February 28, 2002 11:10 AM PST

Brainstorming next year's PC

SAN FRANCISCO--A year and a half from now, desktops and notebooks should be noticeably different.

Intel, in conjunction with PC and component makers, is trying to usher in design standards for computers that, ideally, would result in more stylish and versatile machines, according to executives at the Intel Developer Forum here. Wireless networking, for instance, will likely be a standard feature in mainstream computers by the second half of 2003, and both notebooks and desktops will be smaller and lighter by then.

Further out, desktops will accept plug-in devices, and notebooks might integrate a second screen for calendaring or paging.

"What you will see is silicon and standards all over the place," said Louis Burns, vice president of the Desktop Platforms Group at Intel. "You're going to see us getting a little more aggressive on the horizon."

Computer companies have often foundered in their haste to push new technological conventions on the public. The difference now is that some of the upcoming technologies, such as wireless networking, have already received a hearty welcome from early adopters.

"Intel needs to keep all the rail gauges up," said Richard Doherty, director of research at the Envisioneering Group. "Intel's influence over wireless will be the one that matters most."

Second, there seems to be an effort to better coordinate the adoption process. Five years passed between the initial proposal for the universal serial bus and the market debut of the first products featuring that connection technology for peripherals, said Gerald Holzhammer, director of desktop architecture at Intel Labs.

By contrast, 3GIO, an internal connection standard that will have significant desktop design implications, will go from white paper to store shelves in three years.

Heat vs. size
A large part of the drive for new design conventions comes from the conflict between power, style and cost. Marketing polls have shown that consumers want faster, more fashionable PCs. But experience has also shown that people don't want to pay for them.

"You can give them (buyers) a new form factor that's got everything they already have plus something else, but you can't charge more," said Roger Kay, an analyst at IDC. "If you give someone something for free, they'll take it, but when you ask them to pay for it, they won't."

In desktops, for instance, a push toward smaller PCs didn't become a huge hit in the United States because of the relative amount of customization among the various models released by manufacturers.

A glimpse of the future
Design changes that Intel is pushing are expected to result in new-look PCs with these features.

Second half of 2003:
Desktops will contain the Prescott chip (a version of the Pentium 4 with hyper-threading), integrated 802.11 wireless networking, serial ATA hard-drive connections for faster data transfers, a speedier AGP 8X graphics bus, and USB 2.0 connections for peripherals. Also possible: simpler home networking and other applications.

Notebooks will come with Banias (an upcoming energy-efficient processor), an optical drive, integrated 802.11 and Bluetooth wireless features, and reduced power consumption to extend battery life. They will weigh 4.5 pounds and be 1.2 inches thick.

Heading into 2004:
Desktops will begin to feature 3GIO, a high-speed interconnect standard replacing PCI and AGP. Intel says it will represent the most significant desktop design overhaul since the release of the ATX design of 1990.

Also ahead:
Desktops will accept plug-in devices, and notebooks might integrate a second screen for calendaring or paging. Some ideas for dissipating heat include incorporating a thin layer of diamond near the processor.

"Customers have said that they want no compromises on performance and that they want it standardized," Burns said.

To that end, this fall Intel will publish specifications and release an engineering reference design, code-named TideWater, for building mainstream PCs for the second half of 2003. TideWater will sport future technologies but also feature smaller power supplies and other components that should be available at the time, thereby eroding the PC manufacturer's risk.

"We will work with Asian component suppliers," Burns said. "We need to get high volumes."

PCs to be released at that time will include the upcoming version of the Pentium 4, known as Prescott, integrated 802.11 wireless networking, serial ATA hard drive connections for faster data transfers, a speedier AGP 8X graphics bus, and USB 2.0 connections for peripherals. An effort will also exist to simplify home networking and other applications.

By 2004, PCs will begin to feature 3GIO, a high-speed interconnect standard that will replace both the PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) standard and AGP. 3GIO will speed up performance, and--because it allows engineers to cut back motherboard space in favor of a flexible cable--it will radically alter how space gets used inside a PC. According to Holzhammer, 3GIO represents the most significant desktop design overhaul since the release of the ATX design of 1990.

Another reference design, BigWater, will embody 3GIO and other mainstream technologies for the 2004 market.

Meanwhile, in the background, engineers will try to come up with ways to dissipate heat or reduce noise. Some ideas include incorporating a thin layer of diamond near the processor.

"Diamonds are an extremely good conductor," Holzhammer said. "The ultimate high-end solution will be liquid cooling. It is something you might see in some high-end PCs not so far in the future."

As for acoustics, expect to see tinkering with fans, air-channeling techniques and sound baffling in computer chassis.

Notebooks are a go
In slight contrast, the looming issue for notebooks is wireless. When consumers get accustomed to wireless, they will likely increasingly use their notebooks in the field. That means the demand for long battery life will skyrocket. Wireless connections, however, can consume up to 4 watts of power, which further stresses batteries.

People will also want lighter notebooks but still not want to give up big screens or fast processing.

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Intel displays new notebook designs
Don MacDonald, director of mobile platforms, Intel
"It's a huge behavioral change and will drive people to this platform in hordes," said Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and general manager of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group. "Thinner has a natural limit. The emphasis is going to be on lightness."

Wireless will also open a Pandora's box of security issues and place demands on communications carriers for seamless roaming.

Intel's specifications for mainstream notebooks coming this fall will call for portables in the second half of 2003 that weigh 4.5 pounds and measure 1.2 inches thick, and that contain an optical drive, integrated 802.11 and Bluetooth. The machines will run on Banias, an upcoming energy-efficient processor. Much of the work, as in the past, will lie in reducing power consumption to extend battery life.

In addition, the company expects to show off increasing amounts of software that will cure many of the communications dilemmas.

"Not all of these are Intel problems. Some are Microsoft problems; some are CheckPoint problems. But we all have to work in a (coordinated) manner," he said. "My fear is that if we don't, we will not deliver the value proposition and will (annoy) the end user."

Notebook manufacturers can also be expected to flaunt flashes of extraneous elegance in their designs, a historical norm for the industry. Acer and Hewlett-Packard, for instance, have shown off notebook concepts with pivoting screens for multidirectional viewing. Acer's model also lets consumers snap the screen over the keyboard to turn it into a tablet.

Other experimental machines come with handles featuring tiny screens that display a user's calendar information. One, the "Flip Top," comes with an autonomous personal digital assistant.

A PDA-PC, however, wouldn't be ready until 2005 or 2006. "There are a lot of architectural implications," Chandrasekher said.


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