Intel’s Project Athena aims for laptops with both power and battery life

PCs are dogged by tradeoffs. It’s hard to use your laptop all day on battery, get real work done during a two-minute break waiting for your train, or work hard when you’re not plugged into an electrical outlet.

Intel noticed.

The giant chipmaker is leading a multi-company, multiyear effort called Project Athena to address those tradeoffs. Athena’s goal: Make us love our laptops the way we love our phones. Laptops meeting Project Athena standards will be fast to process data and play games, snappy to wake up, useful all day on one battery charge and endowed with higher-end features. 

The first are due to arrive this holiday shopping season. Thus far the only model we know of is the Lenovo Yoga S940, which was briefly shown off onstage at Intel’s Computex keynote. 

No longer would you need to be afraid that answering email over afternoon coffee will mean your laptop’s battery is flat when you’re trying to edit some photos on the train ride home.

Last year, Intel began meeting with component makers and other PC industry players, says Chris Walker, head of Intel’s PC group. Athena laptops will be premium models costing $1,200 and up, but some of their benefits should trickle down to the whole market, he said.

The chip giant has mapped out annual improvements for specific measurements, with steady improvements coming year after year. One example for 2019: Project Athena laptops will need to complete a biometric login process in a second or less after a laptop lid is opened, says Sudha Ganesh, Intel’s senior director of systems and solutions assessments. An Athena gets an additional second to connect connect to Wi-Fi.

Other 2019 goals call for a “worry-free day of battery life,” a screen that’s bright for outdoor use, a high-precision trackpad, fast Thunderbolt data ports, mechanisms to let AI software intelligently manage the PC hardware, and network access even when the laptop is in standby so you won’t have to wait to check for new email.

Intel is detailing Project Athena at the Computex show in Taiwan along with its coming Ice Lake chips, Intel’s first processor overhaul since 2015.

Project Athena and modern PC usage

The project is rooted in Intel’s observations about how many of us are using our laptops these days. Many of us use the same machine for personal and work use, perhaps, or open our laptop briefly after dropping the kids at school. Intel calls these customers “mobile go-getters,” but really, it’s just about anybody.

“It’s not just a program about certain specs,” said Forrester analyst Christopher Voce. “It’s a partnership to create devices people love and get value out of.”

Intel's Project Athena aims to improve a wide range of PC abilities at the same time.

Intel’s Project Athena aims to improve a wide range of PC abilities at the same time.


Intel

Intel knows full well that we use our phones for a lot of what once required a PC. Smartphones “set the bar for what it means to compute when you’re mobile — connectivity, worry-free battery life,” Walker said. Athena is designed to make PCs a better choice when on the go.

Project Athena begins with Lakefield chips

Project Athena will begin with Intel’s “Lakefield” processors, the first models to incorporate Intel’s Foveros technology for stacking multiple “chiplets” together into one flexible, higher-performing chip.

Specifically, Lakefield-powered Athena PCs will benefit from the marriage of a large, fast “Sunny Cove” processing core for high-performance needs and four smaller, efficient cores to cut power use at other moments, said David Kanter, an analyst at Real World Tech. Sunny Cove is the heart of the Ice Lake chip that Intel hopes will bring better performance and battery life to laptops later this year.

Intel will spend marketing money to promote the idea, much as it did with its “ultrabook” effort to get PC makers and consumers excited about slim, fast notebooks.

“Ultrabooks started premium, and it took seven years before 40% of the market hit thin and light,” said Josh Newman, Intel’s general manager of mobile innovation. “We want to accelerate that.”


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