Until a few months ago, whenever I went to a meeting where I needed to take notes or "tweet" the event from my laptop, the first thing I'd do was to look around for an electrical outlet because I was afraid that my computer's battery might not get me through the entire meeting. When traveling across the country, I would often chose Virgin America because -- as far as I know -- it has an electrical outlet at every seat.
But now I don't have to worry about my battery dying because the laptop I bought in June is equipped with an Intel (INTC) Haswell processor that uses a lot less energy than previous processors. I happen to have a MacBook Air, but the processor is being used on lots of other devices, including Microsoft's newest Surface tablets.
In the 30 years I've been using portable computing, I've used lots of laptops and each new crop had some minor improvements over the previous generation. But the jump in battery life from the Intel Core i7 processor in the laptop I bought in 2012 and the Haswell processor in my 2013 laptop are -- without any doubt -- the most important improvements I've ever experienced. Getting a better screen, more memory or more storage is nice. Upgrading to a machine you can use all day without a charge can be life-changing.
So I was very pleased to read that Intel CEO Brian Krzanich told analysts he expects to see new Haswell-equipped laptops coming out this year for under $300. Many of those will run Windows 8.1, but some will run Google's (GOOG) Chrome operating system. Acer has already announced a $250 Chromebook with a Haswell processor. So even though PC makers have to pay a fee to Microsoft to use Windows and would have to add additional storage to support Windows, it's not much of a leap to go from a $250 Chromebook to a $299 Windows PC using the same processor.
Krzanich also reportedly said he expects to see lots of $99 tablets running yet another Intel chip called Bay Trail. Like Haswell, Bay Trail is energy efficient -- expect about eight hours of battery life from these tablets. But it's not as powerful as Haswell, which seems to be the processor of choice for energy-efficient Windows and Mac laptops.
An eight-hour battery is no big deal in the tablet world (iPads are rated for 10 hours), but it's enough to get you through all but the longest international flights or an entire workday. PC World columnist Jared Newman speculated that we might see these lower-cost and lower-powered Bay Trail processors in Chromebooks, too.
Of course, most people don't think about the chips inside their devices any more than car buyers focus on the inner-working of their vehicle's powertrain. What we care about are things we can do with them and how well they fit into and enhance our lifestyles.
Appearance is important as well. Almost all PCs were ugly beige boxes until 1998, when Steve Jobs -- shortly after he returned to Apple (AAPL) -- introduced the colorful iMac desktop computers with their translucent cases. I went back and watched Jobs' introduction of the device, which he pitched as a computer "for the number one use consumers tell us they want a computer for, which is to get on the Internet simply and fast.'' That's pretty much the main application for the iPad as well and it's the only reason someone would buy a Google's Chromebook.
The fact that most people these days use their computers and tablets mostly to go online influences product design because it changes the equation in terms of what is important.
There was a time when Detroit mostly showcased its fast cars, as if that old car that could only go 90 miles per hour wasn't fast enough. The same can be said for processors in computers, tablets and phones. But when Apple announced that the iPhone 5s had a faster processor than the iPhone 5, hardly anyone cared. Because just like today's economy cars, the iPhone 5 was more than fast enough.
Even disk storage -- once an extremely important selling point for PCs -- is less of a factor today because of cloud storage. My laptop has only 256 gigabytes, a quarter of what most desktop PCs come with these days. But I'm only using 43 gigabytes of that storage because files that I don't use regularly are now stored online and available to download if I need them.
Back when I used an iPod to listen to music, I wanted as much storage as possible. But I'm OK with an iPhone with only 16 GB because most of the music I listen to is being streamed over the Internet, not stored on my device. And 16 GB is still enough to store more than 3,000 songs.
So the electronic devices that I've bought recently are smaller, cheaper and more energy efficient than the ones I used to own. That's also true of my cars. Sure, the Prius I bought two years ago has a lot less chrome than my dad's 1961 Chevy, but one of my laptops is pure Chrome.
Contact Larry Magid at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.