Developers gather to plot next generation PCs

I often wonder whether PCs running Windows 95, 98 or NT4 in 48Mbytes have some sort of voodoo power, because nothing else could...

I often wonder whether PCs running Windows 95, 98 or NT4 in 48Mbytes have some sort of voodoo power, because nothing else could explain the way UK businesses cling to them like childhood sweethearts.

Perhaps someone has convinced them that PCs have not changed in the past 10 or 20 years, which is true in the same way that a Boeing 777 is basically the same as a Dakota DC-3. However, in a parallel universe (well, in San Francisco), the world's PC designers gathered last week to plot their next steps forward at the Intel Developer Forum.

Intel has already announced Prescott, the next step in the Pentium 4 line. Its features include 13 new multimedia instructions, more cache memory, longer pipelines and better multi-threading, which Intel calls hyper-threading. It starts at the usual speeds and prices but will scale to 4GHz this year and perhaps 5GHz next year.

It should also get cheaper. Intel is fabricating Prescott with smaller (90nm) transistors on bigger silicon wafers, which could triple the yield. And if Prescott chips are cheaper to make in volume than the current Northwood versions, it makes sense to ramp up Prescott production as rapidly as possible.

Other new PC technologies will take longer to arrive. The hot hardware topics include the PCI Express bus, Serial ATA hard drives, and the transition to DDR2 memory chips. None of these is new, but they have yet to become mass-market standards.

The main problem with PCs is the 33MHz PCI bus, which is a bottleneck. It is too slow for Serial ATA disc drives, Gigabit Ethernet connections or high-speed graphics.

One temporary option PC makers have used is to move graphics to a separate Advanced Graphics Port, currently AGP8X, but PCI Express will make that obsolete. If you look at a BTX motherboard design, which is intended to supersede today's ATX, notice the PCI-Express X16 slot for the graphics card.

Another problematic area is the move from 32-bit desktop computing to 64-bit systems. This has been on the cards for a decade, or ever since Digital Equipment Corp introduced the 64-bit Alpha and put cheap 64-bit PCs running Windows NT onto a few people's desktops.

Well, 64-bit desktops could soon be making a comeback, mainly because of Intel's rival, AMD. Its Opteron processor has not sold in huge numbers, but it has certainly turned heads. We therefore wait with interest to hear what Intel has to say about extending its 32-bit x86 lines (Celeron, Pentium, Xeon) into the 64-bit world.

Given Intel's long-term support for the 64-bit Itanium, which it designed with Hewlett-Packard, this may be a painful area. But I think the Rambus debacle has reminded Intel that, in the end, it is the market that decides.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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