Three Developments in Mobile Computing that Promises Smaller, Faster, Better Devices, smart phones, tablets, and all
Every day new technological developments promises smaller, faster devices with less battery consumption. Currently there are several technologies in development that promises more efficient CPU(s) and better power generation and retention.
Some of these technologies and techniques are revolutionary, by inventing completely different techniques to achieve the same ends, instead of refining existing techniques.
A development in England has the potential of putting solar cells UNDER your LCD screen so not only it can catch ambient light to recharge your batteries, it may be able to recycle some of the backlight that is used to make your screen visible.
New development in fuel cells means a battery sized fuel cell that promises stable delivery of power in a VERY compact size for a very long time through hydrogen generators. This is more efficient than bringing your own generators, and have less environmental impact.
And finally, a new type of processor, known as "UPU", or "universal processing unit", promises to reunite the separate GPU (graphical processing unit) and CPU (central processing unit) and have multiple cores again cross sharing all the tasks with more efficient use of the resources, resulting in smaller devices that is more power efficient.
Let us explore these upcoming technologies.
A solar cell... UNDER your display?
The idea of embedding a solar cell under your LCD display actually isn't new. The way a LCD display works is a light source from under the LCD panel shines THROUGH the LCD panel, which selectively blocks some of the pixels (through separate layers to produce different colors) which gives the color. That works both ways, as light can penetrate the LCD display itself and reach the flat surface UNDER the LCD panel(s). So some engineers asked... why not put a solar cell UNDER the panels? A variety of patents have covered this area over the years. Motorola applied for one in 2007, Apple applied for one as well in 2008.
The latest twist out of a researcher in London however, is figuring out that the "backlight" (that light source under the LCD panels) actually only sends little over ONE THIRD of its light through the LCD. In other words, 2/3s of the energy in the backlight is wasted. So his idea is to recapture that energy... through a series of solar cells built around the LCD backlight as well as in the back panel, so both ambient light AND recaptured backlight can be used to power the phone.
The prototype thus far only captures about 12% of the light, but that can be improved with a bit of engineering. Given that the display consumers the most power in any mobile phone or other mobile devices (on my own Android phone it takes up like 50% of all power usage), this can result in a significant bump in battery life.
Practical Fuel Cell Technology
Most fuel cells require pure hydrogen, and storing and transporting hydrogen, which is flammable, is not exactly same and inexpensive. Thus, development of miniature fuel cell and fuel cell-powered devices have languished... until now.
Instead of transporting pure hydrogen, a non-toxic chemical compound is transported instead. This compound, when gently heated, releases hydrogen. The leads to small fuel cells that's no much larger than your smart phone, that can supply power. Currently, you can buy a fuel cell size of a paperback book (maybe a little bigger), with fuel "cans" size of a can of tuna. The cost of the "fuel" is similar to single-use AA Alkaline batteries but lasts much much longer.
One such item was the Horizon Fuel Cell MiniPak 1.5W, using a refillable hydrogen storage tank based on metal hydrides, and thus stable for transport. The fuel cell fits in your pocket, supplies power via USB port, and each mini-tank holds 10 Watt-hours, easily more than 10 times than an equivalent AA battery. You can buy a home refill system too (each tank is refillable up to 1000 times). Cost is about $100.
A competitor, myFC from Europe, showed off Powertrekk at CES 2012, using "PowerPukk", a fuel canister size of small tuna fish can. The device is available in Europe for $199 Euros (about $299 USD) and the PowerPukk fuel canisters are about $12 for pack of 3. Each PowerPukk claims to hold 4 Watt-hours, and the device has internal backup battery with about 1500 mAh of capacity (about your average cell phone battery). This one though, requires a tiny bit of water (about one tablespoon-ful) to work.
Further developments in this area means it won't be long before even smaller containers with greater capacities hit the market.
A New Idea in Mobile CPU... the UPU
Very few companies are willing to invest in a completely new CPU architecture nowadays, unless it promises something truly extraordinary. Intel's x86 architecture and ARM architecture are the dominant forces now, and they really haven't changed much for the past several DECADES. So it was a surprise that a new Chinese company called ICube says they are working on a brand new CPU architecture that will be even more efficient than the current ARM processors. Their innovation: recombining the GPU and the CPU. Though this requires a little tech history.
When CPU (Central Processing Unit) first came along, CPU do everything. Video cards are basically dumb converters that turns video memory addresses into analog patterns to be displayed on the monitor, nothing more. However, as videos get more sophisticated, and display resolution size steadily crept upwards and color resolution also increased, it was realized that a separate processor is best used to process the video information, which requires raw speed, not complex computations. Thus is born the GPU, or graphics processing unit, that powers modern video cards.
The modern GPU is a very powerful beast, often containing more silicon gates than a regular CPU, but with very different architecture, that specializes in processing simple calculations, but a huge number of them, very quickly. Modern GPUs can be programmed via "shaders" that controls how effects can be applied to each pixel. CPU, on the other hand, is supremely flexible in all sorts of calculations, but may not be fast in all areas. Still, the modern CPU, with AMD 3DNow! and Intel's MMX then later SSE extensions, have many of the GPU characteristics.
Another factor to consider: most CPUs nowadays are "CISC", or complex instruction set computing, where one instruction can do all sorts of manipulations, but may take several clock cycles. Intel's x86 architecture is a CISC type architecture. A different sort of CPU is called RISC, or "reduced instruction set computing". The instructions in a RISC CPU do a bit less, but as a result the CPU can do a lot of them faster. ARM architecture is RISC.
However, mobile devices now need graphics power as well, and ARM CPUs are not equipped with a GPU or integrated into a "System on a Chip", or "SOC", such as the NVIDIA Tegra 3 which contains the GPU and other things needed for a full system. When GPU is not in use, it is just sitting there, taking up space.
So the designers at ICube basically saw how RISC CPUs are basically reducing the complexity of the CPU, while the GPUs are getting more and more sophisticated every day, and asked a fundamental question: why can't we just have a multi-core device that can do the job of both CPU and GPU as the need requires, as they are so similar already? The core(s) can do the job of both CPU and GPU, so there is no silicon sitting there idle.
The result is "Harmony Unified Computing Architecture".
The first version, IC1, is due out in 2012 with 2 cores, that they claim to offer higher performance than current ARM Cortex-A9 Dual Core, yet similar in size and power consumption, while using the older 64 nm silicon technology. Within a few years they'll scale up to 4-8 cores and consume less power as well as greater performance without using a separate GPU, reducing cost and size as well. The end result is a "SOC" (system-on-chip) that just need memory and peripherals to make a phone or tablet, resulting in lower costs.
This is one of the more interesting development in CPU space in recently years, but also one of the most... doubtful. However, it seem to be backed up by good people: one was a senior engineer at NVIDIA and the other worked on 64-bit CPU compiler projects. The question is, can they actually deliver what they promised? Still, it bears watching.
2012 will be an interesting year. One can expect fuel cells to shrink and costs decrease even further, and the new UPU may change the way CPUs are designed forever.
Mobile computing and handheld computing are moving rapidly with promise of longer operating life and less power consumption, as well as more power than ever at your fingertips. Stay tuned.