A fast CPU is only as good as the system that surrounds it, and if you're waiting for your hard drive, USB scanner, or wireless connection, what's the point of a 3.5GHz processor?
To that end, Intel supports numerous PC performance initiatives - and Wednesday it trotted out representatives from some of its most cherished future technologies to offer updates and field questions at the Intel Developer Forum in the US this week.
Intel, of course, says it wants to keep the PC the central coordinating technology in home and business. So PCs must work and communicate well with other devices, says Steve Whalley, manager of the Always Connected computing initiative at Intel. And overall, the PC industry must meet the challenge of turning from technology-driven products to consumer-driven, human-centered ones, he adds.
Intel aims to meet this challenge with a handful of different technologies, Whalley says. Priorities include wireless technologies 802.11 and Bluetooth; a new, faster I/O bus technology called Third-Generation I/O (3GIO); a faster hard drive interface called Serial ATA; an improved USB port called USB 2.0; and AGP8X, the coming upgrade to today's 4X AGP graphics interface.
Checking on Bluetooth, 802.11
In his introduction for Bluetooth, a wireless standard for "personal area networks" of under ten meters long touted by Intel, Whalley acknowledged the standard's slow growth in the United States.
"It would be easy for me to jump on the bandwagon and say Bluetooth is dead," he says. But it's not, and Intel still believes it will coexist with the rapidly growing 802.11b wireless LAN standard.
Panel moderator Martin Reynolds, a Gartner vice president and research fellow, notes that Bluetooth has polarized users. Those in the United States suggest it's dead, while many in Europe call it wonderful.
Simon Ellis, manager of Intel's mobile communications and initiatives, confirms Bluetooth is starting to take hold in Europe and other areas of the world where cell phones reign supreme. However, in the PC-centric North American market, despite years of suggesting the technology is right around the corner, "the reality is it will be two or three years before it is huge here," Simon notes.
When hackers cracked 802.11b security earlier this year, many questioned the use of the wireless standard for sensitive business information. Carol Jacobson, Intel's wireless initiative manager, acknowledges the security problems, but says firmware fixes are in the works. Owners of 802.11b products won't have to buy new hardware to fix the problems, she says. Jacobson did not say when a fix might be available.
Serial ATA and USB 2.0
The Serial ATA standard will be the next-generation internal storage interface, Whalley says. Backers released the final 1.0 specification for the standard this week, and 74 companies are participating in the Serial ATA Working Group, he says. The first products are expected to arrive in the first half of 2002, with full integration into chip sets coming later.
Jason Ziller, Intel's technology initiatives manager, says Serial ATA will offer much improved data transfer rates over today's mainstream ATA 100 hard drive interface standard. Initial maximum speeds will be 1.5 gigabits per second (equivalent to a data rate of 150 megabits per second) (Maxtor's recent introduction of ATA 133 with a transfer rate of 133 megabits per second, is a stop-gap solution until Serial ATA arrives.)
Another technology that should help improve system design is USB 2.0, which is rapidly appearing in the market after a slow start. Offering speeds 40 times that of today's USB 1.1, the port will appear first on add-in cards, Ziller says. In time, chip set vendors will integrate it into their products. Intel demonstrated a prototype chip set with integrated USB 2.0 this week, but offered no time frame for the release of the integrated motherboard chip set.
Can it survive alongside the increasingly popular 1394 (also known as Firewire)? Each technology should find its place, Ziller says.
"USB 2.0 focuses on PC peripherals, and 1394 today is used for consumer electronics connections - primarily video camcorders, but moving to other consumer electronics," he says.
3GIO and AGP8X
If it's important for hard drives and external peripherals to communicate quickly with the PC's brain, it's even more important for wires that connect chips, adapter cards, and graphics inside the PC to improve over time, too.
"As an industry we are re-architecting the PC for the future," says Whalley, referring to the 3GIO initiative. This next-generation technology will offer significantly faster speeds than today's PCI bus, and is on track for a final specification by mid 2002.
Sandeep Sharma, Intel's 3D graphics technology initiatives manager, points to AGP8X as yet another future boost to PC performance.
Due in products by 2002, the new interface will benefit both hard-core gamers and business users who crave better, faster graphics on their PCs. When pressed, however, Sharma acknowledges that most mainstream users won't initially notice the benefit of AGP8X over today's AGP4X.
Wanted: ease of use
While technology advances are important, few of these initiatives will matter if the PC doesn't keep getting easier to use, Intel's Whalley says.
Asked to pick three functions that, if improved, could lead to greater ease of use, Whalley starts at the beginning: boot up.
Users don't want to wait three or four minutes for their PC to start, he says. And today, with improved BIOS and operating systems, there is no reason for a slow start. In fact, some systems boot in under 20 seconds, he says. All of them should.
Another key area is power management, he says. If you can drop a PC into a deep sleep that uses very little power, then resumes within three to four seconds, people will be very pleased.
And finally, hardware vendors need to spend more time and effort on the software drivers they provide. Shoddy drivers cause more problems - and tech support calls - than any other issue, he says. Gartner's Reynolds adds his own definition of ease of use: a light under the computer desk.
"That way I can see what I'm doing," when he's on the floor messing with a misbehaving PC, he says.