A month hardly passes without a PC company upgrading the speeds and feeds on its desktop or notebook computers, but the most dramatic changes are taking place among the components and peripherals that comprise a PC.
Processors, with their seemingly continuous jumps in speed, tend to grab most of the glory, but this year such products as optical drives and home networking kits are the real newsmakers.
At the start of 1999 processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) were at 450MHz. Right now, Intel's quickest processor is a Pentium III 550MHz with a 100MHz system bus, 512K Level Two Cache, and Intel 440BX chipset. AMD just announced the Athlon processor-based systems that are expected to ship in the third quarter. These will feature initial speed grades of 600, 550 and 500MHz on 0.25-micron process technology.
Processor speeds are expected to hit the 750MHz level by the end of the year.
Optical Drives: The day of the old CD-ROM is slowly, but surely, coming to an end. CD-RW, CD-R, DVD-ROM, DVD-RAM and the upcoming DVD+ RW have all exploded onto the scene this year -- giving consumers a veritable alphabet soup of products that will eventually replace the standard CD-ROM drive. CD-ROM will continue to outsell the new formats for about two more years, according to Robert van Eijk, Philips VP of optical storage, but then DVD-ROM drives will take over.
Van Eijk said DVD-ROM was expected to replace CD-ROM this year, but was held back by the lack of a compelling DVD application. However, software publishers have been reticent to create any DVD software until a sufficient number of DVD-ROM drives are sold.
An important step toward solving this problem will be taken later this year and in early 2000 when CD-RW drives capable of reading DVD-ROM media start becoming available. This will help build the installed base of DVD-ROM and give the publishers reason to create DVD-ROM titles.
Also coming onto the market later this fall is DVD+RW. Like DVD-RAM, which has been on the market for almost a year, DVD+RW allows end users to write data to rewritable DVD media.
DVD+RW media holds 3GB of data, slightly more than DVD-RAM's 2.6GB. One stumbling block is that neither format is cross-compatible with its competitor and the current crop of DVD-ROM drives cannot read discs created with these drives. The Optical Storage Technology Association has organized a committee to draw up an industry standard that would allow future DVD-ROM drives to read discs created by either drive. Eijk reported that several DVD-ROM makers will adopt the spec by late 1999.
This Beta/VHS situation arose because DVD+RW and DVD-RAM are being developed by two competing groups of manufacturers, each of which wants its specification to become the industry standard. Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi Chemical, Philips, Ricoh, Sony and Yamaha back DVD+RW, while Hitachi, Hi Val, Toshiba and several other vendors support DVD-RAM.
Hard Drives: This is an area where the basic technology remains the same, but capacity is continuously increased. The accepted rule for hard drives is size doubles every 18 months. This means the 19GB and 20GB drives in today's most expensive PCs are likely to be found in midrange products by the end of the year.
Home Networking: The home networking product category has grown exponentially in the past year. Prior to 1998, networking had been the domain of the techie home user with no qualms about opening up a PC and installing the gear needed to create a small network. The advent of home networking kits and the fact that many PCs now come standard with Ethernet cards, eliminating the consumers' need to personally upgrade the system to network-ready status, has given the category a huge boost.
There are three primary technologies used to physically connect the PCs. The first use a home's telephone line, the second uses wireless data transmission, and the third utilizes a home's power lines to carry the data. In an odd twist, most manufacturers are supporting all three formats, with the logic being that each platform will be used where best suited.
The phone and power line kits carry street prices around $100, while wireless can be upward of $200.
Monitors: The most notable technological innovation in the CRT monitor category has been the proliferation of models sporting USB ports. By including USB, monitor makers are giving consumers the ability to update an older PC's connectivity capabilities when buying a new monitor.
While LCD desktop monitors have experienced a turbulent year as far as pricing is concerned, there has not been much change in the basic technology. At the start of the year a 15-inch monitor cost between $799 and $899, down from $2,500 in 1997, but due to a panel shortage prices have recently spiked upward to around $1,100. Prices have stabilized, and later this year pricing is again expected to start going down.
Removable Storage: The death of the ubiquitous floppy diskette has often been reported as near, but despite the fact the 1.44MB diskettes have a hard time handling today's large data and image files the technology refuses to be put out to pasture. Instead several products have been created to complement the floppy.
The best established is Iomega's Zip drive. The company sold its 25 millionth drive in June and has shipped about 150 million 100MB and 250MB Zip discs. Sales have flattened as of late, and Iomega is struggling to regain profitability.
Imation's SuperDisk technology is also well on its way to establishing itself in the market. A SuperDisk drive uses a high-capacity floppy diskette that can hold 120MB of data. The most intriguing aspect of the SuperDisk is the drive is capable of reading a 1.44MB diskette, so a consumer with a shoebox full of floppies need not worry about losing or having to transfer the data. Imation has reported that the SuperDisk's capacity will be upgraded in the future.
Sony is also trying its hand at developing a high-capacity floppy, but has so far come up short. The company released the 200MB HiFD late last year, but was forced to pull the product from store shelves in early 1999. Sony does plan to re-release the product sometime this fall.
Inkjet Printers: The inkjet head technology responsible for printing the text or image has been pushed to its upper limits in the past few years, so vendors are turning toward improving ease-of-use issues. These alterations can best be seen in the growing number of printers that have USB connectivity capability. Because USB allows peripherals to be hot swappable, the consumer does not have to reconfigure the PC to accept the printer, as needs to be done when a serial connection is used.
Inkjet cartridges have also been improved. Most now feature a separate, extra-large tank for the black ink. Because black is used to produce text it tends to run out first. So now, instead of having to replace the entire cartridge just because one color has run out, the consumer can buy and install a new black ink cartridge.