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Intel’s Project Athena could make laptops better, if only it had teeth

Roughly years ago, Intel flexed its enormous power as one of the PC industry’s leading component manufacturers to improve the quality of the world’s laptops with one word: “Ultrabook.” Intel poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a marketing campaign for the industry’s latest laptops, but the publicity came with a condition: those laptops would have to meet exacting standards for thinness, weight, responsiveness and battery life.

Facing down the sizable challenge of the then-amazing MacBook Air, the PC industry signed on — and within a few years, the quality of Windows hardware had undeniably changed for the better. Flimsy plastic machines gave way to metal, less lag became the norm, and incredible machines like the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre x360 emerged from the melee.

Now, Intel’s trying to take laptops to the next level once again with a new program called Project Athena. But today, we’re learning that Intel forgot to bring the most important component: an actual brand.

As we discovered earlier this month, Project Athena isn’t going to be a meaningless marketing campaign. In fact, Intel has set its sights on killing off one of the biggest lies the PC industry ever told laptop buyers: battery life.

Intel says Project Athena laptops will need to deliver 9 hours of real-world battery life, browsing the web over Wi-Fi, with their screen set to a level of brightness (250 nits) that a user might actually have in the real world. This is important, because today’s laptop benchmarks are anything but — when a PC maker says your new machine gets 24 hours of battery life, they’re typically measuring that by playing back a video that barely taxes the processor, with Wi-Fi off, and low screen brightness to boot. Who uses a laptop like that?

And today, we’re learning that battery life is just the beginning. Project Athena laptops will need to wake from sleep in under a second, be ready to browse the web in under two seconds, and have the same sort of responsiveness on battery that they have when plugged into the wall — plus come with touchscreen displays, precision touchpads (trust us, it’s a must), the latest Wi-Fi 6 and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, and enough RAM (8GB) and speedy NVMe solid state storage (256GB) to tackle the basics for most users.

And Intel isn’t just going to leave these things up to the manufacturers. It’s going to test the crap out of some of these things itself, particularly battery life and responsiveness, because Intel believes they’re the basis for PCs that actually satisfy modern users’ needs.

Basically, Intel is telling the world it’s going to keep manufacturers from cheating, in many of the ways they typically cheat when they’re cheaping out on one of the necessary components of a machine. And Intel says it’ll raise the bar each year, like it did with Ultrabook, to make sure the “Key Experience Indicators” (see earlier slide) of a good laptop experience are being satisfied with each new machine.

I’d be in awe, if there wasn’t one glaring hole compared to the successful Ultrabook campaign: There is no consumer-facing Project Athena brand. You won’t actually see it when you walk into a store. It won’t be on marketing materials. There will be no clear way to tell slightly-less-PC-savvy friends and relatives that they should really look for a Project Athena laptop to guarantee they’re getting a good experience, instead of anything else that might draw their eye on the Best Buy or Walmart or Amazon shelf.

And that means there’s no clear incentive for manufacturers to actually sign on either, to actually compete to build new Project Athena machines and raise the bar for the entire industry. I suspect OEMs will merely submit laptops that they already know will succeed — and I wonder if it’ll get much adoption even then. Manufacturers seem to be awfully fond of being able to advertise that their laptops can last 24 hours on battery, and I can’t see them easily agreeing to instantly chop that number in half.

Intel says they get access to Intel-developed technologies sooner, like its low power displays, but it’s hard to imagine that Intel will suddenly keep ideas like that to a narrower range of partners if it can profit from that intellectual property.

Intel says this is just the first year for Project Athena, and it may incorporate a brand or a marketing campaign later. For now, it sounds like a good idea without any teeth.

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