Too Many Choices? You're not alone!

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, December 1998

Sigh. Life used to be so simple.

Just a couple of years ago, motherboards, for example, were a one size fits all sort of thing. Intel?s Socket 7 design could accommodate,  that company?s Pentium processors, their MMX successor, and clones from AMD, Cyrix, and others. PCI slots for high-end controllers, and ISA slots for everything else.

Sound cards were either made by Creative Labs, or tried to be as compatible as possible with that company?s Sound Blaster standard.

As a result, with a little mix and match, it was easy to make a PC. Slap a brand name on the front, and go into business. More mixing and matching, and you?d have an entire product line.

I guess it was just too easy.

Let?s start with CPUs.

Intel migrated its product line over to a new, incompatible design?Slot 1. Pentium IIs and low-end Celerons from the company used motherboards with that design, while the competition?s products continued to work with Socket 7 designs. But even that was too simple. AMD has announced that its next generation, K7 CPUs will, like Pentium IIs, be designed on a cartridge, and will fit in a slot that will be ?mechanically identical? to Slot 1.

Nice weasel words. Mechanically identical means the slot will look just like Intel?s version. But AMD?s  socket isn?t electronically compatible? so AMD CPUs will fit in Intel sockets and vice versa?they just won?t work. This is bound to confuse users, and requires motherboard manufacturers to design and stock yet another line of incompatible motherboards.

Not to be left out, Intel has switched strategies for their low-cost Celeron line yet again. Initially, Celeron CPUs were compatible with Pentium II-style Slot 1 designs, an Intel strategy to wean the market from the older Socket 7 designs favored by the cloners.  Recently, however, Intel announced a new line of socketed Celeron models, a design change made possible by the integration of the L2 cache in latest generation of Celerons. But while the 370 pin socket resembles the classic Socket 7 design, it also won?t be compatible.

Initially, Intel will continue to sell the single-edge processor Slot 1 Celerons alongside the PPGA (plastic pin grid array) socketed model, but it will be phasing out sales of the Slot 1 model, forcing motherboard manufacturers to support yet another product line, and making it more difficult for consumers to upgrade a Celeron to a higher-end P-II.

Processor and motherboard designs aren?t the only place where standards are fragmenting.

Do you want a PCI or AGP graphics card? AGP1 or AGP2? Just as flat panel display prices are approaching the point where they might become an option, we start to get analog models that will work with a standard video adapter, and not one, but two competing standards for digital connections, improving clarity by eliminating the digital to analog to digital conversions otherwise required?but at the cost of only working with a limited range of video adapters.

If all this didn?t make video confusing enough, end-users, vendors, and manufacturers have to try and make their way through a maze of competing and incompatible 3D models. Primarily of interest to game players, this, at least, holds out the possibility of becoming less of an issue, as more and more games are designed with Microsoft?s Direct 3D in mind. By writing for Direct 3D (a part of the Direct X group of programming environments), developers do not have to write code for 3D adapters they wish to support?as long as the adapter has a Direct 3D driver, any Direct 3D game or program will be playable.

Similarly, as game developers finally abandon DOS, old-style Sound Blaster compatibility has become less and less important.

As a result, the new generation of audio adapters have finally been able to move away from the old ISA bus. New products are all using the PCI bus, resulting in fewer hardware configuration nightmares. At the same time, we again are seeing several competing wannabe standards?particularly with Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live models opposing a variety of products featuring Aureal?s A3D chipsets. Aureal?s recent A3D 2.0 specification and Vortex 2 sound processor up the ante for their product line, while Creative is offering its new EAX drivers for all its PCI models.

As with the 3D video-wars, much of this conflict will be invisible to the end-user, as long as they stick to running Direct X games. But you can bet that the manufacturers will be heavily promoting their competing products. And many game developers will still be stuck in the middle, producing products that only run on some, but not all hardware.

Then again, if the USB products finally take off, we may see USB speakers making sound cards of any sort obsolete?at least for much of the mass market. The hard core gamers will, I predict, prefer the 4 or 5 speaker 3D sound that they can only get with one of this new generation of PCI sound cards.

Of course, USB products have not yet fulfilled their promise?at least in part because they too often simply aren?t working as promised. Connect up to 127 devices? Not a chance. Hot swap peripherals? Maybe. A couple of  devices, chained together may work. But then again, they may not. Expect better success with Windows 98 than with Win95B with USB extensions, but even with Windows 98, problems reportedly continue.

Even the operating system market is fragmenting, between Windows 95 (still), Windows 98, and NT Workstation growing in popularity among corporate and even educational customers. And don?t forget Linux. Somebody is going to find a profitable niche market offering pre-installed Linux systems?and this market may grow rapidly. And of course, each of these operating systems supports a different set of hardware standards.

Ironically, the Mac, which would appear to be the most different of them all has increasingly supported majority PC standards?adopting the PCI bus, IDE drives, and with the iMac, USB.

Eventually, we may see some stability once again, as sound and 3D video and other standards emerge victorious.

Then again, this fragmentation may continue for quite a while, as unique markets continue to solidify for low-end PCs, mid-range home machines, and business offerings. It?s certainly been Intel?s intentions to offer completely different CPU and motherboard models for each of these ranges of products.

Manufacturers, distributors, vendors, and customers (to say nothing of tech support staff) may find themselves waxing nostalgic for the mid-1990s, when it would seem like one size of hardware and software (with faster or slower CPUs) fit all.

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