by John Edwards

PC Is Getting Faster, Thinner, Fancier

Jan 15, 20049 mins
Data Center

Like many an aging celebrity trying to stave off obscurity, the PC is about to get a face-lift. With a nip here, a tuck there, a speedier processor, an improved system bus, better displays and seamless wireless connectivity, next-generation PCs aim to help enterprises make the leap into IT’s new world. But will IT even care?

Heart Transplant

To renew the venerable PC, vendors are starting at the heart of the matter: the processor. Back in 1981, the original IBM PC featured an amazingly modest?at least from today’s perspective?4.77MHz CPU. Twenty-three years later, the two leading PC processor makers?Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD)?are relentlessly pushing processor speeds toward 4GHz on both desktop and laptop models.

Yet raw speed isn’t the only processor attribute that separates the latest PCs from their underpowered predecessors. New chip-oriented infrastructures, such as Intel’s Hyper-Threading and the AMD-promoted HyperTransport, promise to give PC users added power and convenience beyond a processor’s basic clock speed.

Hyper-Threading brings virtual parallel processing to a single CPU, allowing PCs to handle multiple tasks faster and without interruption. “You have one logical processor servicing whatever you’re doing and one in the background taking care of the maintenance tasks, such as virus scanning,” says William Siu, general manager of Intel’s desktop platforms group. Hyper-Threading debuted on the Xeon processor, and Windows XP and some distributions of Linux both support it. Although applications that take direct advantage of Hyper-Threading remain relatively rare, Intel claims that users running two standard CPU-intensive applications simultaneously can expect up to 25 percent faster execution.

AMD’s HyperTransport, on the other hand, is a high-performance interconnect that allows a computer’s key components to communicate with each other at speeds of up to 50 times faster than the PCI bus currently used in most PCs. “It’s designed to increase the speed of communication between the integrated circuits in computers, telecom equipment, networking systems and so on,” says Deepa Doraiswamy, a semiconductor industry analyst with technology consultancy Frost & Sullivan. According to the HyperTransport Consortium, more than 45 HyperTransport products are already available, including CPUs, security processors, core logic and bridge devices, IP cores and test equipment.

Other significant PC architecture improvements include PCI Express (a faster and simpler version of the PCI bus that promises to reduce the size and cost of both plug-in cards and motherboards), Serial ATA (a high-speed storage interface that cuts down on the cabling within PCs), Serial-Attached SCSI (a speed-scalable and less power-hungry version of the familiar SCSI storage device interface that also allows for physically smaller drives) and ExpressCard (a new PC expansion card standard, based on PCI Express, that aims to replace older PCMCIA cards with smaller, faster and cheaper plug-in modules).

Additionally, during the next couple of years, PC vendors will accelerate their transition from 32-bit to 64-bit technology, responding to enterprise customers that use powerful database and multimedia software and services. Already, 64-bit technology is appearing on high-end desktops from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and other vendors.

Small and Smaller

But desktops continue to fight for a smaller piece of the PC market. For years, analysts have predicted that sophisticated notebook PCs would eventually supplant desktop systems as the dominant PC form. While that moment probably won’t arrive in 2004, the latest notebooks are certainly more powerful and easier to use than their predecessors.

IBM, for example, has developed a notebook that’s influenced by origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. When the system?based on a standard ThinkPad T40 notebook?opens, the display automatically moves upward several inches for better viewing. As the display rises, the keyboard reflexively slides toward the user and rests at a typing angle similar to a desktop keyboard. “You can unfold the system if you’re at a bigger space to get the benefits of a desktop PC, and then refold it back up into the clamshell when you don’t have the space,” says Howard Locker, chief architect of IBM’s PC division. The company hasn’t yet set a release date for the notebook. “We’re testing this [system] right now to see if people are willing to pay the extra cost,” adds Locker.

Many enterprises are also looking at portable systems other than notebooks. Tablet PCs may be an alternative for many users, particularly those who need to work with large amounts of text or numeric data away from their desks. Tablets, which are designed to mimic the dimensions of a large paper notebook, include an operating system that lets users jot down information with a stylus. Mike Stinson, vice president of mobile products for Gateway, predicts that pen-based input will be a requirement of most portable system users by 2005. “It’s just an easier way to take notes,” he observes. U.S. tablet PC shipments are set to climb from 260,000 units in 2003 to 2.25 million in 2005, according to statistics compiled by IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher). State-of-the-art PDAs are also gaining traction in many enterprises, thanks to their low cost, small size, wireless connectivity and miserly power consumption.

