What's new for 2003

Predictions are always perilous in the PC industry, but one thing's certain: Technology buying decisions won't become any easier this year.

          Predictions are always perilous in the PC industry, but one thing's certain: Technology buying decisions won't become any easier this year.

          New gizmos -- and old standbys with new shapes, sizes, and functions -- will improve your communications, make your workload seem lighter, and maybe even make your life a little more enjoyable.

          Five-megapixel digital cameras will fit in your pocket for the first time. Wireless networking will get easier and faster--and more confusing--as a bevy of new 802.11 standards arrive. And AMD's Clawhammer processor, the company's first entirely new processor core in three years, promises an exciting beginning to the year.

          But cheaper/better/faster isn't the only story for this year. Websites will continue to institute subscription fees, and debate will persist over who should pay to recycle used PC parts. Digital video will make its way into your home and onto your handheld, as television-recording PCs try to occupy your living room, and PDAs get better at multimedia. Systems built around Microsoft's new Windows XP Tablet Edition will have people scribbling on computer screens in corporate hallways and meeting rooms. Yet another new optical storage technology is looming. And a new version of Microsoft's Office suite is on the horizon, though it won't work with Windows operating systems older than XP or 2000. Some things never change.

          The pen that never forgets

          There's nothing ordinary about Logitech's new digital pen, the Io. Tucked inside the Io's bulky, cigarlike body is an optical sensor that captures your handwriting as you write. The Io can store pages of your scribbles, and it uses a USB cradle to turn your digital scrawl into Microsoft Word or Outlook documents, on-screen sticky notes, or other forms.

          The Io requires special digital paper, 80 sheets of which come with the $US200 package (refills cost $US10 each). You need to spend a few minutes training the software to recognise your handwriting. Each page of the digital paper contains a series of checkboxes that let you specify whether your notes will end up in an email message, a calendar entry, a Microsoft Word file, or a to-do item. But the pen's software converts your handwriting to editable text in only a few situations. For example, the software will open an email window and automatically plug in an email address and subject line after you write them on the special paper.

          In our tests, the Io's handwriting recognition improved the more we used it. The Io is pricey, but if you're a manic note-taker, this pen could be very handy.

          -- Aoife McEvoy

          Office remodelling

          By now, you've probably heard about the new version of Office -- code-named Office 11 -- that Microsoft promises to ship in the northern hemisphere summer of 2003. A lot of the hype has centered on the new version's closer embrace of XML, a web-development language that simplifies the tasks of moving data from one format to another. If it works as advertised, that feature will benefit lots of people -- saving them time when they have to shuttle information from their company's databases to spreadsheets and Word documents, for example. (Unfortunately, the new Office will run only on Windows XP and 2000 SP3, and not on earlier versions of the operating system, according to the company's current plan.)

          If you spend more time relating to people than to databases, you'll probably be more impressed by the changes in Outlook. Microsoft has redesigned the in-box, arranging the list of incoming mail and the preview of the top message in vertical panes. This simple change greatly increases the amount of information you can see on a screen. Outlook also adds colored flags for marking and categorising messages, and some new ways to search through your email backlog.

          Picture Library, a new application in Office 11, scans your PC (and the network that you're connected to) for images and shows the contents of folders as thumbnails. The library also allows you to rename a whole batch of photos at once.

          -- Ed Albro

          A notebook with a split personality

          You'll love the Xentex Technologies Flip-Pad Voyager notebook if you have two things: an addiction to multiple-monitor computing, and a sturdy wheeled luggage cart. (Make that three things: You'll also need $US5000.)

          Think of this laptop as the logical conclusion to 2002's explosion of desktop replacements. The Voyager's selling points are its two 13.3-inch LCDs, which stand side-by-side in portrait mode. These dual screens can be used as a single huge display or as two independent monitors, and one screen pivots 180 degrees to make presentations easier. Interestingly, Xentex is not the only manufacturer that looks at notebooks and sees double. A company called Estari is offering the 2-VU, a tablet computer with two screens.

