At Comdex, it's so long to I/O ports and hello to USB

At Comdex, it's so long to I/O ports and hello to USB

By Michael Cheek
GCN Staff

LAS VEGAS'Say goodbye to PCI cards, adieu to PS/2 plugs and sayonara to serial ports. The PC is slimming down and going legacy-free'or so the big PC makers said last week at Comdex.

Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates showed off the first such prototype'the Compaq iPaq'during the trade show's opening keynote address.

This new breed of PC will mainly run the Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional operating system and likely will become the desktop PC standard by 2001.

Legacy-free means that companies will discontinue PCI and ISA cards, PS/2 ports for keyboards and mice, and parallel and serial ports. Instead, the Universal Serial Bus will become the only connector for all peripherals and input devices. USB can daisychain up to 127 devices to a PC.

The iPaq, termed an Internet appliance, is 'a very powerful system,' said John Mason, Compaq Computer Corp.'s director of product marketing. 'We've taken a little out for expandability, but we've taken a lot out in complexity.'

Ports, begone

By removing the many ports, Compaq eliminated several driver and hardware problems. Standardizing on USB means only one driver model, Mason said.

Although USB has been part of new PCs for several years, only recently have USB devices begun to work well with the port. Windows 98 natively supports USB, but the drivers often fail to load correctly, which forced many reboots when the GCN Lab tested 25 USB devices recently [GCN, Oct. 11, Page 25].

The success of the iPaq and other forthcoming products hinges on Windows 2000, which is set for Feb. 17 release.

'Windows 2000 is the biggest enabler for legacy-free,' said William T. Peterson, director of marketing for Dell Computer Corp.'s OptiPlex product group. 'But I don't see a reason to rush to this kind of PC. Most federal installations are standardized on OSes that won't allow legacy-free.'

Dell has not yet built a legacy-free PC, but a Web PC is in the works.

'I'm not sure [Dell's] first focus on a legacy-free PC will be in the enterprise or government space,' said Ron Van Dell, director and general manager for the company's Dimension line of PCs.

Legacy-free PCs will likely be popular with users who simply want to get on the Internet, but Microsoft's message about Windows 2000 Pro is that it is not for the home user; that's Win98. Win 2000 is intended for the office environment, where users value reliability and stability above all else.

Beneath the Internet device hoopla, Compaq has slimmed down the PC and kept the underlying manageability technologies intact. Compaq and others are eyeing the enterprise market because iPaqs will have 10/100-Mbps integrated network interfaces and Compaq's Intelligent Manageability client administration tools.

Anticipating the launch of Win 2000 Pro, Compaq plans to sell the iPaq almost exclusively with the new OS.

Without the complex legacy technologies, both the initial investment and the lifecycle cost will drop. An iPaq with a 500-MHz Celeron processor, 64M of RAM and a 4.2G hard drive will cost $499 in mid-January. A 500-MHz Pentium III model with 128M of RAM and an 8.4G hard drive will come in around $799.

So-called legacy-lite versions for Windows 9x and Windows NT 4.0 will cost $50 more, although NT cannot support USB, and Win9x has limited USB capabilities. The systems will have PS/2, serial and parallel ports, but no cards.

Spacey look

The iPaq looks a little like a rocket with the cone chopped off. A silver capsule in the center houses the power button, sound plugs and two USB ports. Three USB, modem and network adapter ports are in back.

The right wing opens up for access to memory and the hard drive. The left wing has a hot-swappable bay for CD-ROM, DVD, SuperDisk LS-120 and floppy drives or an additional hard drive for mirroring.

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