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The times, they are a changin’

In case you don’t follow technology trends a big change is coming to your desktop PC. Almost every piece of technology is going to be updated or replaced at the end of this year. I can’t remember when such a convergence happened in the past, but maybe it was the change to 32-bit computing which would be appropriate – the change to 64-bit computing is part of this major shift as well.

A quick rundown: new motherboard & chassis standard (BTX), new 64-bit processors (Pentium 4 & Opteron), a new 64-bit OS (Windows XP), new memory standard (DD2), and a new slot standard (PCI Express) that means new graphics cards.

The details follow, but what does this mean to you? Well first, I wouldn’t buy a new ‘top of the line’ PC today (one costing more than $1500) as it will be obsolete more quickly than usual. It also means that in the fall I’d expect to see bargains on what is today a pretty high-end PC.

Second, these new technologies should make it even easier to build your own PC in the future. If you are at all interested in this route, wait until late this year or early 2005 and you should be able to do it with confidence.

Motherboard & Chassis: BTX

Intel, in concert with the industry motherboard manufacturers, has announced the first new motherboard standard in 5 years. Named BTX, this new motherboard standard redefines where all the components of the motherboard should be. It goes beyond just specifying the type and location of power connectors and requires specific chip layouts so that the thermal characteristics will be consistent. This in turn impacts the chassis design so that air handling can be done properly. It also defines zones inside the chassis for hard disks and other peripherals – again with an eye towards cooling it all properly.

This helps with the do it yourself builder quite a bit. While some chassis makers have done a good job with air handling many of them haven’t. If you make a top of the line system the heat can be significant and handling that has, so far, just mean more fans. This then translates into more noise and all in all you may end up with a PC that, while fast, acts as a white-noise generator and a space heater.

Processors: 64-bit or bust!

While AMD got there first, Intel is on board now too with 64-bit extensions to their processors. This gets you access to more memory and an overall faster processor. While the feature set beyond this is limited, the processor is critical because …

Operating System: Win XP 64

Microsoft has announced that they will ship versions of Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 that support the 64-bit processors. The bigger news here is that they will be pushing very hard on this – with a lack of interest in doing 32-bit versions anymore. Microsoft sees the 64-bit option as the way to get away from DOS and 16-bit applications which they feel are the cause of so many security issues for them. I’m personally dubious of this specific benefit but overall moving away from this legacy is a good idea.

Memory: DDR2

Memory gets a boost as well with DDR2 – a further doubling of the performance of DDR. There are a lot of advantages to DDR2 but the main ones are lots of additional headroom for faster memory in the future.

I/O: PCI Express

A big change here that I’ve written about before, PCI Express is a new bus standard that finally replaces PCI. You’re going to want this because it’s the way the new graphics cards will connect in. When you look at cards, make sure they support PCI Express natively – avoid solutions with bridge chips if at all possible.


And if you haven’t even made the move to SATA yet – here comes SATA II. It adds a second SATA channel that can be used to double the bandwidth (or put two drives on the same cable.) Again, look for drives that support SATA II natively rather than using a bridge from ATA.

1 Comment on The times, they are a changin’

  1. And things start to get odd already – looks like Alienware has decided to do a motherboard with the ability to hold 2 PCI Express (PCIe) video cards (not sure how they get two x16 channels.)

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