The Shape of PCs to Come

So we've been listening to the experts at technology confabs such as last week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference to catch their vision of the PCs of the near future.

Some observations are familiar: PCs will get smaller, faster, and (ahem!) easier to use. They will hear our commands, help us communicate via voice and visual cues, and connect to everything under the sun.

And, yes, most will still run Windows.

At WinHEC, Bill Gates offered Microsoft's vision of a PC circa 2003. The chic prototype came loaded with a built-in video camera and microphone for videoconferencing and dictation. This nimble powerhouse had a rewritable DVD drive and high-bandwidth Universal Serial Bus 2.0, and snapped to attention in less than ten seconds. On its tiny LCD "digital dashboard," you could play music and check for new e-mail without having to boot up.

Frisky Form Factors

Tomorrow's PCs will look a lot cooler, and you can already buy some early models. Forerunners include Compaq's iPac, Dell's WebPC, and Gateway's Astro. They'll get even jazzier and sleeker, says Patrick Gelsinger, vice president and chief technology officer of Intel's architecture group.

"PCs are just going to be really cool fashion statements next year," he says. Speed, simplicity, and style will replace the big beige boxes of yesteryear.

USB or Bust

Streamlined looks will come with streamlined innards, as vendors finally retire some old (in Internet years, that is) technology. Most notably, "It's time to bite the bullet" and drop ISA slots and parallel and serial ports, says Michael Slater, executive editor of Microprocessor Report. Replacing them with USB ports is the best way to improve PC design, he says.

Slater calls USB the "single most important improvement in usability in recent years." With USB, you never have to open the box. That encourages small, sealed boxes that look better, are easier to configure and manage, and are more reliable, Slater says.

USB 2.0, boosting bandwidth from USB 1.1's 12 mbps to 480 mbps, should show up in devices by the end of 2000. The technology will link low bandwidth products such as mice and scanners, as well as speed-hungry devices such as portable external hard drives, DVD-ROM drives, and some digital video cameras.

CPU Combos

Leading chip makers are cramming more functions onto CPUs. "PCs on a chip" could radically change systems' appearance and price.

Intel's Timna CPU will integrate the processor, graphics, and memory controllers onto one piece of silicon, creating a cheaper part that supports a very small form. At WinHEC, Intel showed a Timna-powered motherboard the size of a thin paperback. Timna, by the way, is a code name; we'll learn the real name when the chip hits the market.

"Developers can wrap whatever kind of form factor they want to around these," says Steve Whalley, Ease of Use Initiative manager for Intel. Timna, expected to debut in the second half of 2000, should power petite PCs priced at less than $US600.

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