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This isn't your 1996 PC... Big changes are coming in computer design

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, January 1997

For IBM-styled PCs, the sort of computers that account for the vast majority of the world's personal computers, the last time there was a really big bunch of design changes was way back in 1984, the year when Big Blue first introduced the AT.

That first 286 gave us the 16-bit ISA bus, still used on most PCs. And CMOS setup programs, that allowed users to set system configurations with software. Through in high density floppy disks, hard drives as part of the package, extended memory beyond the XT's 1 meg limit, 16 IRQ channels, high resolution colour graphics, and a keyboard that still works with contemporary models.

Today's models have faster, more powerful processors and hard drives, fancier video displays, and PCI I/O buses in addition to the vintage ISA slots. But in many ways, they are simply incremental upgrades of that original IBM-AT. In fact, it's only been in the last couple of years that software has finally gone beyond 16-bit compatibility with that first AT, finally supporting the full 32-bits that have been provided by hardware starting with the 1987 386 models.

But it's starting to look like there will be enough hardware changes during 1997 that the computers for sale by the end of the year will be dramatically different from 1996's models-as different as 1984's AT was from the previous generation's models.

We've already started to see some change. In the past year, Intel has rethought the motherboard-their ATX design sports an open standard that turns the board sideways. It's incompatible with cases and power supplies that have been in use since the early 1980s, but provides more efficient cooling and easier access to the CPU and ram.

But that's just the start of the innovations that we can expect over this year. Coming right at us are new designs including:

* Intel's MMX processor upgrades. MMX processors are replacements for the current Pentium and Pentium-Pro models, with additional instructions optimized for multimedia. These are the first major additions to the Intel 80x86 processor instruction set since the 32-bit 386 mid-way through the 1980s. For software designed to take advantage of it, MMX promises much improved multimedia, 3D, and graphics performance. Intel won't be the only manufacturer supporting this new standard-competitors Cyrix and AMD are also promising their respective equivalents.

* The PCI internal bus has become standard in the past two years, replacing the 486's VLB local bus, and even appearing on new PowerMacs. It's got a lot of life in it; expect it to be around for several more years. Expect to see graphics adapters moving to the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) standard, however, for a more direct connection between the processor and the video card.

And look for systems supporting two different external bus designs.

The first, Universal Serial Port (USP) is already starting to appear on new motherboards and systems, even though there aren't yet many peripherals to attach to it. It promises a simple, single, higher speed way to connect all sorts of devices ranging from keyboard and mice to scanners, printers and modems to digital speakers.

Further down the pipeline, but promising even higher speed, is FireWire, also known as IEEE 1394 (a name even its mother doesn't remember). A 100 Mbps connection (compared with USP's 12 Mbs and a standard serial port's 115 Kbps), FireWire promises easy connection to more demanding devices, from the next generation of superfast hard drives and video input devices.

* With RAM prices low, look for systems that support larger than ever amounts of memory (and look for software that will be demanding more and more RAM). New models of RAM will become increasingly important. Just as 72-pin, 32 bit SIMMs replaced earlier 30-pin 8 bit SIMMs a few years ago, and EDO RAM replaced standard DRAM, new generation designs will become increasingly prominent this year. Watch out for acronyms like SDRAM (for Synchronous DRAM) and RDRAM (for Rambus DRAM), in physical memory modules called DIMMs (for Dual in-line memory modules) replacing today's SIMMs.

As well, the Unified Memory Architecture (UMA) will simplify system design, by allowing computer subsystems like the video card to draw on the system's single memory bank.

* Like RAM, hard drive prices are at an all-time low. Look for this to continue, with enhancements to both the EIDE standard and SCSI high-end standard supporting bigger and cheaper drives-until both are replaced, at least at the high end, by FireWire-compatible drives. A more dramatic change will begin in 1997, however, with the appearance of the first DVD devices.

These Digital Video/Versatile Drives will be appearing in both computer and home entertainment versions-similar to the current audio CD/CD-ROM models. But initially supporting 4.7 gigabytes of information and high speeds, they promise to revolutionize mass storage. And writable models should not be too far behind, along with improvements promising even higher storage capacities.

Add in other improvements, like 3D-accelerated video and wide-pipe Internet connections, and by the end of the year, we'll be seeing a PC that will be significantly different than last year's model, and will be being used in a significantly different way.

At Canadian Computer Wholesaler, we know that it's important to our readers to remain ahead of these major changes, to be able to anticipate customer demand.

Over the next few months, we will be presenting articles on each of these areas of new technology, highlighting the promises and the potential problems.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan