New PCs could use a `killer app'

September 03, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

WHEN WE ordered a PC to pack off to college with my son, I was ready to be impressed. It was a 1.4-GHz Pentium IV, complete with loads of memory, a fancy 3D video card, a great sound system, a CD burner and DVD player.

But once it arrived, I felt mildly disappointed.

It wasn't really better at doing the things I normally do than the 18-month-old machine on my desk (a 700-MHz Athlon system). And that old machine runs at less than half the speed of the new monster. True, Microsoft Word pops up on the screen in three seconds on the new machine, compared to six or seven seconds on my old computer. But once that happens, I can't type any faster on the new PC than I could on any of the computers I've worked on for the last five years.

Likewise, the spreadsheets I use don't seem to recalculate any faster on the new PC. (They probably do, but who cares whether it takes a fifth of an eyeblink or a tenth of an eyeblink?) Web pages don't arrive any quicker either - or if they do, it's hard to notice the difference. MP3 music files sound just as good on my old computer, which has the same Sound Blaster audio card as the new PC.

True, the newcomer is considerably faster at rotating large digital photos than the old one, and it will convert CD audio tracks to MP3 files with less grunting. I'm also sure that if I were addicted to high-end, 3D games it would allow me to see every pore in a monster's face before I blasted it into smithereens.

But the sad truth is that for average users, new PCs have become boring. Quantum leaps in speed and theoretical performance over the last few years haven't been matched by real world demands for all that horsepower. As a result, when Intel released its latest Pentium 4 processor last week - the first CPU to run at 2 billion cycles per second and a considerable technical achievement - the world greeted it with a yawn.

This ennui is showing up in sales figures for new computers, which in 2001 may fall below previous year shipments for the first time. The dot-com bust and a slumping economy have a lot to do with the bleak numbers, but the downturn comes at exactly the same moment when relatively few users see any compelling reason to upgrade their computers, regardless of the outlook for the NASDAQ Index.

To get the market's attention, major PC makers such as Dell, Compaq, Hewlett Packard and Gateway have slashed prices. They're offering rebates, free printers, CD-RW drives and other gimmicks to move inventory.

And that's nothing compared to what will happen in the next few months. Microsoft, Intel and their allies in the PC industry are planning to unleash a half-billion dollar marketing blitz trumpeting a new generation of even more powerful machines running Windows XP, the latest version of Microsoft's operating system. XP will appear on new computers starting Sept. 25 and will be available to upgraders a month later.

Their problem, which is not unique to the industry but occurs as any technology matures, is that each generation of improvements enthralls a smaller and smaller base of potential customers.

For example, over the past year, Apple has been pushing its Macintosh computers as great platforms for editing home videos. Windows PC makers are jumping on the same bandwagon with the new P4s in their Christmas lineup. The reason: video processing is one of the few applications that actually requires the speed and power of the latest generation of microprocessors.

Unfortunately, this isn't a very big market. Most home moviemakers are still using analog camcorders, whereas the new video-ready computers require digital video input. And even if we all had digital video cameras, how many of us really want to take the time to be movie producers, no matter how easy the hardware and software make it? And how many of us will decide that it's worth buying a new computer to give it a try?

For some applications, computers are being eclipsed altogether. During most of the 1990s, PCs were better game platforms than videogame consoles, thanks to better graphics adapters, faster processors, more memory and copious storage.

But starting with the Sony PlayStation and Sega Dreamcast, inexpensive game machines became powerful computers in their own right, and unlike the PC, they were reliable and supported muliplayer games.

The new PlayStation 2 and two machines coming to the market this fall, Microsoft's X-Box and Nintendo's GameCube, are so good that they're likely to eliminate game playing as reason to buy a new computer. Why spend a grand or two on a PC when you can get a better game machine for a couple of hundred bucks and hook it to your big-screen TV in the den?

Now I don't believe that entertainment developers will abandon the PC altogether. It still will be the platform of choice for networked shoot-em-ups and for titles that require more brains than computer brawn - adventures and simulations a la The Sims.

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