Intel gives a peek at future PC designs

Chip giant Intel Corp. rolled out about a dozen "concept PCs" from various industrial design firms and PC makers that emphasised style as well as substance. Intel called it the first PC fashion show.

"The whole idea of this show is to get feedback on what people like," said Pat Gelsinger, vice president and general manager of Intel's desktop products group. Gelsinger spoke at the semi-annual Intel Developers Forum at Palm Springs, California.

The concept PCs expand on two stylish machines that Intel introduced at its September Intel Developers Forum. One of those resembled a metallic Mayan pyramid, the other what Intel called a "fish" design. The dozen or so devices shown Tuesday represent the vision of Intel's "Legacy Free" initiative that will do away with old technologies such as parallel and serial ports, the ISA bus and game ports, replacing them with the newer USB ports, IEEE 1394 and PCI.

With old technology verboten on the motherboard, the end result will be a lower price, said Intel's Gelsinger. "Our goal is to keep the same economics of the PC," he said, adding that fewer parts means lower cost. In addition, the boxes are intended to be closed systems -- the devices should never be opened. "The majority, if not all, configurability comes from external connectivity," said Gelsinger.

That means new technology will be needed to allow internal components, such as DVD drives, printers and consumer electronics, to be connected to the new legacy-free PCs. "There is no way that you are going to add a secondary storage device into one of those boxes," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with US market researcher Insight 64.

Brookwood sees a new Universal Serial Bus spec, called USB 2.0, which will be 10 to 20 times faster than today's USB ports, as the answer for external connectivity. Like concept cars, however, most of the concept PCs will not find their way to store shelves. Rather, the devices show off designers' visions of technology that solves problems.

Industrial designer Stratos of Seattle, believes customers would rather not dedicate an entire room to their PC. Their design -- called Silicon Bonsai -- is a cross between a lamp tree and a futuristic kiosk, and brings together a Pentium III processor, 15-inch flat-panel display, and a variety of communications ports while taking up very little floor space. "It's a conversation piece as well as a computer," said Sean MacLeod, spokesman for Stratos.

Ziba Design of Portland, Oregon, the designer of the original Aztec, showed off a variety of small-sized computers. All were running the Pentium III microprocessor. Anderson Design's Velocity Group, showed its Ikebana -- "flower" in Japanese -- computer that resembles a Technicolor oriental rock garden more than a PC. Each component -- the processor, graphics board, and storage -- is a sculpted, coloured add-in module that plugs vertically into the base. Sound too strange to be true? Perhaps. The Ikebana was the only design that was not an actual working model.

For PC makers, the funky PC designs can differentiate them in the market, said David Hawkins, director of business development for Ziba Design. "PC makers can really increase visual brand equity," he said. "A beige box is not a brand." Some of the products were prototypes of soon-to-be real products.

Consumer electronics giant Philips Electronics N.V. showed a 42-inch flat panel TV with a Pentium III processor. While that version will not be shipping until the second half of this year, a similar display costing $13,000 (£8,176) and incorporating a Pentium processor has been on the market for some time, said Marnee Clement, spokeswoman for Philips. "These are very popular in businesses for video conferencing or presentations," she said.

Japanese computer firm NEC Corp. also showed off its Millenium computers for business that require very little room on top of the desk. Including a 15-inch display, such devices are selling in Japan for $2,000 to $4,000 depending on the configuration.

Take me to the Pentium III Special.