If you're thinking of getting a new PC, it might be worth hanging on - there are a few new technologies just around the corner.
In the next month or so, expect Intel to launch three new chip sets with more new technology goodies than any self-respecting geek could hope to find under their Star Trek ornament-laden Christmas tree. New system bus, new memory, new hard drive technology, new wireless options, new sound - it really is the works.
Advanced Micro Devices fans, fret not. That company's partners are planning new chip sets too, with many (but not all) of the same technologies. Intel loyalists, however, will get first dibs.
Get on the bus
Intel's three new chip sets - the high-end 925X Express (formerly code-named Alderwood) and the midrange 915G and 915P Express chip sets (formerly Grantsdale) - will support the PCI Express system bus instead of standard PCI.
Today's venerable PCI standard allows data to travel at up to 133MBps in one direction only - stuff headed the other way has to wait its turn. A standard PCI Express bus (called an X1) will offer transfers of up to 250MBps in each direction, for a total of 500MBps. This should help speed up basic PC operations - and it'll vastly improve gigabit networking, which runs into serious bottlenecks on the PCI bus.
Another area that's always in need of more bandwidth is graphics. Years ago, to support the evolution of powerful new graphics cards, the PC industry abandoned the PCI bus and created the Accelerated Graphics Port. PCI Express brings graphics back into the fold, and offers 4GBps concurrent transfers to and from PCI Express-based graphics cards. For comparison, today's 8x AGP bus offers 2GBps of shared bandwidth. Intel's 925X Express and 915P Express chip sets will offer a PCI Express graphics port, but no AGP, the 915G Express will include Intel's new integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 900.
While it's unlikely the first-generation of PCI Express-based graphics cards will take full advantage of that additional throughput, it should eventually lead to even better, more responsive PC graphics. All that throughput will make it easier for software and hardware to handle multiple video streams, which is important to technologies like personal video recording.
Further supplementing the speed improvements from PCI Express is Intel's move to DDR2 memory support with these chip sets. DDR2 is an evolution of today's double data rate memory - designed to offer faster speeds with lower power consumption. Today's typical motherboards support DDR running at 400Mhz. Faster speeds exist, but they're not ratified by the memory standards body. Intel's first chip sets will support DDR2 running at 533MHz.
Faster neo, faster
With this launch, Intel brings RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) technology to the masses. The technology, which essentially lets a PC use two hard disks as one, has long been a favourite of savvy users.
Concerned that non-techies will associate the name with killing bugs, Intel executives renamed their version "Matrix Storage Technology" (which carries a less negative connotation only if you skipped the second two movies in the Matrix trilogy). The technology itself is better than its moniker. It offers easy access to RAID through a non-intimidating interface. The technology supports RAID 0 and RAID 1. RAID 0 interleaves data between two drives to create a double-size drive with about twice the effective throughput; RAID 1 writes all data to two drives at once, ensuring the information survives if one drive fails.
Better still, the Matrix technology includes built-in support for Serial ATA's new Native Command Queuing. This technology effectively makes NCQ-ready hard drives work smarter by reordering commands into a more efficient sequence on the fly. The drive ends up spinning less to access the same amount of information, which should speed performance.
Integrated audio gets a much-needed boost this time out with Intel's High Definition Audio technology (formerly code-named Azalea). With integrated 192-KHz, 24-bit, 8-channel audio, and support for all the major audio formats, such as Dolby Digital and DTS, Intel is clearly gunning for audio card makers like Creative. The new sound technology lets you send different audio streams to different devices at the same time; and it offers jack retasking, which means the system will change the jack to work with the device you plug in. So, for example, if you plug a microphone into a jack that was being used for headphones, the system figures out that change and alters the jack to make the microphone work.
Finally, Intel is adding to the mix a new technology it calls Wireless Connect, which will add the hardware you need to turn your desktop into a wireless access point. Intel says it has created a four-step setup that will make it painless to set up a secure 802.11b/g network in just a few minutes. While this eliminates the need to buy a wireless access point, it does mean you'll have to leave your PC running to maintain the network.
A few drawbacks
Beyond the potential performance gains, there are a few other things to consider before you buy your first PC or motherboard based on these new chip sets. Specifically, you won't be able to bring much along from your current system.
Probably the most notable item here is your graphics card. If you just spent a lot of money on an AGP card with ATI or NVidia's latest and greatest graphic chip, then I don't suggest rushing to build a new PCI Express-based unit. Your spiffy new card won't make the trip to the new platform. Intel's new chip sets support only PCI Express graphics. The same goes for your DDR memory, which won't work in the new DDR2 slots. In addition, you can expect to pay more for DDR2 memory than DDR. Even Intel admits you'll pay a premium for DDR2, at least for a while.
And what about that big old Serial ATA drive you love? While it will work in the new Matrix setup, you won't be able to take advantage of NCQ. To use NCQ, you'll need a drive with that technology already on board - a firmware upgrade won't work.
There are a lot of decent components that won't make it into your new system. However, an upgrade may just be a good excuse to turn your current PC into a streaming media server - or something equally exciting.