What's Hot, What's Not: Techtalk column

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, April 1999

Last month, we looked at Intel?s Pentium III, code-named Katmai, offering a set of new multimedia instructions, along with faster CPU speeds, expected to hit 600 MHz by the end of the year. It seems less revolutionary than the name suggests, more like a Pentium II-MMX-Revisited. It?s worth recalling that two years after the addition of MMX to the Intel (and clone) processor line, these new instructions have had minimal impact on the industry.

Some other technologies to watch for in 1999:

  • Rambus memory. Most widely found, believe it or not, in Nintendo 64 game systems, the company has gotten funding from Intel, who are interested in bringing its high-speed memory technology over to the PC platform.

Look for it to start appearing on high-end machines, as ever-increasing processor speeds makes it more necessary to find a way to make memory keep up. The good news is that Rambus memory starts at 600 MHz and goes up from there. The bad news it will require motherboard and chipset redesign?you can?t just plug it into a model designed for the current SDRAM standard.

Because of this, adoption of the new standard will be relatively slow, with 100 MHz SDRAM remaining the standard for the much larger mid-range market?and somewhat faster 133 MHz SDRAM providing some improvements.

  • AMD?s K7 CPU, appearing mid-year, following its K6-3 ?Sharptooth? model. Some observers foresee the K7 outperforming Intel?s Pentium-III, giving AMD the performance and technology lead for the first time since it offered 16 and 20 MHz 286s at a time when Intel?s product topped out at 12 MHz.

The K7 will break AMD?s reliance on the classic Socket 7 design. Unable to use Intel?s Slot 1 design (as in Pentium II/III and Celeron models), AMD has licensed Alpha technology from Compaq/Digital, resulting in ?Slot A?. These are mechanically identical to Slot 1, but electronically incompatible?potentially a problem, as that will require motherboards specifically designed for the K7.

First reports of the company?s K6-3 are also looking good. This CPU is designed to get around a Socket 7 limitation?L2 cache memory on the motherboard will only run at system bus speed?66 or 100 MHz, no matter how fast the CPU runs. AMD is putting 256 kb of L2 cache right onto the CPU, letting it run at full CPU speed.

(A similar tactic was used by Intel with its Celeron line, turning that model from into a contender?but these Celeron?s only have 128 kb of cache onboard).

AMD?s K6-2 proved to be the most popular CPU model in 1998 US retail sales?the company looks to continue in a strong position in 1999.

  • CD-RW looks increasingly like it will become the most popular recordable media for this year. Despite the confusion at year-end, caused by the Canadian government?s lack of clarity about taxing blank disks, look for continued strong sales resulting in gradual price drops for drives, while the blank media (particularly CD-R disks) remain low priced.

CD-RW?s growth will be helped by continued confusion about DVD. DVD is growing as a home entertainment medium, but there?s not a lot of interest in watching digital movies on PC, and there?s not a lot of DVD-ROM titles available for PC use.

And while there is huge potential for DVD-RAM, it isn?t going to get anywhere this year, while manufacturers continue to battle over standards. You can create your own standard DVD disks, using models like Pioneer?s DVR-S101, which lists for a cool $16,995 (US). More affordably, you get trapped with several incompatible models?Creative and others supporting DVD-RAM, with recorders selling for about $800, and blank 5.2 GB (2.6 GB per side) disks coming in for about $60 each. HP, Sony, and Phillips, however, are pushing a DVD+RW standard, with slightly higher recording capacity (3 GB per side), while Pioneer offers yet another format, DVD-R/W with 4 GB per side.

With little PC-oriented pre-recorded content, and this multiplicity of recording standards, DVD will remain a frill in 1999. There will be a market for PCs with both DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives pre-installed, however.

  • USB will finally reach a kind of critical mass acceptance this year. The technology makes so much sense, that it?s sad that it?s taken so long. Most PCs sold since 1997 have included USB connectors, but until now there?s been little users could do with them. It?s taken two things to make USB happen?the first was inclusion of the technology in Windows 98 (the Win95 2.1 USB add-on doesn?t work well enough and isn?t widely supported). But ironically, what really gave USB a big boost was Apple?s iMac.

Sales of a million iMacs, all totally dependent on USB has really kick-started the market?far more than the much larger number of USB-equipped PCs which could also continue to use older technologies. The result has been a larger number of hardware devices appearing?most of which ship with both Mac and PC drivers.

(And not a moment too soon! My new PC, for instance, has no more free slots?any expansion is going to have to come via a technology like USB).

Apple?s blessing is not automatically the kiss of success, however. The company?s new G3 towers include Firewire (aka IEEE1394) along with USB. 1394 is a Plug and Play high speed bus, running at 400 Mbps (compared to USB?s 12 Mbps). This lets it work with multimedia devices such as video cameras, and with hard drives, and more.

On the PC-platform, 1394-equipped machines are offered by Sony (notebooks and desktops) and Compaq, and Adaptec has a 1394 adapter card available. But Intel has dropped plans to include support for the standard in its chipsets, while Microsoft is not supporting it in its current operating systems. The result is that 1394 devices will be limited to high-end Macs and a very few PCs. Don?t expect mass market acceptance until 2001.

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