Despite its valiant attempts at creating a carnival atmosphere, when Microsoft launches a new operating system, it seldom feels like a world changing event in the world of design. Even the considerable hoopla surrounding the introduction of Windows XP was hardly like the introduction of the bikini or the Volkswagen Beetle, or dare we say it, the iPhone.
Instead, Windows fans tend to get their kicks from the solid virtues of better use of multithreaded processing, incremental increases in usability and a few nods towards the fun stuff. Next to the beauty of, say, a carved aluminum laptop casing packaged with matt black boxes, most PCs feel a bit utilitarian.
At least, that's how it used to be. But the latest wave of portable PCs that's due to break when Windows 7 ships this month seems to be adding a touch of style to the all business outlook that used to be the PC's stock in trade. Sure, productivity and practical considerations are there in spades, but there's a hint of glamour in the air too.
From the small and thin (the HP Mini and Toshiba Satellite T100 lines) to executive bling (Dell's Latitude Z and Sony's Vaio X), these Windows 7 portables are a far cry from the beaten metal beige boxes that we used to call IBM compatibles. Here's what to expect.
Microsoft has made faster boot up times a selling point of Windows 7, as have PC manufacturers such as Lenovo. And that's only the beginning of the overall go faster design of the next wave of notebooks.
Toshiba paid close attention to restore time when designing its new Satellite T100 line. These ultrathin notebooks weigh in at 3.5 pounds and are 1 inch thick (albeit without internal optical drives), and can wake up from hibernation to productivity in a little over two seconds. Toshiba achieved this almost instant on capability with a series of little BIOS tweaks, each of which shaves a fraction of a second off wake up tasks.
For people who want an even faster boot-up time, the HP ProBook 5310m takes things one step further. This 0.9 inch thick notebook features two applications that let you get online without even booting the system up at all: They operate outside of the notebook's operating system. Press a button and in around 20 seconds you're using a secure connection to the Internet to browse websites. Another utility, QuickLook3, handles email, calendar and contact information, also without needing to boot up Windows 7.
And to add a little glamor to the ProBook 5310m's productivity gains and 3.7 pound featherweight, this 13.5 inch ultraslim model comes in black anodised aluminum with a magnesium frame.
Adding high-touch to the high-tech
Touch computing has come a long way since the introduction of point of sale and banking touch screens. Today we think about touch computing less as pointing a finger and more as the kind of sweeping gestures we saw in science fiction movies like Minority Report.
Windows 7 supports the detection of multiple fingers and gesture based manipulation, like the pinch zooming that everyone showed you on their iPhone when they first got it. You can now pinch to shrink, move fingers apart to enlarge, twist to rotate, and flick to page through documents, as long as you pay a slight premium for touchscreen hardware.
A few major PC manufacturers are making this available on their portable lines. Lenovo is pumping up its existing ThinkPad X200 Tablet PC and slimline ThinkPad T400 by adding multitouch capabilities for around £120 over their usual prices.
These X200s and T400s will also debut a productivity tool called SimpleTap. You tap the screen with two fingers and a series of tiles pop up, front and center. These let you perform common tasks such as adjusting the screen brightness or system volume, setting the webcam and hibernating or locking the computer. You can create custom tiles to launch specific web pages or documents as well.
Toshiba is also launching two multitouch applications: ReelTime and Bulletin Board. ReelTime is a file timeline that lets you browse recent documents you've been working on with a sweep of the hand.
Bulletin Board is a more visceral and visual way of displaying documents in a project than Windows Explorer. You slap together pictures, documents, to do lists and other thumbnails onto a virtual corkboard, rearrange and resize them and work with them from there. Each image on the Bulletin Board is a shortcut to the existing documents in your document folders. In other words, you don't lose control of your filing structure by using Bulletin Board, you just gain another way of organising your work space.
Take a couple of tablets
Lenovo's ThinkPad X200 is by no means the only tablet PC to tap into Windows 7's multitouch capabilities. The Dell Latitude XT2 Tablet sports a dual digitiser to handle natural gestures like pinches and taps from even the gentlest touches, but keeps the positioning accurate enough for precision panning, rotating, zooming and so on. And it packs on the battery capacity too, with the option to add a six cell battery to give you almost 11.5 hours of work time. These extras pump the price up above the starting gate of £700, but if you've got to keep going, you'll want to pony up.
Meanwhile, Archos is so convinced that multitouch is the wave of the future that it has done away with the keyboard altogether in its £300 Archos 9 netbook sized tablet, or Internet Media Tablet, as the company prefers to call it.
Without a keyboard, the Archos 9 gets down to 0.68 of an inch thick, and allows its resistive screen to double as a keyboard. (If onscreen keyboards don't do it for you, you can connect a physical keyboard via Bluetooth.)
Small is beautiful
Netbooks were created for people who think that four pounds is just too heavy for a computer. Although there's nothing particularly Windows 7 specific about netbooks, a few new models will launch with Windows 7 as their standard platform.
