September 16, 2003 10:41 AM PDT

In PC design, harbingers of shrink

A number of new technologies coming to the fore could bring about smaller notebooks and desktops, as well as let manufacturers alter standard PC shapes.

ExpressCard, a new PC expansion card standard announced Tuesday, is one such advance. Backers say it will replace the familiar PCMCIA cards that slide into the sides of notebook computers and that are used for tasks such as adding memory or connecting to a network. Because the new card standard is smaller and requires fewer components, it could lead to smaller notebooks and new card slot placements.

Another technology coming down the pike is PCI Express, a new method for connecting PCs to peripherals that promises to streamline computer innards, as well as allow for different PC designs. Serial ATA, a high-speed interface standard for disk drives that cuts down on the cabling within PC boxes, started to appear in systems in the spring.

Products built with the upcoming advances are expected to hit the market next year, industry insiders say, although adoption rates may differ between corporate and consumer markets.

The overall direction is to help PCs get smaller and more powerful, said Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD Group. "When you look at all the internal technologies, the goal seems to be to shrink, consolidate and advance."

A common feature of the three new technologies is their serial nature. Computers have generally relied on so-called parallel methods of exchanging data among components through multiple wires, which results in a proliferation of wires or ribbon-type cables. Serial approaches involve zapping data signals along the same wire. Serial is becoming more attractive largely because of improvements in transmitting and receiving data, said Tony Pierce, a Microsoft employee and chairman of the PCI-SIG, a consortium of computer companies behind the PCI Express standard.

Pierce pointed to bandwidth gains in the Ethernet network arena in particular. "Ethernet has led the way," he said.

PCI-X, the main existing parallel standard used to connect devices such as network adapters, chips and sound cards to one another inside PCs, can carry data faster than a single PCI Express connection, Pierce said. But he suggested that it is relatively easy to pump up the bandwidth of PCI Express by adding wires.

PCI Express is likely to make its way into PCs next year. Louis Burns, vice president and co-general manager of Intel's Desktop Platforms Group, said Intel will begin producing sample PCI Express chipsets this fall. Typically, Intel makes major changes to its chipsets on an annual basis.

Serial thrillers
The advent of PCI Express is a major reason why the PC expansion card is getting a face-lift, according to Brad Saunders, an Intel employee and chairman of the PCMCIA, the industry group that developed the ExpressCard standard. "Serial is the way to go," Saunders said. "We needed to move forward."

The current PC card, CardBus, is based on a parallel architecture. It needs 68 pins to connect to a PC, and also requires a controller chip to translate data to current PCI interface technology.

ExpressCard has two serial interface technologies built in--both the USB 2.0 and PCI Express standards for exchanging data. It requires just 26 pins, making it simpler for PC manufacturers to adopt, according to the PCMCIA.

The standard has two sizes. The smaller version is 34 millimeters wide by 75 millimeters long and 5 millimeters high. The L-shaped larger version has the same length and height but is 54 millimeters at its widest point. Existing CardBus cards measure 85.6 millimeters in length and 54 millimeters in width. CardBus cards have come in a variety of thicknesses ranging from 3.3 millimeters to 10.5 millimeters.

The larger of the new cards is designed to handle applications such as compact flash memory and 1.8-inch hard drives. The PCMCIA designed the smaller card to be a long-term product, fit for use in future, smaller PC systems.

Products based on the ExpressCard standard are likely to arrive early next year, according to the PCMCIA.

The group working on the standard included a range of tech companies, including computer makers Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell, software giant Microsoft, and flash memory provider Lexar Media. That diversity helps explain how the PCMCIA came up with two different standard sizes.

Hamid Haidari, technical product manager at Lexar and a contributor to the ExpressCard standard, acknowledged that adoption of two sizes risks causing some confusion in the market. But companies like his, which makes Compact Flash memory, and hard-drive makers wanted the 54-millimeter alternative to accommodate their products.

"The manufacturers of 1.8-inch disk drives and Compact Flash manufacturers were the two that really drove this bigger size," he said.

Fremont, Calif.-based Lexar expects the new standard to generate new business. Haidari said Lexar plans to sell a smaller ExpressCard containing memory as well as a larger card that acts as an adapter for Compact Flash memory products.

Designers, get ready
Saunders said the new card standard should free computer makers to create new designs. For example, a card could be placed in the side or top of a laptop lid. A card outfitted with a camera could sit on the top of a laptop lid and allow face-recognition applications or video-conferencing, he said.

The PCMCIA also suggested that the new cards could find their way into desktops. A benefit there, according to the organization, is that computer users would be able to expand their machines without having to open them up.

PCI Express, meanwhile, could make desktop machines more malleable, Pierce said. For instance, because components could be linked more easily through a single cable, computers could be built with the CPU sitting apart from the graphics chip to allow for easier cooling of the different parts. Another possibility, he said, is adding input-output capacity to servers.

"It'll be interesting to see how creative the designers get," he said. "The capabilities are there."

Russell Crane, marketing segment manager for computer connectivity solutions at Texas Instruments, also sees the new technology leading to new looks.

"You are going to start to see some interesting PCs in the 2005 time frame," he said. Notebooks will get smaller, while PC makers will begin to market PCs as a bunch of separate components that plug into a docking station.

Although PCI Express is on the near horizon, Crane said, ExpressCard will take longer to establish a foothold because corporate buyers are often loath to adopt new technology.

Consumers may not be as hesitant. NPD Group's Baker said people seem eager to expand on their PCs when they don't have to open up the equipment to add technology. He noted that for the first seven months of this year, unit shipments of external hard drives were up 47 percent, versus a rise of just 21 percent for internal hard drives.

Baker suggested that the forthcoming technology may help the PC industry in its quest to dominate the digital home of the future. Newly designed PCs might adapt better to the kitchen or home entertainment center, he said. "A great big desktop tower just isn't a good fit."

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

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