“As an engineer, we know that an idea can’t change the world unless it’s out in the world,” said Gurpreet Sandhu, Intel Reference Design team leader, the program dedicated to making the cutting edge a new reality.
The Reference Design Program has been active for several years, but remote working and virtual education over the last year revealed new pain points, bringing performance, quieter PCs, audio, and video clarity to the forefront of people’s minds. Fortunately, Intel and our partners were already ahead of the curve, designing new laptops to meet those needs. “The pandemic has brought the focus completely onto the laptop,” Sandhu said.
Gokul Subramaniam, vice president of Intel’s Client Computing Group, leads the system technology innovations and reference designs teams, including Gupreet Sandhu, to bring new PCs to market. “Many people think of Intel as a CPU company,” Subramaniam added. “But do they know we worked with Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold team that brought many Intel technologies and system innovations, beyond the CPU, into the final product? That design originated as part of our Reference Design Program — we called it Horseshoe Bend.” Horseshoe Bend is just one example of how the program helped to accelerate new innovation into a product.
But it all begins with our architects, system engineers, and ecosystem partners who work with our customers. “We created the Intel Reference Design Program to help partners dream up what the future of laptops could be,” said Subramaniam.
The Making of the Reference Design
The PC innovation process begins with a meeting of the minds. Intel’s Reference Design Program brings together engineers and partners from across the ecosystem to solve new challenges and advance the computing. The Reference Design Program engages partners a full year or two before a product launch. The program engineers want to know what chassis and form factor the design must fit into, and then we combine those requirements with countless hours of people-centered research and development that ensures the technology is grounded in what people want and need in their PCs.
Knowing our partners’ timelines and knowing what they want the final product to look speeds up time to market and ensures the technology meets our performance goals and improves people’s experience using the technology.
The design team worked with thermal engineering, architecture, system engineers, and partner co-engineers to make a worry-free day of battery life the new industry standard. The design team shrunk the size of the motherboard, providing more real estate for larger battery trays. The smaller motherboard sits underneath the keyboard and now takes up the size of only two rows. They also reduced the power wattage of the displays to use as much power as possible for performance, without compromising on the visual experience. Taking on the problem holistically created a new industry standard of battery life and sleek, premium laptops.
How did we continue to raise the bar for battery life while keeping laptops thin? Enabling our display vendors by bringing the right target specification for power and integrating that into the reference designs reduced the display from the industry standard of 2.5 watts to 1 watt, conserving that power for other applications. Our ecosystem partner challenged the Reference Design Program team to reduce their display’s power and achieve edge-to-edge viewing capability. This challenge required new approaches in antenna design. We moved the antennas for Wi-Fi and the cellular modem from the bezel surrounding the display to the base of the PC. One-watt displays with stunning edge-to-edge viewing capability are now common across several computing manufacturers like ASUS, Dell, HP, and Lenovo.
Our global PC partners continue to push the boundaries of thin and lightweight laptops. The tallest hurdle is figuring out how to maintain thin profiles and keep the laptops ultra-lightweight while improving performance and cooling. The reference design team uses the latest motherboard, battery, thermal cooling, and other system technologies to continue to shrink the motherboard and silicon chip-area size so our partners can maintain thin cases without compromising on the performance. High performance and portability are critical for customers’ laptop experience.
Social Science Insights and Real-World Performance Testing
Improving laptop experiences is not simply measured by speed tests, benchmarks, or numbers on a spreadsheet. Gokul Subramaniam and the engineering team consider all elements of the experience, including audio, video, cameras, antennas, sensors, battery life, and even the look and feel of a premium form factor. And since everyone experiences technology differently, the Reference Design Program keeps our partners and their specific needs in mind when building designs. This requires human insights.
For example, according to our internal user experience research, we learned that on-the-go laptop users, whom we call the “Mobile Go-Getter,” prefer thin and light laptops so they can work anywhere they want — from a local coffee shop to a less-than-roomy airplane seat. Creatives and gamers, on the other hand, need to use high-power applications without frustrating lag times. We bring these insights to our partners and co-engineers, and they bring their insights and unique perspectives to us. Then, we go forward together.