And size isn't everything with these units. The HP Mini 311 is based on the Ion platform, which pairs the Intel Atom N270 CPU with a GeForce 9400M graphics processor. This renders an otherwise standard issue netbook (a ho hum 1GB RAM and 160GB hard drive, and such) into a relatively gaming-friendly device able to output 720p video.
For an opening price of £250, this is a pretty good deal, especially since the keyboard is fairly large, at about 92% of a standard notebook keyboard. HP reversed the crazy layout of the mouse keys on its previous touchpads: Instead of forcing thumb crunching moves to click to the right and left of the touchpad, the keys are in the notebook standard, under the pad position.
If the Mini 311's two choices of case color aren't enough to inspire design envy, the Mini line includes something considerably more stylish: the limited-edition Mini 110, with a casing by Danish industrial designer Tord Boontje. The design itself is a flora and animal motif that recalls the Victorian wallpaper designer William Morris, but it is etched into the casing with a 3D imprinting system that's bang up to date, and makes the etching look as deep as an architectural fresco.
Meanwhile, Sony is introducing its tiny 3G-mobile Vaio X series with Windows 7 Home Premium as its standard operating system.
The Vaio X comes with two batteries, one light and able to work for 3.5 hours, the other heavier and able to work for 14 hours. It features multitouch capability for zooming. And it incorporates a GPS to guide you to points of interest with turn by turn directions without the need for an Internet connection.
The netbook incorporates a solid state disk (SSD) for two obvious reasons: it makes Windows 7's rapid boot up even faster, and it enables an 11.1 inch subcompact notebook to get ridiculously thin, half an inch, to be exact. That's no thicker than most cell phones. And, at 1.6 pounds, it's light too. The key to that lightness is that Sony avoids metal wherever it can: Instead of a ground metal body, the company uses carbon fibre.
Carbon fibre is a lightweight, durable, and classy material that can easily be molded into some impressive lines, good if you're going for machine envy. In cars, the material's been used since the early 1980s to get one up on autos made of mere metal. That's why prestige vehicles like the Porsche 959 and McLaren F1 are built around it. What better material for a premium notebook computer, then?
Going for impact
At the other end of the scale, Dell will be launching a highly stylised 16-inch notebook called the Latitude Z, which packs an executive set of features into a slim body, with the kind of angular clipped design that's designed to make the people who bring MacBook Airs and Sony Vaios to business meetings wonder if they're behind the times. The company is bandying the term "executive bling" around, and the description isn't far from the mark.
With prices hovering between £1,300 and £1,800 (including one or two SSDs and an external optical drive), the Latitude Z line offers touch and fast start capabilities. Tap the discreet EdgeTouch switch next to the display and a touch menu of shortcuts pops up along the side of your screen.
And for people who don't have time to wait for a machine to boot (even at Windows 7 speeds), Dell's instant on technology bypasses both Windows and the regular CPU to provide access to web browsing, email, calendar and contacts: It uses a mini operating system and a secondary ARM processor.
The Latitude Z can be bundled with an extra that's even more impressive than its size, width and design: An inductive charger that lets you recharge the battery by resting the laptop on a special stand without using a plug at all.
Of course, there's another way to make an impact: Get very colorful. The 14-inch widescreens on Sony's Vaio CW series are impressive enough by themselves, especially if you try gaming with the built-in Nvidia GeForce graphics subsystem. Add the optional blu-ray drive and you'll be able to distract yourself with bright colors. But they're nothing compared to the bright colors you see when you close the thing up. The Vaio CW cases come in five different colors - red, pink, white, black and indigo, and they're all glossy.
The HP Envy line has gone more for a textured look. The lid and handrest in the reborn Voodoo Envy product line have been etched into a lightly dimpled orange-peel effect, which looks all the more impressive on a casing made of magnesium and aluminum.
For luxury styling models, the 13-inch Envy 13 and 15.6-inch Envy 15 start at reasonable prices, and have even emulated the stylish packaging of a certain Cupertino-based technology company.
The Envy line has same QuickWeb instant-on ability as the ProBook 5310m, but after that nod towards productivity, it's technolust all the way. Both models are about an inch thick and feature LED backlighting for their screens, which throws out a lot of light and bright color, 410 nits and 300 nits respectively, with an 82% color gamut that makes the standard screen's 50% to 60% look like watercolor.
Interestingly (considering the floodlight strength of the screen), the built-in camera has night vision capability. Presumably this helps you see envious people sneaking up behind you in the dark for a look over your shoulder. And also makes them look the shade of green you'd expect of the envious.
So that's the first breaking wave of Windows 7 portables, and we know that successive waves are coming in fast. When Windows 7 finally ships on 22 October, it may not completely change the horizon, you can't expect a sea change with every new product shipment, but it's certainly a departure from the usual Microsoft launch. And that's a wave worth surfing.