudy

Power draw is still not where I’d like to see it (from my work on various SoC platforms, within Windows, I’d expect these Core-based systems to consume in the range of 100-150mW, on average), but it’s still a 40-50% improvement from where it was. This high drain is also likely why the Surface team implemented a rather short doze-to-hibernate timeout of 2 hours. It means I’m frequently resuming the device from hibernate (~12 seconds) instead of from Standby (<1 second).

The driver is currently only for 6th generation (Skylake) Core graphics and with a Surface, you’ll need to install it manually via Device Manager (great installation guide, at Windows Central), until Microsoft pushes it to this particular device ID via Windows Update. It seems to work just fine, though. If you’re seeing similar (better) results, let me know!

The Last March of the PC

With the holiday shopping season upon us, in earnest, my attention is drawn to the hordes of <$400 laptops on the market. A couple years ago, within Windows, we were cringing at the onslaught of Chromebooks, to which we had no better answer than the continued race of the behemoth desktop-replacement laptops to match at least on price. Think driving the price of a last generation Toshiba C55 down to $249.

Two years on, the Windows value-entry ecosystem is in a much more competitive place. In large part, this has been triggered by licensing changes, designed to stem share loss at the low-end, not dissimilar in concept to the Windows “Starter Edition” driving Linux-based netbooks from the market. Well, the differences are myriad; Windows with Bing is not a limited OS, like Starter was, and performance, even at the low end of the laptop market, is finally sufficient, for typical consumer use.

But, I wonder what this is accomplishing. We’re all just fighting for an ever shrinking pie that is the PC market – and I draw the circle around what constitutes the “PC” market liberally, including OS X and Chrome OS. PC penetration in most regions of the world has peaked. And because even the lowest options on the PC totem pole are increasingly “good enough” for typical use, the upgrade cycle has lengthened. There are literally over half a billion PCs, in use, over 4 years old. It’s not clear there are any further “killer apps” in the PC sphere that will drive a significant portion to upgrade. Likely not, with the technology ecosystem’s focus elsewhere.

So, yes, Windows will continue to drive new features into the PC, to limit the decline of the market. Windows Hello is magical (similarly, ask iPhone users if they’re willing to forego their fingerprint readers), but it’s still making its way to mass market. Look at the shelves this holiday, and you’ll find Windows Hello is still few and far between, mostly on >$700 devices. It will come down, but it’s not a Hail Mary that rejuvenates the entire market. That said, Hello and other features are part of a holding pattern, while “the next thing” is cultivated (cloud? services? “IoT”?).

In the meantime, enjoy what is likely to be a last generational hurrah for PC innovation. We will drive it, because we need it to support the privilege of being able to invest elsewhere. Budget PCs will get much better and a more definitive premium tranche, carved out by Apple, and increasingly joined by Surface, will be sustained.

Surface Book: GPU Deep Dive

The Surface Book. It was an exciting moment to watch Panos unveil a premium laptop (finally!) and, shortly thereafter, pull the display off its keyboard base. With only a few weeks between launch and hard availability, anticipation and excitement has been maintained. I even stayed home to await delivery, the morning of October 26.

There are 3 important aspects that drew me to the Surface Book:

  • All the trappings of an excellent laptop (weight, size, battery life, display)
  • Form factor versatility
  • Discrete GPU for light-medium gaming

I have lots to say about the Surface Book, but I wanted to dwell on the last point, first. I’m not a heavy gamer, but I do enjoy some strategy games, occasionally. I’ve compromised that capability in my laptop choices, to date, as I value weight and mobility more. So, needless to say, I was eager to see how the Surface Book would handle those gaming scenarios.

Microsoft (and NVIDIA) continue to remain mum on the particulars of the discrete GPU. It was announced as a Maxwell-based part, with 1GB GDDR5. Now, this is a combination that has never been seen before and, interestingly enough, Panos spoke to its use primarily as an accelerator for professional content-creation applications, such as AutoCAD and the suite of Adobe tools. Yes, some light gaming was also mentioned, such as League of Legends, but with the Surface Book’s hardware and price points targeting prosumers and content professionals, no effort was made to match, performance-per-dollar, gaming laptops.

