New Year, New PCs?

Martyn Williams and Tom Krazit, IDG News Service

Consumers thinking about buying a new personal computer in 2005 might be better off putting off their purchase until 2006. With few major changes in PC hardware or software due over the next year, the PC of 2005 is likely to look awfully similar to the PC of today.

Big changes aren’t due until 2006, when the Longhorn operating system from Microsoft, 64-bit applications, and optical drives based on the Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD formats will become available to the average user.

Still, that doesn’t mean there are no technologies worth looking out for for those who do plan to upgrade in 2005.

Fresh Chips

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are expected to unveil dual-core chips–which contain two processor cores on a single piece of silicon–by the end of 2005, although they probably won’t appear in mainstream PCs until well into 2006, said Stephen Baker, director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld in Reston, Virginia.

Intel will likely boost the cache memory in its Pentium 4 processor and AMD is expected to increase the clock speed of its Athlon 64, but these changes will be incremental. A more substantial shift in processor performance, the move to 64-bit computing, probably also won’t happen next year, even though Microsoft is expected to finally release a 64-bit version of Windows XP (news – web sites) in early 2005.

Bigger changes can be expected in chipsets, which handle the flow of communication between the processor and the rest of a PC. A new series of Intel chipsets supporting the PCI Express interface and DDR2 memory will trickle down to mainstream systems, or those priced at about $800, in 2005, Baker said.

PCI Express will allow data to travel faster between the chipset and peripheral hardware such as graphics cards and storage. Intel has billed its introduction as one of its most important upgrades in a decade. While that might be stretching it, mainstream users will begin to see more and more products that take advantage of the increased bandwidth in 2005, Baker said.

DDR2 will allow memory chips to move data at faster clock rates. The older DDR standard is reaching the limit of its effectiveness as memory clock rates exceed 400MHz. Memory chip vendors are expected to produce larger amounts of DDR2 in 2005, bringing costs down and allowing vendors to put faster memory chips in cheaper PCs.

PCI Express and DDR Memory will also appear in notebooks from early 2005 with the introduction of Intel’s next-generation Alviso chipset. Notebook sales have been growing faster than those of desktops for several years, a trend that will continue into 2005, said Roger Kay, vice president of client computing at IDC, in Framingham, Massachusetts.

That’s Entertainment

Technologies that make it easier to handle music, video, games and other multimedia are also on tap for 2005.

PC vendors will release more PCs with Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 operating system, designed to make it easy to burn DVDs and manage digital media files, as well as pause and record live television.

To help users handle their expanding collections of music and movie files, PC vendors will also increase the storage capacity of hard drives in mainstream PCs. Today they are typically between 80GB and 120GB. In 2005, expect to see $800 PCs with around 200GB of storage, Baker said.

A disk technology called Serial ATA is also becoming established. It includes a feature called Native Command Queuing, which allows a drive to manage multiple commands from the PC in whatever order it deems most efficient, rather than the order in which they were received. It can deliver a substantial performance boost to users, and that’s good news for data-heavy applications such as those involving video.

In the optical disc space, users are likely to see incremental increases in DVD read and write speeds. In the latter half of the year the first PC drives supporting new, blue-laser based disc formats, Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD, are expected to make their way onto the market. Both formats are aimed primarily at high-definition video and can store several times more data than today’s DVDs. Single-layer Blu-ray Discs can store around 25GB, while HD-DVD isn’t far behind. Hewlett-Packard recently became the first to go on record with its plans for shipping Blu-ray Disc PCs, saying it will offer them in 2005.

However, the move towards PCs with better multimedia features will only work if they provide a simple, rewarding experience for users, noted IDC’s Kay.

PCs captured the hearts and wallets of buyers by making tasks such as word processing much easier. Televisions and DVD players are also easy to use. People won’t want a PC in their living room if it doesn’t provide them with a good experience for their money, Kay said.