Sure portable computers are nice. It’s fun to just set up wherever you happen to be and work. Unfortunately wherever you happen to be is seldom a good place to set up a machine designed to be placed on a table in a relatively well-lit room while you are sitting on an ergonomically designed chair. The answer? Portable computers need to be integrated into what we wear, so putting on your computer in the morning is little different from remembering to strap a watch to your wrist. The technology is closing in on this goal, though no one that I’ve heard of has a design for it in the works. The Private Eye monitor technology from Reflection Technology puts a monitor on a headband (the viewing device is only a couple of inches large and uses optics to appear the size of a 12" display) and a friend who tried one claimed that it was wonderful to use, though a little hard on the eyes when used for extended time periods.
Keyboards are another sticky point, though a small chording keyboard could be easily attached to a belt without appearing bulky. Disk drives would be a pain, but many portables these days only have an internal hard drive anyway, so floppy access could be external and left at home. A mouse is also a problem, and current trackballs don’t really solve it. Something like Felix, a mini-joystick, or the UnMouse, a pointing tablet, mounted on the back of a chording keyboard might help, but more research would have to be done in that area. Of course, advances in handwriting and voice recognition would be nice too, but they might require a bit more thought before they would be as unobtrusive as a small chording keyboard with integrated pointing device.
The chip companies are doing their bit for smaller computers (pun not intended). Intel is reportedly working on a new version of the 386SX chip that will combine a 386SX processor with a cache and memory controller. A later version will include a 387SX math coprocessor. Both versions of the chip will have built-in sleep modes to conserve power, which is another bugaboo for lightweight portable computers. Intel is going farther too, with the Genesis chip, which integrates a 386SX, I/O ports, a memory controller, and a display controller on a single chip.
Not to be completely outdone, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) last week announced that they have succeeded in putting almost an entire IBM-AT-clone motherboard (286 CPU, memory controller, DMA [direct memory access] controllers, interrupt controllers, real-time clock, expanded memory manager, and a bus controller) on a single chip, the AM286ZX. Another chip, the AM286LX, will include power management functions as well, making it ideal for low-power portables. AMD says the chips will be available in 12, 16, and 20 MHz versions, and a computer with the 20MHz AM286LX chip will probably be as fast or faster than 386SX computers at the same clock speed. The speed increase is probably due to the closeness of the components on the chip in comparison to the closeness of the components when they are strewn around a motherboard.
AMD’s main problem is not with speed, but with the fact that the world is moving towards 32-bit chips like the 386 and 486 (not to mention the 68030 :-)). Many buyers are avoiding 286 machines because they are unable to run 32-bit applications or concurrent DOS applications. One way or another though, these chips point at an increased level of integration and power management, both of which will be necessary for tomorrow’s computer clothing.
Reflection Technology — 617/890-5905
Intel — 800/538-3373
AMD — 408/732-2400
Adam C. Engst — TidBITS Editor
InfoWorld — 01-Oct-90, Vol. 12, #40, pg. 6
PC WEEK — 03-Sep-90, Vol. 7, #35, pg. 1
PC WEEK — 01-Oct-90, Vol. 7, #39, pg. 1
PC WEEK — 01-Oct-90, Vol. 7, #39, pg. 137