In 2001, watch for faster, cheaper and smaller PCs

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Faster, cheaper, roomier -- been there, done that. When it comes to PC predictions, forecasts of greater speed, lower prices, and more storage and memory are getting to be old hat. So what else will be new in personal computing next year? Smaller and legacy-free systems, say the industry experts PCWorld.com editors talked with about coming trends in 2001.

Sure, speeds and feeds will continue to surge. Desktop Pentium 4 processors should reach 2 GHz, possibly as early as fall of 2001, according to Intel. AMD will also continue to crank out faster Athlon processors, although the popular chip likely won't keep pace with the P4. AMD expects Athlon to reach 1.5 GHz in the first half of 2001.

Even notebooks and budget PCs are expected to hit the 1-GHz mark in 2001, says Kevin Krewell, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources. But only professional video editors may really care because today's machines are already more than fast enough to take care of more mundane computing needs such as word processing and accounting apps.

However, a PC that doesn't require much space and doesn't need to be opened up to add a scanner, network card, or other peripheral-now that's something to look forward to.

Shedding size, surplus slots

And good news isn't just limited to the box itself. Analysts at the display technologies research firm Stanford Resources expect LCD monitor prices to continue tumbling. That 15-incher you've been eyeing could drop to $600 by year's end. Want something bigger? Seventeen-inch LCD displays may go for about $1000 in the same time frame.

Your skinny new PC may shed some of its weight and girth by dispensing with such has-beens as ISA slots and parallel and serial ports. Instead, expect more devices that will connect via USB ports and, in the not-too-distant future, their successors-USB 2.0 ports.

USB 2.0 will support older USB devices, but USB 2.0 devices will connect at 480 mbps, or 40 times the speed of their predecessors. That's bandwidth on the order of IEEE 1394 (Firewire) hookups, which are also expected to become more common in 2001-vintage PCs.

All-in-one units appear

Rob Enderle, vice president and research leader at the Giga Information Group, says a more intriguing development in PC shrinkage will be what he calls the modular PC.

This modular unit will have a core about the size of a PDA that contains all the guts of a PC-processor, memory, and hard drive. You'll get the missing components-input device, display, and power-by sliding this core into one of several modules or docking stations. A desktop dock will connect to a full-size monitor and keyboard; a notebook will have a bay for the core; you might even have a PDA module. The key benefit: You'll always have all your data handy-no syncing required. (Just don't lose that core unit.)

The core should cost $700 to $1000, the desktop dock around $200, the laptop module $800, and the PDA module $400, he says. Enderle expects major vendors to display their first modular PCs at next year's Fall Comdex, but at least one small, independent firm is coming out with a working model in the first quarter of the year.

Next for notebooks: performance boosts

In addition to performance notebooks with high-speed processors from Intel and eventually AMD (which will roll out its mobile Athlon and mobile Duron chips), the spotlight (if not big sales) will likely remain on small units that need less power.

Intel will introduce more of its low--power PIII processors, which appear to be a response to the first low-power Crusoe chips from Transmeta, Giga's Enderele says.

The early Crusoe chips haven't lived up to the company's hype about performance and improved battery life, but the company still has plenty of cash on hand, Enderle says.

MDR's Krewell says while Transmeta didn't have a great year-especially with high-profile defections by IBM and Compaq--2001 could be better, even if the company does remain a niche player. The company is scheduled to deliver its next-generation Crusoe chips this year, which it says will offer significantly better performance and battery life.

Gartner Group analyst Ken Dulaney expects to see more notebooks with DVD/CD-RW combo drives, and higher-resolution screens.

"We'll also see the emergence of truly legacy-free notebooks," he says, which will lack parallel, serial, and mouse ports, and so forth. However, the much-discussed Bluetooth wireless protocol for device-to-device connections will still be mostly an add-on via PC Card: It will probably be another two years before it will be bundled with all notebooks, Dulaney says.

Windows whistles a new tune

On the operating system front, you don't need a crystal ball since Microsoft has already started talking up the next version of Windows, code-named Whistler. Microsoft still expects to release Whistler by year's end; stay tuned on whether it can make its own deadline.

Whistler will merge the Windows 2000 code base with Windows Millenium Edition's usability features, and will come in two flavors-a business and a consumer edition. The Whistler era also signals the end of the Windows 9x era: Windows Me is the end of the line for that OS.

Another no-brainer prediction: Home networking will begin to take off in earnest as more and more households get a broadband Internet hookup and want to share it among several PCs.

Less easy to predict is what kind of home network will predominate. Analysts expect phone-line-based networks using the HomePNA standard to win over power-line-based networks, but wireless networks are gaining ground as the technology's price comes down. There too, a battle looms, with the faster 11-mbps 802.11B standard gaining ground over slower but slightly cheaper HomeRF-based hookups.

Expect convergence and lower costs

Convergence between PCs and audio and video entertainment should also advance in 2001, with more and more people playing MP3s on stereos as well as portable devices like the Rio. However, Bryan Ma, senior analyst at IDC, says we won't be streaming movies onto our PCs anytime soon. And he's a bit uncertain about the prospects for the latest thing in convergence, Internet radio devices that download music and play them in the home.

"It really comes down to who's listening to audio streams today and how often," Ma says. "Many of us listen to radio in the car; in the long term I think that's where streaming radio is going."

Speaking of being on the move, one technology that's likely to become more ubiquitous is the instant messaging device. Less intrusive than a jangling cell phone but just as instantaneous, devices such as RIM's wireless handhelds and Motorola's Talkabout pagers are likely to pop up in meeting rooms and other public places.

Print this -- cheap

If 2000 was the year of the dirt-cheap color inkjet, 2001 may be the year of the dirt-cheap laser. Look for units priced below $200. And if money is not a problem, look for speed: At least one vendor, Xerox, has introduced a corporate laser rated at 45 pages per minute.

Also look closely at the price and size of the ink cartridges for that $100 to $200 inkjet. With the machines so cheap, vendors may try to squeeze a few more dollars out of consumers by either raising prices of consumables or cutting back on their yield.

Color lasers are still pretty expenssive, but prices are dropping slowly. Look for more sub-$2,000 units-but don't expect them to reach $1,000 very quickly.

You'll be seeing more and more printers bundled with desktops-and, soon, with Internet appliances as well. Also look for more printers with wireless networking capability, so you can print straight from a PDA.

Speed, size and other hits

A sampling of other likely PC trends and forecasts heard around the PCWorld.com editorial offices:

  • Plain vanilla CD-ROM drives will virtually disappear, in favor of DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives.
  • Systems with DDR (double data rate) memory will begin to become common by the middle to end of the year-even on systems based on Intel processors. Rambus (RDRAM) is the loser here.
  • Cell phone-PDAs, which combine both products into one handy device, could be a huge product this year. PDAs are clearly viewed as cool products by many, but have remained something of a niche product because most people don't have the kind of scheduling demands that require them to have a PDA. As part of a moblile phone, however, a PDA is a terrific feature.

Using the power

With everything from value PCs to notebooks to high-end servers running at 1 GHz and beyond, a recurring question will become more serious for the industry: What are people going to do with all that speed?

MDR's Krewell says that while in the past software eventually did catch up with hardware, today's CPUs have far outpaced the needs of all but the most demanding programs.

"Now we have to figure out what to do with all that processing power," he says.

His suggestion: Download the SETI@home program, which uses the spare processor cycles of volunteer machines to crunch data related to the search for aliens. "You might as well do some good with it," Krewell says.

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