Limitless Engineering: Building the World’s First 5G PC

Justin Eure, Worldwide Communications Manager

We live on the edge of the feverishly touted 5G revolution: an always-on, interconnected, AI-driven world where our devices enable unprecedented interactions. Buzzwords abound. The infrastructure is finally rolling out, and Lenovo was first out of the gate to make sure phones could tap into the promised multi-gig per second speeds. And while instantly streaming videos or gaming on your smartphone may draw you in, 5G is capable of so much more.

“5G is the beginning of enabling the always-on era, complete with radical changes for consumers and entire industries,” said Lenovo Intelligent Devices Group’s Trey Paschal, who leads business development to bring 5G and other connected technologies into the marketplace. “I truly believe 5G will transform the world, and we’re building the first 5G PC to help lead the way.”

Meet Project Limitless, a PC built in collaboration with Qualcomm and their Snapdragon 8cx 5G compute platform and the first-ever host of their powerful Snapdragon X55 5G modem. Tapping into the heralded download/upload speeds are just the beginning. The real hook may be how Project Limitless conquers latency—the inescapable delay when sending or receiving data. On 4G networks, this can span just hundreds of milliseconds, but removing that blink will change everything.

Lenovo Project Limitless 5G

“We see 5G as an essential and exciting part of Intelligent Transformation,” said Johnson Jia, senior vice president and general manager, Consumer Business of Intelligent Devices Group, Lenovo. “Bringing this unprecedented access and speed into our PCs helps us empower our customers and lead the way to a more connected, more seamless, and more powerful future.”

Naturally, the engineering team faced a flurry of new challenges. The data deluge rushing through a PC at unprecedented speeds is bound to generate heat—imagine watching a movie in 8K resolution with no buffering. Plus, the 5G infrastructure is in its relative infancy. Network standards are still emerging and technology needs to be adaptable, which means future-proofing with a lot of antennas.

“The goal here was to compromise nothing on the PC experience, from design to performance, even though we’re adding in entirely new capabilities,” Paschal said. “I’m proud to say we achieved that.”

5G: Worth the hype?

Moving traffic and car lights in the evening

Before we dig into housing multiple antennas and handling heat dissipation, consider a few life-changing reasons 5G is worth the effort:

  • Fleets of Self-driving Vehicles. Right now, autonomous cars respond rapidly to immediate signals: traffic lights, pedestrians, curbs and lane markers, etc. As that scales up, cars need to talk to each other, instantly relaying info on accidents, dangerous road conditions, and more. Fractions of a second mean everything on the highway, and no-latency 5G can be the answer. Factor in emergency phenomena—say an ambulance responding to a call—and you can imagine autonomous vehicles safely clearing a path before the ambulance can even be heard.
  • High-Risk Remote Collaboration. Augmented reality already invites expert consultation and image overlays, for example with aircraft maintenance. But what about surgery for a patient in critical care? Any delay in image transmission or clarity could be devastating for a consulting doctor’s ability to save a life. (And that’s not even considering robot-assisted remote surgery.)
  • Supercomputers for All. Mitigating climate change and other huge puzzles will need supercomputers. But right now, those are often accessed locally or through dedicated portals. With edge computing empowered by 5G, data collection and analysis can happen remotely, leveraging supercomputers, interconnected smart sensors, and a PC to instantly connect the dots.
  • Gaming. Let’s end on a lighter note. Ever experienced lag in competitive gaming? Witnessed a split-second delay between pressing a key and seeing your avatar dodge an attack? 5G will change that.

That’s a very cursory glance, too—the 5G revolution goes deeper.

Antennas on antennas on antennas

Information rides waves. Ever listened to a song on an FM radio station? That station has a designated frequency; audio information rides waves tuned to that exact frequency. Now those waves are relatively big, but as they get shorter and faster with a higher frequency, we can pack in much more data. So let’s make that pop song signal 10 times faster and denser and load it up with all kinds of digital information—that’s 4G, and now you’re able to stream the video. With 5G we take another leap and work with waves 30 times faster.

“5G operates on new millimeter wave frequencies, which are much shorter and much, much faster,” Paschal said. “5G can also run on sub-6 gigahertz waves, already in use on some current-gen LTE services, and we needed to accommodate both. With those antennas in place, you get that leap in speed. But there’s a negative, too, because the waves don’t penetrate as far. So you need more antennas out in the world to provide 5G service, as people may have seen.”

color waves

The lack of codified industry standards makes this tricky, too. There are different approaches to millimeter wave tech, so Project Limitless needed to be primed for an emerging infrastructure. That means several 5G-friendly antennas plus multiple LTE-friendly antennas to keep the PC blazing along when 5G is unavailable. Seven cellular antennas is a huge lift, and doesn’t even account for the extra connectivity of WiFi and Bluetooth.

So how do you get all that in one slim laptop?

“Once upon a time, you could place antennas at the top of the laptop, within the bezel above the screen,” Paschal said. “But there’s a demand for big, beautiful screens with minimal bezels—that’s the style customers understandably prefer. So we had to get creative with the antenna placement.”

Sounds easy enough, right? Not so fast. Metal materials and antennas don’t often get along well, so they can’t get too cozy with the circuitry and hard drives in the base. Fortunately, this isn’t Lenovo’s first trip into the always-connected PC space.

Building on always-on expertise

Back in August 2018, Lenovo unveiled the Yoga C630 WOS (Windows on Snapdragon), emblematic of the no-compromises approach to an always-on PC.

“That was our first four-antenna PC, and the learnings there were applied here and pushed even further,” Paschal said.

The new device will add an infrared camera for logins and other enhancements to the always-on functionality and convertible form factor of the Yoga C630 WOS. Crucially, the team managed to keep the same battery life—essential for the on-the-go lifestyle supported by these PCs.

“This is also a story of powerful partnership,” Paschal said. “Qualcomm is an established leader here, working across 4G and 5G networks, even those just now hitting the street. We obviously couldn’t do this without them and processors capable of high efficiency and performance even in a fanless PC.”

Look for Project Limitless in 2020. Eager to test out 5G sooner? If you live in the right city and have a moto smartphone, you may not have to wait so long.

And if you want a quick, extreme introduction to 5G, watch the video below.

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