With Surface Books in the wild, we know that it’s a GM108-based part, with 1GB GDDR5 @ 5GT/s. The 940M-equivalent GPU disappointed some, but I also expected the GDDR5-enabled bandwidth to improve performance, not insignificantly, over the standard DDR3 configuration. Here’s a spec comparison. Note the 940M core and memory speeds vary, based on design implementation.

gpu_table

With 2.5X the memory bandwidth, we should see some substantial improvements. I’ve compared game performance, across a few titles, using an 840M (from which the 940M is rebranded), the Surface Book’s integrated Gen9 HD 520, and the discrete Surface Book GPU. Framerates are average and game settings are as follows:

  • Bioshock Infinite – 1080p, Medium setting
  • Total War: Attila – 1440×900, Performance setting, Shadows – Max Performance, Texture – Medium
  • Shadow of Mordor – Surface Book @ 1500×1000, 840M @ 1536×864, Low setting

surface_book_gpu_benchmarks

Across these three games, all of which have built-in benchmarking tools, the Surface Book dGPU is 2X faster than the integrated and anywhere between 20-33% faster than the 840M/940M, from which it is derived. It does stand that in many games, like Shadow of Mordor and Attila, in the tests, 1GB VRAM limits you to lower texture fidelity, compared to 2GB; in practice, the GM108 isn’t fast enough to drive those higher textures at sufficient framerates for a good experience, anyways.

While all of this pixel-pushing is going on, the fans (both in the clipboard and in the keyboard base) spin up to varying degrees. They make their presence known primarily by a rushing, whooshing sound, and limited amount of high-pitching whine, which makes the noise more bearable than most caused by small-diameter fans and blowers.

So, you can play some games on a Surface Book, as well as it use it as a pretty slick multi-use productivity machine, otherwise. But, I as found out over the subsequent couple weeks of use, it has its share of teething pains.

HP Stream

A number of stories popped up about the HP Stream, this week, primarily focused on its bargain-basement $199 price point. While a head-turning price, particularly for the 14″ Windows notebook, I’m more interested its execution and how it may make or break the perception of whether Windows PCs can compete successfully against  Chromebooks in the ultra-value segment.

I spent an inordinate amount of time, during my last days in the Windows Ecosystem team, working with the marketing teams to define and pitch great-for-the-money, highly mobile, value notebooks. All the OEMs had something “Value” in the pipeline. You see these popping up at Best Buy, Amazon, and even the Microsoft Store. Intel’s Bay Trail-M chipset increased the level of system integration on-die, and various marketing and business programs from Microsoft provided more attractive Windows license pricing. Hitting a permanent 249USD transfer price became achievable with Windows notebooks.

But, as you see with these devices, they are, for the majority, 15.6″ notebooks, 5lbs in weight,  have <=5hr of real world battery life, 1-1.2″ thick and have spinning platter drives. They’re all existing entry notebook designs, ones that were conceived with an optical drive and thermal capacity to support anything from 15-35W TDP processors. Removing the optical drive and reducing the cooling capacity help shed up to 10% weight, but the chassis and materials all remain otherwise the same. They weren’t designed from the ground up to be mobile; they were designed to be value desktop replacements, for the upgrade cycle, when the thought of some mobility pushed you over the edge to buy a laptop instead of a desktop.

So, you see, the HP Stream will be more important than yet another cheap Windows notebook. It was designed from the get-go with the purpose of producing a value, yet highly mobile notebook. As far as I can tell, it’s the first one of its kind, in the Windows notebook ecosystem. A quick peek at the specs proves this: a 4.5W TDP processor, memory-on-board, eMMC storage, no provisions to add an optical drive, 0.7″ thin, a 14″ display at less than 4lbs. The HP Chromebook 14, an extremely similar design, starts at $279.

Comments on the HP Stream rumors, thus far, appear to run primarily in two camps: 1. Wow, a Chromebook-killer! or 2. My nightmares, about netbooks, have returned! Let’s look at the hardware and software components that’ll make or break the experience.

