Intel Announces Project Athena Open Labs to Speed Hardware Deployment
When Intel announced Project Athena earlier this year, it wasn’t very clear what the actual project was. The original announcement was extremely vague, basically declaring that Intel would prioritize building laptops people wanted to buy, as opposed to laptops people would not want to buy.
Seriously. “Laptop innovation rooted in human understanding,” is the sort of phrasing that makes people hate marketing campaigns. Intel has now stated that Athena is expected to deliver nine full hours of battery life under real-world conditions, which at least constitutes a target we can test against. The company has also stated it will open three new laboratories to make sure that hardware chosen for the program will fulfill target requirements.
The new labs in Taipei, Shanghai, and Folsom, CA will collectively test individual components for certification with the Project Athena program. Laptops that are shipped under PA are expected to offer features like 5G, AI, near-instant sleep resumption, and up to 20 hours of battery life — except, of course, two of these aren’t anywhere near ready for prime time. Intel has canceled its 5G modem and there are no AI accelerators expected for inclusion in-hardware that quickly.
The point of Project Athena appears to be to compete with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon-powered Always Connected PCs, but it’s also unclear if anyone can build a Windows-powered ARM PC actually worth buying. To date, the hardware we’ve seen has featured strong battery life, but weak fundamental performance thanks to the need to emulate the x86 instruction set. It is exceptionally difficult for any CPU to offer competitive performance compared with a native architecture in a general-purpose emulator — in the past, these sorts of improvements only occur when there’s a huge leap in speed that can offset the intrinsic loss of efficiency inherent to emulation.
Intel supposedly will work with vendors to make sure they both develop and use low-power technology to deliver significant gains in battery life before these laptops hit the market in 2020. Improvements in battery life are always welcome, but they’ve also become harder and harder for companies to deliver. These days, it’s far more common to see improvements in specific tasks, like decoding a particular video codec, then for companies to deliver a general overall gain.
We should expect some improvements from Intel’s 10nm process as well, when it arrives. But past those gains, it isn’t clear what readers should actually expect. If every manufacturer delivered the battery improvements they promise year-on-year, instead of promptly cutting power in one area and slashing battery capacity to make the laptop a half-ounce lighter, we would already have laptops that lasted six weeks on six minutes of AC power. Instead, companies typically take whatever improvements Intel or AMD deliver, then cut battery capacities or boost screen resolution to promptly ruin them. Given this, we expect the actual gains delivered by Project Athena — or any laptop improvement project from AMD or Intel — to be a fraction of the amount claimed by marketing departments.