At CES 2020 during Intel’s keynote, the chip maker spent a great deal of time discussing and outlining the progress made on the Project Athena front with 25 devices already in the market and at least 25 more planned for 2020. They took the time to not only outline exactly what the Project Athena effort is all about, but they also explained a new partnership with Google while showing off the new Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and ASUS Chromebook Flip C436 to the world.
For many, however, it isn’t abundantly clear what exactly what Project Athena is, why it matters, and what it has to do with Chromebooks. Moreover, it isn’t clear why this partnership is so important for the Chromebook ecosystem as a whole. We want to make it a bit more crystalline why we think the Intel/Google partnership is not just important, but exciting as well.
What is Project Athena?
Let’s start with the basics of what Project Athena actually is. Intel introduced this platform about a year ago in an effort to help multiple manufacturers deliver better, thinner, higher-quality laptops to the market. They set a standard based on things they’ve found real users actually want in a laptop. Things that are important to users are required for Project Athena certified devices, like:
- quickly waking from sleep in less than a second
- biometric login options
- Core i5 or i7
- at least 8GB of RAM
- at least 256GB of NVMe storage
- 9+ hours of battery with real world usage
- 16+ hours of battery on looped local video playback
- quick charge to 4 hours of battery in less than 30 minutes
- Thunderbolt 3
- WiFi 6
- LTE options
- ultra thin 2-in-1 and clamshell designs
- 12-15″ 1080P touch displays (or better)
- narrow bezels
- backlit keyboards
- great trackpads
- pen support
That is an intense list for any device, Chromebook or not. A laptop with those internals and features will perform in nearly every way possible, and it is exciting to already see a couple Chrome OS options like this in the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and ASUS Chromebook Flip C436. These Chromebooks meet all the necessary KEI (key experience indicators) that Intel requires to fit in the Project Athena lineup and get that coveted “Engineered for Mobile Performance” sticker that will let buyers know the device they are looking at meets the Project Athena standards. Granted, I wish the sticker was simply on the box or something as I think we can all agree that slapping stickers on a laptop as beautiful as the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook is just a crime.
What this means for Chromebooks
Before we go on, looking at the things that make up a Project Athena laptop, you should recognize that Chromebooks already hit many points on this list. They wake instantly from sleep, get great battery life, employ Core i5 and i7 processors, have 1080P (and better) displays, backlit keys, narrow bezels, fantastic trackpads, and pen support. What does Project Athena bring to the table for Chrome OS, then?
Well, first off, we don’t have all of those great specs in a single device that we can buy right now. We don’t have options with NVMe, WiFi 6, and Thunderbolt 3 all on board. And we certainly don’t have devices that put that entire list of great specs up there all together in one package. Again, at least not in a package we can go out and buy right now.
It’s important to specify that we can’t buy a device this well-endowed right now since both the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and ASUS Chromebook Flip C436 actually do have all those things. All of them. And I doubt they will be alone in the market for the entirety of 2020, either. In fact, I’d bet we’ll see Project Athena devices from Acer, Dell, Lenovo, Google, and HP before the year comes to a close. With an expected 50 total Project Athena devices slated for availability by the close of 2020, if 7-10 of those are Chromebooks, that would be a great start to this new partnership between Google and Intel.
Google is clearly ready to begin moving more aggressively into the consumer and enterprise markets with these devices, and they aren’t really being shy about that fact. In a pre-CES interview, John Solomon, Google VP of Chrome OS had this to say:
This is a significant change for Google. Chromebooks were successful in the education sector initially, but in the next 18 months to two years, our plan is to go broader, expanding to consumer and enterprise users. Those users have greater expectations and a broader idea of how to use these devices. That puts the onus on us to deliver more performance.
In order to become more competitive, however, Google and Intel both need a solution that is quite a bit more vertically integrated. Think about how Apple does this with iPad and iPhone. With a single company controlling the hardware, software, and manufacturing, they can collaborate in ways that truly bring out the best in their devices. The team that makes the internal chips can clearly work with the software team to leverage every portion of possible performance. And then those teams can clearly communicate with the designers and hardware teams on how to best put those qualities on display in the final product.
This idea is called vertical integration, and Apple does a superb job of taking full advantage of it. We all know Intel isn’t making a laptop anytime soon and Google is clearly not ready to even think about producing its own chipsets, so how do these companies make something with a similar focus and attention to detail? Project Athena.
You can see in the above video that this is the crux of the idea for Intel and its partners. Create a great baseline with great tools and let device manufacturers go build great devices with them. The early products of this approach are clearly intriguing and the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook showcases this effort brilliantly. With Chromebooks like this, companies like Samsung didn’t have to sit around and bother with what things to put in or leave out of their Chromebook: they had to hit all the right metrics to be qualified as a Project Athena device so that’s what they included from a spec and feature standpoint.
Instead of messing with those types of details, you can see they took time to think about things like form factor, color, feel, and design. The Galaxy Chromebook likely looks and feels the way it does because its maker could focus on those options instead of which processor, WiFi module, or memory type to use. With an integrated platform like Project Athena, the capability is clear and the end result is stunning. The days of developers solving problems for singular devices and one-off baseboards can slowly fade away and be replaced by a future with clear standards that both hardware and software teams recognize and understand. It’s a step much closer to vertical integration and opens the door for more creative designs and form factors in the near future according to Solomon:
We can’t do what we do without Intel’s help and this close engineering collaboration over the last 18 months. This is the beginning of more to come in this space, with innovation that hasn’t previously been seen.
That’s why all this matters, is important, and is exciting. We get some killer Chromebooks over the next few months, sure, but the longer-term goal will be more innovation in the space. What will that look like? Who knows! But I’d imagine things like foldable designs as we saw in the Lenovo X1 Fold at CES 2020 are surely on the table along with dual-screen devices that are only now in their formative stages. For now, I’m just excited about Chromebooks that have the whole package on board from top to bottom. I’m excited to review a device or two where I’m firmly having to nit pick to find anything wrong with them. I’m ready to see these types of Chromebooks become the norm at the top end and I’m super-excited to see what that ends up meaning for the $300-$400 segment down the road. It’s a fun time to be a Chromebook fan, isn’t it?