The first thing to do is to select a hardware configuration that has a hope in hell of actually running Windows, well, in a light-medium multi-tasking environment. While it’s not explicitly called out,  the fact that there’s a 4GB memory configuration indicates this device will ship with 64 bit Windows, which impacts both memory and storage requirements. With the improvements in memory utilization in Windows 8 and 8.1, with the 2GB configuration, users should be able to run Office and similar weight desktop applications, well, or maintain 5+ average-sized Store apps in the backstack, without incessant app reloads. Furthermore, 32GB and 64GB eMMC parts are used, very different from the more typical 500GB platter disks in other value Windows notebooks. These parts should have an order of magnitude better random read/write performance, vastly improving the perceived responsiveness of the system.

The Stream’s CPU performance is a more interesting exercise in estimation. The AMD A4 Micro-6400T is from the new Mullins SoC family, designed to support fanless form factors, including tablets and ultraportables.  Starting from a known comparison point, the new Puma CPU cores are very similar to the Jaguar ones, found in the A4-1450 (Temash), except, power has been reduced and peak clock speeds increased. The A4-1450 had 1.0GHz base and 1.4GHz boost clocks, the 6400T maintains the base, but increases the boost, to 1.6GHz, while fitting into a 4.5W TDP (compared to the 8W TDP of the A4-1450). All in all, the 6400T should perform a bit better than the A4-1450, but last longer on battery.

A4-1450 performance data indicates the CPUs perform slightly worse than a Bay Trail (-T Z3770, Silvermont cores). Given the 6400T should be marginally faster, its performance should be similar to a Z3770, or to that of a Celeron N2920 (quad core Bay Trail-M). The Celeron N2920 is in turn essentially a quad core variant of the Celeron N2815, found in many of the new value Windows notebooks, listed earlier. In short, the CPU shouldn’t be a major bottleneck in the workloads expected of general users. The GPU should be significantly (50%) faster than a Bay Trail-T.

Atom Z3770 Celeron N2815 A4-1450 A4 Micro-6400T
Silvermont – 4C Silvermont – 2C Jaguar – 4C Puma – 4C
1.46-2.4GHz 1.86-2.0GHz 1.0-1.4GHz 1.0-1.6GHz
1.5X 1X CPU perf 1.3X 1.4X

A bunch of work was done in the Windows 8.1 Update to support wimboot, booting from a compressed Windows image file. The runtime image and the recovery image are the same, with only deltas, as the systems was used and updated, stored in the traditional “data” partition. This saves many gigabytes of user storage, particularly significant with small eMMC/SSD devices. In the case of a 64 bit client configuration, the totality of the install and winre wims runs on the order of 7-8GB. Combine that with the 1.5GB hiberfile (for a 2GB RAM system, which could be removed) and several hundred megabytes of the EFI System Partition and Microsoft Reserved partition, and total system used space is ~10GB. With the smallest storage configuration for the Stream, 32GB (represented in Windows as ~29.8GB – binary), the user should be left with just under 20GB of free space. Now, that estimate may be a bit optimistic, given there’s bound to be some number of preloaded applications and utilities.

Traditional Layout:

Partitions: System, MSR, WinRE, Windows, Recovery

WIMBoot Layout:

Partitions map: System, MSR, Windows, Images

Which brings us to potentially the make-or-break portion of the system configuration, software. It will depend so much on how HP loads the system with preloaded utilities, anti-virus/malware tools, and other value adds. I’ve seen so many hardware configuration that should be so capable, get brought to their knees by brutal anti-malware software (a Windows Explorer window taking more than a second to launch, with this particular anti-malware utility scanning the exe, taxing the CPU 35%). With very compressed margins, it’ll be more tempting than ever to try and make some money via software monetization and subscription conversions.

I’m very excited about the HP Stream. The combination of price, portability, and flexibility of Windows should make it popular, and if my predictions turn out to be true, a pretty well-performing option, as well. I see it as a good general purpose college laptop or a tossable machine around the home. I have to believe that with the stand-out price point and hence the amount of attention and marketing that will be placed on it, the combination of HP and Microsoft have worked hard to ensure that the experience is a good one. Otherwise, we’ll only restart the netbook flames, hotter than ever.