A New Look

As the design of PCs changes, an emerging display technology is poised to provide better viewing. Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) promise to revolutionize both desktop and mobile systems by offering ultrathin, bright and colorful displays without the need for space-hogging and power-consuming backlighting.

OLEDs are already popping up on a few mobile devices. Eastman Kodak, for example, has released a digital camera, the EasyShare LS633, that features an OLED preview screen. Future OLED panels could find homes on products ranging from desktop and notebook PCs to PDAs to smart phones and a wide array of office and consumer appliances. In fact, the displays are thin and light enough to be plastered onto a wall like wallpaper or even sewn into clothing.

Still, despite recent technical advances, OLEDs won’t reach PC users in meaningful numbers this year. That’s because researchers have yet to develop screens that are larger than a few inches in diameter at a price point that’s even remotely competitive with liquid crystal display technology. “We’re still a long way off from OLED in a laptop,” says Sam Bhavnani, a senior mobile computing analyst at competitive analysis company ARS. “You might start to see 10-inch or maybe a 12-inch [screen] in the beginning of 2005, at best.”

Widely Wireless

But while OLED is a ways out, wireless is here now. Wireless hot spots are springing up everywhere from corporate offices to McDonald’s restaurants, and PC vendors are beginning to incorporate the technology into their systems. Just as LAN ports became a standard item on most office desktops several years ago, wireless support is becoming so ingrained that it’s even trickling down to the processor level. Intel’s new mobile-oriented Centrino processor, for example, supplies built-in wireless support.

Beyond 802.11b, additional 802.11x standards promise to make wireless communications faster and more efficient. Already available, 802.11a supports data rates of up to 54Mbps. Widespread adoption, however, has been hampered by incompatibility with 802.11b technology (the standards use different frequency ranges). Bridging the gap is 802.11g, which provides 802.11a-level data rates along with full 802.11b backward compatibility. The first 802.11g products started appearing in 2003, and the market is expected to expand dramatically in 2004.

Within the next year or two, support will likely begin appearing for 802.11f, which provides interoperability between access points manufactured by various vendors, enabling portable device users to roam seamlessly between networks. And the alphabet soup doesn’t stop there. An array of additional 802.11x standards, covering everything from quality of service (802.11e) to security (802.11i) to network performance and management (802.11k), are also expected to enter the mainstream during the next three years.

Is Thin In?

But some experts believe that no combination of faster speeds and flashy features will keep PCs from experiencing a downward trend. A growing number of enterprises are looking closely at thin-client devices, says Martin Reynolds, a Gartner fellow and company vice president. Thin clients, which link to a central server and have no internal disk storage, hold the promise of lower cost, better management and enhanced security. “The market is more ready for them now,” adds Reynolds.

Although the thin-client model has existed for many years, Reynolds believes that in a chaotic world of viruses, hackers and seemingly endless “critical updates,” it makes more sense than ever to manage systems at the server level rather than on individual desktops.

And the migration from PCs may only accelerate as we move from desktop-based to device-based computing?an environment in which “technology is embedded in just about everything,” says Chris Shipley, executive producer of The Demo Conferences for IDG Executive Forums (a sister company to CIO’s publisher), which showcases budding technologies. Shipley notes that networks will soon be “smart enough to know who you are and what sort of device you’re connecting from?then they’ll just scale the information appropriately for the device you’re using.”

Up the Grade

The new PC is indeed faster, smarter, sleeker and cheaper, and generally better than its predecessors. But will a new generation of more capable PCs finally inspire enterprises to ditch the 20th century relics that sit stubbornly on millions of worker desks? It depends. For most organizations it boils down to money?or a lack thereof. “CIOs do not need much convincing at this point; it’s the overall funds that are in short supply,” says Toni Duboise, desktop PC industry analyst at ARS.

With money tight, Demo’s Shipley doubts that many enterprises will be swayed to buy replacement hardware solely on the basis of new or improved capabilities. “PC and laptop hardware will be replaced as needed, as the hardware itself fails or becomes obsolete,” she notes. “There is little on the horizon that suggests the acceleration of the end of life of today’s computer hardware.”

Still, many observers believe that as security and maintenance costs on older machines continue to soar, enterprises will eventually have no choice but to invest in new hardware. “Security and standardization of the installed base are key drivers,” observes Gartner’s Reynolds. “Older machines take a lot of work to look after.” Which goes to prove that, despite economic downturns and squeezed budgets, you can’t cheat time?or avoid the dawn of a new era.