Although next year's PC will look much like this year's, major changes are brewing as next-generation technologies give designers a once-in-a-decade chance to rewrite the rulebook.
Streamed video: Intel displays new notebook designs
So says Intel's Desktop Architecture Lab (DAL), which has been throwing together proof-of-concept machines with enthusiasm. Bringing together university research, company R&D and cross-industry collaborations, the shape of 2010's computers will be radically different as new demands require wholesale reinvention --- and some of the changes deepest within the architecture will make the biggest differences on the outside.
"You only get the chance to completely reinvent the shape of the PC once every ten years," said Gerald Holzhammer, director of Desktop Architecture in Intel's Desktop Platforms Group, "and the ATX motherboard and case form factor was put together in 1990."
At the Intel Developers' Forum, he outlined how changes such as the introduction of 3GIO, the new bus architecture that will succeed PCI, will mean the death of the old expansion card system that has had users wielding screwdrivers since the birth of the PC in 1981. Instead, expansion modules will slide into bays set into the case much as videogame cartridges: there will be mini 3GIO adaptors for mobile applications, but there's no reason why these couldn't plug into larger platforms as well.
And the same idea can be used to form personality modules, where your complete PC environment lives on one cartridge that you can slot into whatever PC happens to be around.
Other changes in basic architecture will precipitate the loss of some familiar PC attributes: while processors get faster and generate more heat, the infiltration of the computer into our lives means that they must get quieter and less intrusive.
Exotic new materials are being developed to increase the efficiency by which the processor and other power-hungry components get rid of their heat: diamond films, carbon-60 buckyballs and phase-change alloys that melt into the surface of the processor are all under investigation. So are heatpipes, which move the waste energy from the chip surface to a radiator elsewhere, and even liquid cooling "but that's not likely to be common" said Holzhammer, removing the threat of Intel-certified plumbers from our futures.
Electronic emissions are also getting trickier to control: when processors hit 10GHz, the radio interference they'll generate will be well into the microwave region and even small holes in the case -- such as a 5mm screw mounting -- will be effectively transparent. Instead, cases will have to be designed using microwave transmission system rules, making any holes into waveguides that couple radio energy into shielding.
Current half-way house design studies have been put together with existing technologies trying out new configurations. One called Taishan, built in conjunction with oriental computer company Legend, uses acoustic isolation of components within the chassis and careful routing of airflow to achieve noise levels of around 23dBA --- quieter than a video cassette recorder. "If you hold Taishan to your ear while it's operating you can hear it, but in a normal office that's about it," Holzhammer said, pointing out that the system had a 2GHz Pentium 4 in a case not much bigger than an encyclopedia. "Some people said that we'd need so many fans the computer would sound like a hovercraft, but we've learned a great deal" he added.
Even more exotic techniques were under consideration, he said, but the current ideas behind 3GIO should be good for a few generations yet. "There are some exciting developments with optical interconnections," he pointed out, "with arrays of lasers integrated into the sides of chip packages. That's looking very promising. But there are many issues to work out, and nobody should think we'll need them soon."
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