Don’t expect it to make an impact until 2023 and beyond, but today Intel decloaked Unison, a technology it developed in concert with an Israeli acquisition, that allows for the easy manipulation of your phone from your laptop. The aim of Unison is to enable you to stay “in flow” during your workday while juggling a smartphone and a laptop. (For now, the latter will have to be a late-model Intel Evo laptop supporting the technology.)
By letting you access and control your smartphone from a laptop, Unison aims to reduce disruptions to workflow that constant device-switching can cause. If you are trying to focus on work on your laptop, while tending to phone calls, SMSs, and app notifications on your mobile device, that can certainly fragment your attention. If suppressing those distractions altogether isn’t an option, consolidating them to your laptop screen can help.
To that end, users of Unison can put their phones, connected via Unison to their laptop, to one side, and receive and initiate calls and SMSs from the laptop, and much more. Now, some of this functionality is certainly nothing new, but what’s cool about it from the phone side: It should work with Android and iOS phones, and across a host of possible connectivity permutations. That’s what sets it apart from existing phone/PC connectivity solutions, such as the Your Phone function in Windows.
The Genesis of Unison
At the core of Unison is technology brought in from a company called Screenovate. Intel acquired the Israeli company in 2021, an innovator in smartphone-to-display projection that was working on multidevice screen-sharing and crossover experiences in various forms. You may even have used Screenovate tech and not realized it; some system OEMs had already adopted its background technology and rebranded it in solutions of their own, such as Dell with its Dell Mobile Connect(Opens in a new window) feature (which is, incidentally, being sunset) and HP’s Phonewise, which was retired in 2019.
In the course of integrating Screenovate’s architecture into Unison, Intel says a big focus has been on optimization for platform power, along with refinements to the UI and connectivity behavior. The power-related efforts have emphasized that Unison, running in the background by its nature, will not be a big battery drainer on the host laptop.
Many hybrid and remote workers, transitioning from office to home-based work, now juggle a jumble of hardware and communication technologies, moving in and out of Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth connections, and cellular-only environments. The actual connectivity nuts-and-bolts of Unison are complex, as the company promises a seamless experience across WAN, Wi-Fi, cloud, cellular, and Bluetooth connections, and it all has to work to connect Unison-compliant PCs with either Android or iOS devices.
That’s key, in that similar technology from the likes of, say, Samsung may be designed just for one subset of Android phones, or Dell Mobile Connect would work only with specific Dell PCs. Windows 10’s Your Phone and Windows 11’s Link to Phone features, meanwhile, are geared toward Android and offer only a subset of Unison’s functionality. Here, Unison should cover a wide selection of phones on the market, in whatever connectivity mix you find yourself at the moment.
What Unison Does: The First Phase
At launch, Intel says Unison will enable four broad categories of phone-on-PC activity: calls, SMSs, notifications, and photo/file transfer.
The first is to answer or initiate conventional phone calls from the PC, from and through the smartphone. That’s straightforward enough. For SMS messaging, users can receive texts to their phone, have them be visible on their Unison-capable PC, and reply to them from there. They can also initiate texts from the Windows desktop to be sent out by the phone.
Third is seeing phone notifications on your laptop, such as from installed apps, WhatsApp, or Telegram. Keeping these pings all centered on the PC reduces the cognitive load of moving attention back and forth between devices whenever there’s a chirp or ping. Last, the technology can enable easier file and photo sharing between smartphone and laptop, letting you view photos, for example, in the Gallery of Unison’s laptop app.
At the Intel Tech Tour 2022 event held in and around Tel Aviv, Israel, in mid-September, Screenovate personnel demonstrated the technology in a variety of usage cases. In one demo, in the midst of creating a presentation on his laptop, a Screenovate representative snapped a photo with his smartphone, called up the photo on his Evo laptop in the Unison Gallery UI (the phone had previously been equipped with a Unison app), and dragged the image straight into his presentation.
(Credit: John Burek)
In another scenario, receiving an SMS text in the midst of another task, the rep dashed off a quick reply from the PC without handling his phone at all. And in yet another example (ordering food online, from the laptop), Unison simplified an SMS two-factor-authentication (2FA) process, which involved the phone as the authenticating device. The 2FA verification code came in to the demo-giver’s phone in a SMS; he accessed the SMS from the laptop and—voilà—he didn’t have to fire up the phone and poke in the 2FA code manually on the laptop.
(Credit: John Burek)
Also, initiating a WhatsApp call was as easy as going to the Notification tab and initiating a call. Here, in this canned image provided by Intel, you can see the various tabs running down the left edge of the Unison software for calls, SMS, and the like…
When will we see Unison? Intel’s Daniel Rogers, Senior Director for Mobile Client Platforms, teased that Unison will launch with select 12th Generation Core laptops this year, citing Acer, HP, and Lenovo as partners. No firm launch date for 13th Generation mobile chips has been shared yet, but according to Intel, Intel Unison will available on more Intel Evo designs powered by 13th Generation Intel Core in 2023.
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(Credit: John Burek)
What Makes Unison Different?
Now, of course, similar solutions exist in partial form, in Windows 10 and 11, from phone makers (as mentioned, Samsung is a prime example), or from some PC makers. But Unison is uniquely ambitious in making the same functionality available across both iOS and Android.
Versus what exists today, Unison is built on open and standard APIs and interfaces, Josh Newman, Intel’s vice president and general manager of mobile innovation, told PCMag. The UI of the Unison app is also a difference maker, especially in the file-transfer experience, he notes. Much attention has been paid to the design and the intuitiveness; once you’re synced up, the contents of the Unison Gallery should be as easy to deal with as any other file on your desktop.
(Credit: John Burek)
The fact that Intel is rolling out Unison first on Evo is no accident, says Newman, pointing out that the company wants to get the experience just right, and is starting with the kind of users who would buy an Evo PC: highly mobile, highly connected productivity hounds. Deliberate care is being taken in implementing aspects such as the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi stacks, so the experience is seamless. “We want to keep it a high-quality experience,” he notes.
Also, the flexibility of connectivity is important but not easy to achieve, with Unison working across wired or wireless technologies. For a smartphone call handled through your Evo laptop, a Bluetooth connection between the devices might be best, while Wi-Fi will make more sense for a file transfer. In some situations, you might want the phone to connect to its cellular network and work with Unison through the cloud, and that’s an option, too. In contrast, other competing solutions may require, say, phone and laptop being on same Wi-Fi network.
The Unison application itself will be a Windows program, and come pre-installed on a small subset of Evo systems for starters. (It’s supported only on Windows 11 22H2 and later.) On the phone side, you’ll need to pull down a Unison app from the Google Play store or the Apple Store. In terms of phone operating system, you’ll need iOS 15 or later, or Android 9 or later.
In theory, Unison could be implemented as as a software download for other machines somewhere down the line; Newman notes that Unison is not tied intrinsically to hardware aspects of the 12th or 13th Gen Core Evo platform. So while Unison might be a limited-release technology today, it could roll out to other, possibly older machines as the kinks get rolled out.
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