How Intel Collaborates with Our OEM Partners to Co-Engineer the Most Cutting-Edge Performance Laptops
“The Reference Design Program is the culmination of 50 years of co-engineering and innovation with our partners,” Intel system architect Aiswarya M. Pious said, including Acer, ASUS, Dell, Google, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, and Samsung. We define success by how often our partners adopt our designs and how well it improves laptop experience.
“Very simply, everybody using PCs to do everything virtually is the biggest moment of satisfaction for the team,” Subramaniam said. The tasks everyday people do on their laptops — from chatting and creating presentations to listening to music and playing games — all include elements that the reference design team and our partners developed.
“From using the PC for remote education to being able to use the camera and the audio effectively, I think this past year has given us many examples of why we feel so fulfilled to be working in the industry.” — Gokul Subramaniam
Creating a Feedback Loop
That’s why we have a continuous communication pipeline in the Intel partner program. This feedback loop becomes a back-and-forth conversation over what’s innovative, what’s workable, what’s scalable and what will push the boundaries of performance and user experience. And our preliminary discussions and reference designs are only the beginning. Nearly four years ago, Subramaniam and his team decided they needed to build a pipeline that was completely in sync with our partners and the industry. The design process is iterative and agile. Brainstorming sessions between our OEM product leaders and co-engineers are often spent figuring out what our OEM partners want and need in their next product and going back to the drawing board.
Bringing All the Expertise to the Table
How do you make the battery larger yet keep the clamshell the same size? How do you keep the number of antennae running around the lid yet have the widest infinity displays? Sound complicated? That’s because it is. We have the brightest minds in a (virtual) room together to hash out these problems, rank experiences and pose new design ideas. We then complete extensive validation processes with our specifications.
Subramaniam and his team create a prototype to prove the technology works and if their hypothesis is proven. Then they take the prototype through high-volume capability to ensure the technology and its applications are manufacturable and scalable. Sometimes, they flight it through our ecosystem partners’ environments. “There is a lot of co-innovation, working side by side with our partners,” Subramaniam said. By the time the specification is complete, our OEM partners will know precisely how they can bring the system technologies into a product and how to bring that product to the market.
The Reference Design Process
Teamwork has led to remarkable advancements in mobile computing, including worry-free battery life, low-wattage displays and performant ultra-lightweight laptops. Human-centered design and creative collaboration ensure that our partners deliver exactly what people want in a computer, even though our teams create these designs two years before they become products. With ongoing research and continuous use of feedback, the reference designers anticipate what people need and take away the pain points before users even have to experience them. “It’s extremely gratifying for us when we take some of these innovations and see how people are using that product to make a difference in their lives,” Subramaniam said.
All Hands on Deck
Our physical architecture teams, platform engineering teams, software teams, customer co-engineers, and program management teams all work together to ensure each piece is ready for launch. Our Intel engineers measure success by how often our OEMs and ODMs adopt our reference designs for their products and how well we’ve provided novel and immersive experiences. Gokul Subramaniam addressed our partners, “The success of our innovations is defined by how much they are adopted by your users.”
Looking to the Future of PC Innovation
The engineering ecosystem, our vendors, social scientists, and architecture and platform engineers have driven incredible advancements. The Reference Design Program personifies our value of One Intel because we collaborate to anticipate new needs and change the world together, especially when the unexpected happens. The recent pandemic challenged the reference design teams to explore education and healthcare in new ways. Within months, most of the world shifted to remote working, attending virtual school, and using telemedicine. Many people will still want that flexibility, good connectivity, and high performance in those experiences. We’ll be ready.
The team is already exploring affordable laptops to connect students in rural areas worldwide. We want students to have valuable experiences, and equitable and affordable education wherever they are. “This is going to level the playing field for low-income areas around the world […] It’s about lifting people up,” emphasized Subramaniam.
Together, the Reference Design Program and our partners will continue to advance the industry through ambitious designs for the laptops people need. Subramaniam, his team and Intel’s partners have committed to future innovation where it matters most. “That’s what inspires us to innovate in the first place,” architect Aiswarya Pious said. “And that is Intel Reference Design.”