Changes afoot for computer, DVD users

Plugged In

August 31, 2006|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

May you live in interesting times.

According to American folklore, it's an ancient Chinese curse, although it's more likely the product of an English science fiction writer.

Whatever the source, the meaning is clear - times of change are fraught with peril. And I can't remember a period when there was more change afoot in personal technology than there is now.


Intel, the world's biggest producer of microprocessors, is rolling out a new generation of chips for personal computers.

Microsoft, whose Windows software runs all but a fraction of the world's PCs, is preparing a new release of the operating system called Vista - though it can't get the job done until January, at best.

In another corner of the Gates castle, the gnomes of Microsoft Office are preparing a new release called Office 2007, which won't work anything like Office 2003, Office 2000, Office 97 or Office 95. Sounds like fun to me.

Outside the PC world, the TV industry is hurtling into a switch from analog to digital broadcasting. If you watch TV over the air and your set doesn't have a digital tuner, you'll have to buy a converter or junk the set on Jan. 1, 2009, when broadcasters cut the cable to their old towers and switch to strictly digital transmissions. Or, you can subscribe to cable.

Finally, after a few happy years of near-universal DVD acceptance, the electronics industry has embarked on a full-scale war over the format for a new generation of high-definition DVDs. They're supposed to match the quality of the HDTV sets we're all buying.

Remember the VHS vs. Betamax fight over videocassette recorders? That may be nothing compared to the battle between Sony's Blu-ray and Toshiba's HD-DVD.

Some of this craziness comes as a relief. Frankly, for the last few years I was getting bored writing about computers. How many times can you say, "Buy any machine you want - they'll all do the job"?

Actually, for most of us that's still the case. But Intel, Microsoft and the others who create the guts of today's personal computers desperately want you to try new things to justify their spiffy new hardware and software.

They want you to dabble in video editing, high-end gaming and "extreme" multitasking. That last term means simultaneously watching a broadcast of Desperate Housewives over the Internet while you edit a video of your trip to Disney World, shop on the Web and engage in 14 simultaneous instant messaging sessions.

How many of you do that now? I don't see many hands out there.

So let's deal with the developments that are most likely to affect you the next time you shop for a PC.

The breaking news is from Intel, with the first all-new line of processors since the Pentium 4. These are just finding their way into PCs like the Systemax Venture model I've been testing for the past week or so.

So far, the Systemax seems to do everything a little faster than any computer I've used. And by every measure (including the hardware freaks who post test results on the Internet) Intel's new Core 2 Duo chips for desktop computers and its Centrino Duo chips for laptops are considerably faster than their predecessors. They would be the Pentium 4 and Pentium M/Centrino, respectively.

Just as important from Intel's standpoint, the company can assert bragging rights over the competition from Advanced Micro Devices - for a few months, at least. The competition between these firms is one reason computers have become incredibly fast and amazingly cheap.

Core 2 Duo chips run cooler and use less power than their predecessors - great news for laptop users who crave the power of desktop machines but want a battery that will let them work on a plane from coast to coast.

To achieve this operating efficiency, Intel has adopted a so-called dual core architecture. Instead of continually trying to get a single processor to run faster, Intel and other chip makers have designed CPUs that use two slower processor cores. Together, they can perform more instructions per clock cycle than older chips.

You'll see these new processors on retailers' shelves soon, probably in high-end machines designed for gamers, video producers and visual artists. Eventually, they'll take over the mass market, pushing the Pentium 4 into the lower-end machines that now use Intel's Celeron processor.

If you fall in love with an new Core 2 Duo computer, and you're willing to pay for it, there's no reason not to buy it now. But wait a few months and you'll find more of them in lower-priced machines, as well as fire sales on still-great machines that use the older Pentium-based chips.

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