As is its habit, Intel has released a bevy of new microprocessors and related component designs this season. That, in turn, is sending large PC-makers racing to discount old systems and deliver new technology.
Computer options are dizzying, and PC World (www.pcworld.com) and PC Magazine (www.zdnet.com/pcmag) are good places to find candidates for your short list. If it's worthy of coverage, it will be dissected in both magazines-and on their respective Web sites-in different ways.
Because of Intel's market reach, most of your PC options feature "Intel Inside," although these days, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is giving Intel a good run for your money. Even if you don't buy an AMD-based machine, you'll still benefit from the increased price/development pressure it puts on Intel, says Roger Kay, manager of IDC's PC hardware group.
Unlike some of its chips in the past, the AMD technology of today is OK. AMD chips have no significant incompatibilities with software designed for Intel machines, says Kay, and they're used by brand names like HP, Compaq and Gateway. But Intel dominates PC hardware-not just processors, but also motherboards, chipsets and related components-and it drives most new PC technology initiatives.
At press time, PC-makers are still touching up their fall lines. But the harbingers of new hardware are the concept PCs Intel introduced at its recent developers forum. As in any other fashion show, some are a little too avant-garde for general consumption, like the Badis Badis with its movable cooling fins on top. But the features in the concept PCs below are already starting to pop up in more mainstream PCs:
Akeru: The Akeru is the highest-performance concept PC, designed for full-media e-commerce, engineering or analytical applications. Powered by the new Pentium 4 processor, it also has the latest chipset, system bus and graphics enhancements. Its tool-free/screwless chassis, not much larger than a notebook computer stood on end, offers easy access to Intel's MicroATX form factor MB with its patented pop-out components for upgrade or repair. Akeru's profile resembles the current Compaq (www.compaq.com) iPAQ and Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com) e-Vectra lines.
Enchant: Similarly, the Enchant resembles IBM's (www.ibm.com) NetVista X40, an all-in-one PC that earned Intel's Innovative PC award. Not your yuppie brother's iMac, the sleek, black NetVista X40 merges the CPU into the frame of a flat-panel LCD display. An optional IBM MicroDrive puts 1GB of storage on a disk the size of a quarter.
ICE: The ICE is a brick-like design that emphasizes connectivity. Destined to be a network-attached desktop PC and offering instant access to the Internet, the ICE has the least technology because it takes advantage of the distributed resources of the networks to which it is attached.
The innovative case designs of some of these PCs are less noteworthy than the technology within, which makes something other than a beige box possible. With the goal of improving ease of use, Intel (and AMD, for that matter) has made the strategic decision to phase out old technologies and push harder on new ones.
For starters, you'll find many PC designs devoid of legacy PC interfaces-parallel, serial, PS/2-which are slow and just take up motherboard space, says Steve Whalley, manager of Intel's Ease of Use Initiative. Intel shrunk its new FlexATX motherboard 30 percent, in part by relying solely on the USB for mouse, keyboard, monitor and other peripheral connections.
USB is already present on 99 percent of new PCs shipped, according to Cahners In-Stat Group, and peripherals-makers are starting to catch up. In-Stat sees USB peripheral shipments increasing 141 percent this year. When an updated version of the USB specification ships next year, adds Whalley, it will have 40 times the current capacity and be able to handle dozens of connections simultaneously.
Also significant are LANs for resource sharing in small and home offices. All Intel's concept PCs have built-in Ethernet adaptors for access to resources distributed over a LAN or the Internet. This coming year, Bluetooth add-ons using USB ports will add wireless connectivity for devices within a 30-foot radius, says Whalley, followed by Bluetooth on motherboards in 2002.
Another challenge: minimizing heat and noise in a PC while downsizing its footprint and upping its processing power. Intel has improved its power management and heat dissipation techniques in its concept PCs; it started by taking the AC power supply entirely out of the PC and making it an external "brick" like those used for portables. Then it added smaller, quieter fans and, says Whalley, "moved around a lot of things to remove heat passively using the chimney effect."
Air flow is helped by replacing ISA add-in card slots with new, low-profile, plug-and-play PCI bus slots. Plug-and-play hasn't always worked as advertised, but your experience is due to improve, says Whalley, as peripheral driver writers focus on this new PCI standard.
He also predicts delivery on another unfulfilled promise-the Instant On PC. Waking up a "sleeping" PC has been enough hassle that many users just leave their PCs running all the time or shut them down completely, he says. Suspend-and-resume will work better in future PC models, says Whalley, because of greater cooperation among chipset-, BIOS- and OS-makers on the ACPI 2.0 specification. Whalley adds that vendors also have worked together to reduce those long cold-boot and shutdown times to less than 30 seconds.