What's in Store for 2004--and Beyond

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Inside the Box

Technology marches on, but some things never change. Take the chip wars, for example. Last fall AMD fired a shot across Intel's bow by shipping the first 64-bit computing platform for Windows desktops. (Apple beat AMD to market with its 64-bit G5 Power Macs in September.) The 2-GHz Athlon 64 can boost processor-intensive tasks like data encryption, 3D gaming, CAD, and content creation. But its power won't be truly felt until 64-bit versions of Windows XP and key applications arrive; at press time Microsoft announced that Windows XP 64 would be delayed until late 2004.

In response to AMD's move, Intel announced the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition. The 3.2-GHz chip features a larger memory cache, an 800-MHz frontside bus for faster data transfer, and an additional 2MB of L3 cache. Like the Athlon 64, the Extreme chip is aimed at gamers and other performance junkies.

Later this year Intel will ship a new line of Pentium 4 chips, currently code-named Prescott. They'll be the first CPUs made with a new 90-nanometer fabrication process that creates circuits nearly 50 percent smaller than the ones inside today's P4s. (AMD and Transmeta also have 90nm chips in the works.) As circuits get smaller, chips can run at higher clock speeds and execute more instructions per second.

"The 130nm chips have begun to reach their limit at around 3.2 GHz," notes Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with research firm Insight 64. "Prescott should be able to get up to 4 GHz." The Prescott processor will also feature a larger on-chip cache, which will speed performance by reducing the CPU's need to access system memory.

Rumors abound that Tejas, Intel's successor to Prescott, will debut near the end of the year with speeds from 5 to 7 GHz, that it will feature laptop-like power-management features, and that it or Prescott will support 64-bit applications.

This year will also see faster memory chips, says Brookwood, as Double Data Rate 2 chips become available. DDR2 memory's data-transfer rate starts at 533 megabits per second (about 4.3 gigabits per second per memory module), 33 percent faster than first-generation DDRs. The chips will also be smaller, requiring less power than first-generation DDR. Hot on their heels will be DDR3, capable of moving data at 1.6 gbps (6.4 gbps per module) and already being tested by makers of high-end graphics cards.

Down the Road

Moore's law--the concept that chip performance will double every 18 months or so--is alive and well. Researchers are just beginning to build chips with circuits only 65nm wide, and IBM and AMD are among those working to develop a 45nm process. Intel envisions paring that to 22nm by the year 2011. But to get much smaller than 45nm, chip makers may have to adopt new methods.

Today's chips are created using ultraviolet lithography, which focuses light through lenses to carve circuit patterns into a silicon wafer. The smaller the wavelength, the smaller the circuit. By around 2009, chip makers will hit a physical limit on wavelength size and will switch to a process called Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography. Using xenon gas molecules and mirrors, EUVL can shrink circuits by a factor of 10.

But by 2013 the ability to improve performance by shrinking silicon will be nearing its end, says Jim Tully, chief of research for Gartner. "Vendors and immediate users of semiconductors must plan for the use of next-generation semiconductor technologies such as molecular transistors," he notes.

For example, researchers from UCLA and Hewlett-Packard have created molecules that can be turned "on" or "off" with minute amounts of current. Such molecules could be used as switches inside logic circuits to build infinitesimally small chips.

Hop on the PCI Express

Though chips will grow ever smaller and faster, some of the most compelling developments will take place in the pathways to and from those chips, says Peter Glaskowsky, editor of Microprocessor Report in San Jose, California.

The key to these changes is PCI Express, a faster way to shuttle data between system components that's due out later this year. Designed to replace the outdated PCI bus and the hodge-podge of different interconnects within each system, PCI Express is "the most radical redesign of the PC platform since the advent of the PCI bus in the early 1990s," says Glaskowsky.

For example, this new bus would replace AGP 8X slots and double the speed of graphics data flowing to and from system memory, enabling faster 3D gaming and smoother video editing. The high-speed connection would allow users to attach gigabit-speed ethernet cards for ultrafast networking, or to easily string together massive hard drives for terabytes of storage. Intel claims PCI Express could ultimately reach transfer rates of up to 80GB per second (AGP 8X cards currently max out around 2GB per second) and could support CPUs running at 10 GHz.

PCI Express will also allow users to connect their high-speed peripherals outside the box, à la USB or FireWire, says Insight 64's Brookwood, making for smaller computers. Coupled with Intel's new Balanced Technology Extended designs (see "Cooler and Quieter PCs"), PCI Express could help make your desktop machine invisible--hidden inside a desk or nestled within the LCD housing.

"The PCs we'll buy just three years from now will have features, user interfaces, and expansion options that are radically different from those in the systems we're using today," predicts Microprocessor Report's Glaskowsky.

Cooler and Quieter PCs

Everyone wants a PC with the power of a jet engine, but not with the noise of one. A new motherboard design called BTX promises to allow continued performance increases while requiring fewer noisy cooling fans. Most of today's desktops have motherboards with the ATX design Intel created in 1995. ATX places the processor far from the air intake, which was fine for 100-MHz CPUs that required only a heat sink for cooling. But it's a liability for today's multigigahertz chips, which demand not only their own cooling fans, but also PC cases with even more fans, and special ductwork, to get enough air.

The BTX design situates the processor at the front of the PC so that it is first in line for the cooling air, which then passes over the system chip set, the RAM, and the graphics card. This setup should cut the minimum number of noisy PC cooling fans in half--from four to two, says Intel. The arrangement also allows shorter wiring paths between key components, an increasingly important feature as memory, system, and peripheral bus speeds increase.

Intel expects to make its first BTX motherboards by mid-2004. Some other motherboard makers have expressed support for BTX, but they haven't committed to adopting it.

Seán Captain

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