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PCs: Form Follows Function

An Asus notebook prototype shows off SideShow, a Windows Vista technology that will give you instant access to incoming e-mail messages and other information.
An Asus notebook prototype shows off SideShow, a Windows Vista technology that will give you instant access to incoming e-mail messages and other information.
Computers have been evolving into some radical designs--such as Media Center PCs and pint-size Shuttle systems--that only a few years ago would never have left the lab. From Acer's 20.1-inch "laptop" (weighing 17.3 pounds) to Dell's XPS M2010 (a 20.1-inch notebook/desktop hybrid), oddball systems are beginning to look, well, a little less odd.

Still, Dell chief technology officer Kevin Kettler says that while designs like the M2010 are interesting exercises, they aren't quite the future. "[Traditional] desktops aren't going away any time soon," he notes. With emerging markets like China, demand for inexpensive PCs should stay strong.

Despite efforts like Intel's Viiv initiative, which seeks to standardize media PC components, few observers are especially bullish about entertainment PCs. Notes Kettler, "The next couple of generations of wireless [standards] will allow you to access any type of media, anywhere in the house." You simply won't need an entertainment PC stuck beside a TV.

Steve Kleynhans, vice president of client computing at analysis firm Gartner, says that mobile PCs will continue along the two current primary design trends: ultraportables under 4 pounds, and 15- to 17-inch desktop replacement notebooks pushing 8 to 10 pounds, and mostly meant to be used while plugged in.

Scheduled for early 2007, Intel's fourth-generation Centrino notebook platform includes up to several gigabytes of fast NAND flash memory, which is expected to deliver faster boot times and application loading.

And don't forget the dazzle: Vista's SideShow technology will allow laptop makers to include a display on the lid of the notebook, much like the external display on a clamshell cell phone. Want to check if you have an e-mail waiting? You won't even have to flip open the computer. PortalPlayer's Preface technology, expected in the first half of 2007, will work along with SideShow to provide a detachable display/PDA that you can use independently of the notebook.

Beyond the next few years, fanciful designs rule. Jerry Bautista, director of technology management at Intel's Microprocessor Technology Labs, thinks chips could even be built into furniture or even woven into fabric: Imagine a PDA or cell phone built into your shirt sleeve.

One Device to Rule Them All?

The PC has been the window to the digital world for 25 years, but ways of accessing information continue to evolve. In the chart below, we've taken an admittedly arbitrary crack at laying odds on which device will be your go-to gizmo in 2011.

Palm TreoRobert CardinSMART PHONES
3-2 short odds
Attraction: Universally used already; QWERTY keypads becoming commonplace; wide high-speed network coverage; choices in operating system
The Motorola Q, T-Mobile Sidekick III, and Palm Treo phones have shown the possibilities of these devices. But tiny screens and keyboards can frustrate.
Samsung Q1Robert CardinULTRA MOBILE PCs (UMPCs)
6-1 odds
Attraction: A Windows XP PC in a format the size of a hardcover book
The Samsung Q1 (pictured with its portable keyboard) and similar devices are gorgeous, but they have been lackluster in early reviews. For many people, they're currently underpowered, costly, and poor on battery life.
15-1 outside option
Attraction: Geek chic; improving battery life; expanding media capabilities; lots of choice; Archos's forthcoming 604 and Microsoft's Zune will have Wi-Fi
Today's Apple iPods rule all in music, but few people use them as PDAs. Future devices will need better data entry and networking for broader utility.
50-1 long shot
Attraction: Built-in Wi-Fi; storage options abound; large screen (or two)
The Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable prove that game handhelds can do more than play Tetris, but such features as a Web browser have been afterthoughts. On the PSP, data entry is next to impossible with the joystick.
The PCRobert CardinTHE PC
More than even chance
Attraction: The machine you know and love
It may look a little different or contain innards completely foreign to you today, but chances are you'll continue to use a desktop, a laptop, or even a tablet PC as your primary device for work and play.

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