Intel partners preview speedy peripherals

The Intel Developers Forum traditionally offers a peek at new technology, but it's not all far in the future--some is just around the corner from both Intel and its partners.

Intel made a splash with a flashy demonstration of a 3.5-GHz Pentium 4, although won't say when it's likely to ship. The preview comes on the heels of the release of a 2-GHz CPU, already being sold in a selection of new systems.

But along with those centerpieces are new products from Intel partners, including a new mobile graphics chip from ATI and Seagate's release of the first serial ATA drives.

Intel itself previewed the first prototype chip set to support USB 2.0, showed the final standard for Serial ATA, and described a new 845 chip set, code-named Brookdale, that could help drop the price of Pentium 4 systems by using SDRAM instead of the pricier Rambus.

Radeon Goes Mobile

Graphics card vendor ATI announced a new mobile graphics chip designed to double laptop 3D performance while reducing power consumption. The new chip, dubbed the Mobility Radeon 7500, includes a refined version of ATI's Powerplay, a power-saving technology that runs the chip at maximum speed when the laptop is plugged in and varies clock speed and voltage to save power when running on battery power.

On the performance side, the Mobility Radeon 7500 is the first mobile graphics chip to support 128-bit DDR memory in configurations of up to 64MB. The chip includes the same 3D rendering technology as the recently announcedRadeon 7500 desktop line. ATI claims it doubles the performance of its nearest competitor in the mobile graphics market, NVidia's GeForce2 Go. ATI expects the first systems incorporating the Mobility Radeon 7500 to ship by the end of the year.

Seagate Gets Serial (ATA)

Hard drive maker Seagate announced plans to offer the first serial ATA drives, in 2002. The company's current generation of Barracuda ATA drives are ready for the serial ATA interface, says John Paulsen, a Seagate spokesperson. The company is simply waiting for motherboard and add-in card makers to provide serial ATA controllers to plug the drives into.

Intel announced progress on that front as well. The Serial ATA Working Group has finalized the standard for Serial ATA, says Louis Burns, vice president and general manager of Intel's Desktop Platforms Group. The Serial ATA replaces the bulky 80-wire parallel ribbon cables and 40-pin connectors on today's internal drives with a small round cable about the size of a mouse cord. While the ATA interface currently maxes out at 133 megabytes per second, serial ATA will debut at about 150 MBps and is expected to quadruple to 600 MBps in the next few years.

The Serial ATA Working Group, a consortium of more than 70 companies including APT, Dell, Intel, Maxtor, and Seagate, has spent two years developing the technology.

Faster Connections

In addition to speed, the new interface offers greater flexibility in PC design. The cables require lower voltage to transmit signals, meaning they can transfer data from smaller and lower-powered PC components. And the thin cables, which carry both data and power for the drive, let cooling air flow more easily through a system, permitting more compact designs. Serial ATA provides advanced features found only on server-level system drives today, such as the capability to "hot-plug" a fresh drive into a system without powering down. The technology is backwards compatible with exiting software: No new drivers or modifications to operating systems are required.

Intel will offer serial ATA host controllers in 2002, says Jason Ziller, Intel's technology initiatives manager, who also chairs the Serial ATA Working Group.

Paulsen explains that Seagate decided to skip further developments of parallel ATA connections and jump right into serial ATA. The approach differs from that of rival drive manufacturer Maxtor, which recently announced plans to follow an incremental upgrade from ATA/100 to ATA/133 parallel connections.

Maxtor is developing the interface technology but will wait until serial ATA becomes mainstream over the next two to three years before making the jump, says Ted Deffenbaugh, Maxtor's vice president of product strategy.

Seagate, in contrast, is anxious to abandon the parallel interface "ATA/133 is something to ignore at this point. We're moving right to serial ATA and we're doing it next year," Paulsen says. "We need something that is scalable from this point up to ten years in the future, and that's what serial ATA does."

USB 2.0 Inside

Burns also unveiled Intel's first prototype chip set to support USB 2.0, or High-Speed USB, a supercharged successor to the near-ubiquitous USB 1.1 connections found on almost all PCs today. Capable of transferring data at up to 480 megabits per second, USB 2.0 is 40 times faster than its predecessor. It is also a bit zippier than competing technology IEEE-1394, also called FireWire, which tops out at 400 mbps.

Several vendors, including Orange Micro and Adaptec, have recently released add-in cards and software drivers that provide USB 2.0 ports. However, building the technology into the chip set is crucial to making it a standard feature on future PCs.

Intel expects to ship such chip sets for high-end and midrange systems in the first half of 2002, says Intel's Ziller, also chair of the USB 2.0 Implementers Forum industry consortium.

By then, quite a few peripherals should be available to plug into the ports. Already Addonics and Maxtor are shipping USB 2.0 external hard drives. Addonics and QPS are offering external CD-RW, DVD-ROM, DVD-R, and DVD-RAM drives. Several companies are also developing USB 2.0 hubs. Microsoft has written beta USB 2.0 drivers for Windows XP and 2000, and it expects to provide final drivers for Windows XP by the end of this year or early 2002, according to Mark Croft, a Microsoft spokesperson.

SDRAM Alternative

Intel's other chip set announcement is the forthcoming 845 chip set, code-named Brookdale. The chip set, previewed at IDF, will use industry-standard SDRAM memory rather than Rambus DRAM, which is now used with Pentium 4 systems. The 845 chip set is scheduled to become available in September, say Intel officials.

It should help lower the overall price of Pentium 4 PCs. With the announcement of the 2-GHz Pentium 4, Intel dropped prices on the rest of its Pentium CPU family. Competitor AMD also reduced prices of its Athlon line.

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