Tech 2005: What's New and What's Next

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The Next PC

AMD's 64-bit dual-core Opteron chip.
Photograph: Courtesy of AMD.
Neil Young wrote that rust never sleeps. Well, neither do CPU makers. Intel and AMD have been working overtime to introduce dual-core processors that, by this time in 2006, will power most new PCs. Expected to emerge in the first half of 2005, dual-core processors squeeze two CPUs onto a single chip, turning everyday desktop and even laptop PCs into multiprocessing powerhouses.

Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for industry research firm Insight 64, says dual-core CPUs will offer impressive performance gains under multiprocessor-aware operating systems such as Windows XP. The upside looks best for games, photo and video editing, and other processor-intensive tasks.

Just don't be too disappointed when the first dual-core processors show up with clock rates as much as one-third lower than those of their single-core siblings, says Brookwood. The lower clock rates will reduce heat, cost, and stress on the chips.

On the 64-bit front, Brookwood expects that two-thirds of all PCs in 2006 will feature 64-bit processors--though only 10 to 15 percent of those will ship with 64-bit applications. But with memory capacities on high-end PCs likely to reach 4GB or more in 2006, expect memory-hungry, hyperrealistic games and advanced photo and video editing to take full advantage of the 64-bit systems.

Lego-Like PC?

For a glimpse at the future of graphics, you need look no further than PCI Express (PCIe). It's the graphics interface that will replace PCI and AGP, and it promises nearly twice the performance of AGP. PCIe boards based on the NVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra and ATI Radeon X80 chips have raised the bar for 3D graphics realism. Amping up graphics even more are boards using Scalable Link Interface technology, to let two boards work together--faster.

Guiding this development is an ambitious road map for PCIe. The so-called Gen 2 version of the spec is already on the drawing board and should double per-channel performance to 500 megabytes per second, and Brookwood expects a 1-gigabyte-per-second version down the road. That's serious speed.

PCIe could ultimately transform the shape of future PCs. An upcoming flavor of PCIe is being designed that will let fast peripherals connect to a PC over a cable (7 meters or more), rather than plugging into the motherboard. Imagine a PC consisting of pluggable modules--for example, a small box for the graphics card, another box for the hard drive, and a third box for the wireless network card. Rather than opening the case to add devices, you just slide a PCIe module into a bay. By the end of 2006, who knows? You could be upgrading your next PC with Lego-like blocks--the ultimate no-hassle upgrade.

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