GeekTech: Don't Buy Your Next PC Just Yet. Honest.
If you're thinking about buying or building a new PC soon, you should wait. Seriously, wait another month or so: Some very cool new technology is on the way.
That's not the type of advice I typically give. After all, there's always some sweet new technology just around the corner. If you keep waiting for the "next big thing," you'll never get that new PC. But this is different. This time we're talking about some fundamental improvements to the PC platform itself.
Yes, I'm excited about a chip set.
In the next month or so, expect Intel to launch three new chip sets with more new technology goodies than any self-respecting geek could hope to find under their Star Trek ornament-laden Christmas tree. New system bus, new memory, new hard drive technology, new wireless options, new sound--it really is the works.
Advanced Micro Devices fans, fret not: That chip maker's partners are also planning new chip sets with many (but not all) of these same technologies. Intel loyalists, however, will get first dibs.
Get on the Bus
Intel's three new chip sets--the high-end 925X Express (formerly code-named Alderwood) and the midrange 915G and 915P Express chip sets (formerly Grantsdale)--will support the PCI Express system bus instead of standard PCI.
Today's venerable PCI standard allows data to travel at up to 133 megabytes per second in one direction only; stuff headed the other way has to wait its turn. A standard PCI Express bus (called an X1) will offer transfers of up to 250 MBps in each direction, for a total of 500 MBps. This should help speed up basic PC operations--and it'll vastly improve gigabit networking, which runs into serious bottlenecks on the PCI bus.
Another area that's always in need of more bandwidth is graphics. Years ago, to support the evolution of powerful new graphics cards, the PC industry abandoned the PCI bus and created the Accelerated Graphics Port. PCI Express brings graphics back into the fold, and offers 4 gigabytes-per-second concurrent transfers to and from PCI Express-based graphics cards. For comparison, today's 8X AGP bus offers 2 GBps of shared bandwidth. Intel's 925X Express and 915P Express chip sets will offer a PCI Express graphics port, but no AGP; the 915G Express will include Intel's new integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 900.
While it's unlikely the first-generation of PCI Express-based graphics cards will take full advantage of that additional throughput, down the road it should lead to even better, more responsive PC graphics. All that throughput will make it easier for software and hardware to handle multiple video streams, which is important to technologies like personal video recording. (For more details about PCI Express, check out fellow GeekTech writer Alex Krasne's column on the technology.)
Further supplementing the speed improvements you'll see from PCI Express is Intel's move to DDR2 memory support with these chip sets. DDR2 is an evolution of today's double data rate memory that's designed to offer faster speeds with lower power consumption. Today's typical motherboards support DDR running at 400 MHz; faster speeds exist, but they're not ratified by the memory standards body. Intel's first chip sets will support DDR2 running at 533 MHz.
Faster Neo, Faster
With this launch, Intel brings RAID (for Redundant Array of Independent Disks) technology to the masses. The technology, which essentially lets a PC use two hard disks as one, has long been a favorite of savvy users.
Concerned that nontechies will associate the name with killing bugs, Intel executives renamed their version "Matrix Storage Technology" (which carries a less negative connotation only if you skipped the second two movies in the Matrix trilogy). The technology itself is better than its moniker: It offers easy access to RAID through a nonintimidating interface. The technology supports RAID 0 and RAID 1. RAID 0 interleaves data between two drives to create a double-size drive with about twice the effective throughput; RAID 1 writes all data to two drives at once, ensuring the information survives if one drive fails.
Better still, the Matrix technology includes built-in support for Serial ATA's new Native Command Queuing. This technology effectively makes NCQ-ready hard drives work smarter by reordering commands into a more efficient sequence on the fly. The drive ends up spinning less to access the same amount of information, which should speed performance. For more on NCQ, see my last column.
Integrated audio gets a much-needed boost this time out with Intel's High Definition Audio technology (formerly code-named Azalea). With integrated 192-KHz, 24-bit, 8-channel audio and support for all the major audio formats, such as Dolby Digital and DTS, Intel is clearly gunning for audio card makers like Creative. The new sound technology also lets you send different audio streams to different devices at the same time; and it offers jack retasking, which means the system will change the jack to work with the device you plug in. So, for example, if you plug a microphone into a jack that was being used for headphones, the system figures out that change and alters the jack to make the microphone work.
Finally, Intel is adding to the mix a new technology it calls Wireless Connect, which will add the hardware you need to turn your desktop into a wireless access point. Intel says it has created a four-step setup that will make it painless to set up a secure 802.11b/g network in just a few minutes. While this eliminates the need to buy a wireless access point, it does mean you'll have to leave your PC running to maintain the network.
A Few Drawbacks
Pretty cool stuff, huh? I think so, too. But just to prove that I'm not completely under Intel's marketing spell, I should point out that while all of this technology sounds great on paper, we have yet to test its real-world performance impact. (The PC World Test Center is working on that right now.)
Beyond the potential performance gains, there are a few other things to consider before you buy your first PC or motherboard based on these new chip sets. Specifically, you won't be able to bring much along from your current system.
Probably the most notable item here is your graphics card. If you just spent $500 on an AGP card with ATI or NVidia's latest and greatest graphic chip, then I don't suggest rushing to build a new PCI Express-based unit. Your spiffy new card won't make the trip to the new platform. Intel's new chip sets support only PCI Express graphics--no AGP, period.
The same goes for your DDR memory, which won't work in the new DDR2 slots (all 925X motherboards will be DDR2 only; manufacturers of 915-based boards will choose DDR or DDR2). In addition, you can expect to pay more for DDR2 memory than DDR. Even Intel admits you'll pay a premium for DDR2, at least for a while.
And what about that big old Serial ATA drive you love? While it will work in the new Matrix setup, you won't be able to take advantage of NCQ. To use NCQ, you'll need a drive with that technology already on board; you can't do a firmware upgrade.
That's a lot of good stuff that won't make it into your new system. If you're like me, you never want to leave a good hard drive behind. However, an upgrade may just be a good excuse to turn your current PC into a streaming media server--or something equally cool.