Intel once again showed it’s clout in the PC industry at Computex 2019. It is almost impossible to build a great PC without Intel chipsets. While AMD is making progress with Ryzen, Intel’s lead is hard to surpass. Even when the whole PC industry continues to decline, Intel keeps making progress. It unveiled 10nm Ice Lake architecture for thin and light laptops. It also debuted Core i9-9900KS as the first processor to hit 5GHz on all cores. While it forms the backbone to current generation of PCs, it could be central to future form factors as well. That future is already in the making and it’s called Project Athena.
Intel’s vision for the future is one where computers will be as mobile as your tablets and as instantaneous as your smartphones. You might think it sounds like Ultrabook all over again, but there is real difference. While Ultrabook was mainly an answer to Apple MacBook Air, Project Athena is an answer to evolving needs. In other words, it is not an answer to a consumer product, it’s rather a choice to consumers. Intel describes Project Athena as an innovation program “designed to deliver advanced laptops.”
What is the purpose of Project Athena?
Project Athena is not just about transforming laptops. It is instead about designing new class of laptops for on-the-go experience. “PC is the office,” said Gregory Bryant, Senior VP and GM, Client Computing Group, Intel. If PC is the new office, then it needs to evolve. It needs to be contextually aware, always active and always available. With Project Athena, Intel is making these terms as “Key Experience Indicators” for its OEM partners.
The Athena 1.0 Specifications focus on following areas – Performance, Battery Life, Connectivity, Form Factor and AI. The Project Athena-based laptops will not only be thinner and lighter, they will also be intelligent. “Project Athena is a customer led focus, and it is about an experience we’re trying to deliver,” Josh Newman, General Manager, Mobile Innovation at Intel told BGR India. “We are building on all the goodness Ultrabook brought over the last seven or eight years. We are focusing on the emerging customer, who is an independent contractor or freelancer. People who want to work everywhere, want to get through the day and have their laptop adapt to them, they want to be always ready.”
In order to make Project Athena adapt to new set of users, Intel changed the way it approached key indicators. All Project Athena-based laptops will be rated to last for up to nine hours. That battery life is based on real-world use case and not video loop tests previously used to benchmark laptops. Intel is calling Project Athena-based laptops as capable of delivering all-day battery life. In order to set battery benchmark, Newman says Intel studied how people use their PCs and Project Athena is designed to deliver on their expectations.
Project Athena Use Case
“There’s usually six, seven things open in the background and the screen is usually at a set brightness. Wi-Fi is obviously always connected, you know, most of the time,” Newman explains typical use of a laptop. He adds that people also watch videos in airplane mode, which conserves battery. “So, we make sure we are tuning and getting the battery life on this real-world use conditions.”
All the Project Athena laptops will use the 10th generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 mobile processors. These processors are based on 10nm Ice Lake architecture, which brings performance improvements alongside efficiency. But the real game changer will be instant action. Intel expects Project Athena-based laptops to wake up within a second. Most ultrabooks in the market take around 10 seconds to wake up. Newman claims that Project Athena devices will reach the authentication screen within a second. This alone will make Project Athena laptops work like smartphones, which are always on and always active.
Intel is achieving this new benchmark by working with component makers as well as OEMs. “The key thing about the one second resume time is working with all the components ecosystem, getting all the components to be compliant to the connected modern stand by specification,” Newman explains. He adds that if all the components stick to hygiene standards then one second wake time is achievable. “We are focused on getting to that ability to authenticate within a second and we can do it, we have to make sure that all of the hygiene is done on all the components on the platform and OEMs are following the right recipes to do it.”
While Project Athena aims to achieve one second wake time on laptops, Intel wants to reduce it to zero. The Santa Clara-based chip maker is experimenting with ambient computing where devices are aware of their surroundings. It envisions laptops embedded with sensors that can detect the user walking up to the laptop. The sensor immediately wakes the computer. So, when you open the lid, you have the authentication screen. The experience will be similar to waking up your iPhone.
Intel says it cannot reduce the authentication time, since it might involve fingerprint reader or iris scanners and other biometric means. But it aims to get laptop users to the authentication screen in a time never seen before. “In future versions, the laptop can be more aware of the environment around it. It can know when you’re walking up to it, or it can know when you’re walking away from it,” Newman said about ambient computing. “By knowing those things, it can start pre-fetching, getting ready to wake. So, when you make the initiation, it can be even faster because of these things.”
Watch: Intel Computex 2019 Announcements
Intel Project Athena Open Labs
The real difference between Athena and Ultrabook is that Intel does not leave it at specifications. The Project Athena Open Labs will test and certify these modern laptops. Jim Johnson, Vice President & General Manager, Engineering at Intel, explained that it has developed co-engineering partnerships with the OEMs over the last five or more years. With Athena, Intel and its partners will build on top on existing engineering partnership.
Intel has opened these labs in Taipei, Shanghai and California to support performance and low-power optimization of vendor components. The Project Athena Open Labs will serve as first step in preparation of next wave of designs. These designs will target to achieve the specifications shared by the chipmaker. Intel says devices that fail to optimize will not form a part of the Athena group.
Future of Project Athena
Intel plans to revise these specifications for Project Athena at least once every year. We could see 2.0 specifications for Project Athena at Computex next year. “We will keep raising the bar on the key experience indicators and incorporate what we continue to learn from our customers,” Newman adds.
The first set of Project Athena-based laptops like the XPS 13 2-in-1 launched at Computex do not come with any branding. Intel plans to fix that in the second half of this year. “In 2H’19 Intel is planning to showcase the new designs that are in the Project Athena innovation program,” Intel spokesperson said in an email response. “Intel plans to continue to increase its marketing of the Project Athena innovation program and OEM designs through 2020 and years to come. More details on how that marketing plan will evolve over time will be shared in the future.”