          Luggage cart or no, how do you carry a double-screen PC around? Good question. Xentex's solution is to make the notebook fold in ways anatomically impossible for most computing equipment. The screens close like a normal notebook, and then the whole contraption folds again along the center spine between the monitors. The resulting package is 14.5 inches long and 10.4 inches wide, similar to a large notebook's dimensions. But it's also 3.2 inches thick, and with its two batteries (which Xentex says support four hours of computing), it weighs a hefty 12 pounds. So oil the wheels on that luggage cart. And if you want to work on the plane, you'd better plan to buy two seats.

          -- Ed Albro

          Lilliputian computing

          These days, computers come in more shapes and sizes than ever--PDAs, ultraportable notebooks, desktop replacements, all-in-one desktops, and towers of all descriptions. So do we really need a PC dressed in yet another form factor?

          The makers of the Tiqit Computers's Eightythree think we do. The Eightythree is a fully functioning PC in a package not much bigger than a PDA. The device, priced between $US1000 and $US1500, should be available in the first quarter of this year. It has a built-in 4-inch-diagonal, 640-by-480 screen and a thumb keyboard. With a 300-MHz National Semiconductor Geode processor, 256MB of SDRAM, and up to a 20GB hard drive, the Eightythree can run Windows XP and any compatible applications--though as you might expect, application performance wasn't exactly snappy on the preproduction unit we tried. The screen is touch-sensitive, and you can use handwriting recognition to enter data. You can also attach a USB keyboard and an external monitor (with an included dongle), thus transforming the Eightythree into a bare-bones desktop machine whenever you have a desk to put it on.

          Who needs a near-PDA-size computer? Most of the first batch of Eightythrees will likely go to people who are in specialised professions or in the military, according to Tiqit executives. But if it gets a speedier processor, this tiny computer could make sense for people who want to take all their data and applications with them wherever they go.

          -- Ed Albro

          Tablet PCs get a boost from Microsoft

          Tablet-style PCs have come a long way since the bulky Gridpad of the late 1980s. The November 2002 debut of Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition have helped revive the concept of computing with a stylus rather than a keyboard and mouse. The handwriting recognition in these new tablets is greatly improved, and Microsoft claims that future Tablet PCs won't carry the 10 to 20 percent price premium that is attached to current models.

          Tablet PCs (or slates) have already found a home in the health care industry, in warehouses, and in other special applications, but the key for success will be sales to businesses. Slates available now, such as the $US1699 HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 and the $US2199 Fujitsu Ltd. Stylistic ST4000, come with ports for connecting keyboards and docking stations. The $US2199 Acer Inc. TravelMate C100 and the $US2299 Toshiba Corp. Portégé 3500 look more like conventional notebook PCs, but with screens that twist around and lie flat on the keyboard to work as a tablet.

          -- Dennis O'Reilly

          802.11 alphabet soup -- faster, more secure, and media-ready

          Wireless is just getting warmed up. The success of 802.11b in 2002 may have been only a prelude to a wireless blitz poised to strike in the second half of 2003, as products based on three new 802.11 standards debut. Last summer saw the introduction of the first products supporting 802.11a, which has a top transmission speed of 54 mbps (802.11b's theoretical maximum is 11 mbps). Get ready for three more wireless letters in 2003: 802.11e, 802.11g, and 802.11i. The first of these standards, 11e, supplements 802.11a and -b (as well as -g) to enhance quality of voice, video, and other media transmissions. The 11g standard runs at 802.11a's 54-mbps rate but is backward-compatible with -b products. Finally, 11i improves on the WEP wireless security protocol by adding the 128-bit Enhanced Security Network standard, which uses the new Advanced Encryption Standard algorithm.

          The last details of the -e, -g, and -i standards should be worked out by the end of 2002; but some vendors, such as Cirrus Logic with its WhiteCap2 initiative, are jumping the gun by offering their own signal quality and security solutions already. Before you purchase a new wireless system, keep in mind that proprietary approaches may not be compatible with the new standards.

          -- Dennis O'Reilly

          Product releases for 2003

          Planning a purchase? Look ahead with our timeline of technology milestones and new products set to debut in the coming year.

          27GB DVDs

          The CD isn't dead yet, and already we're planning for the DVD's demise? Late this year we could see the arrival of the first drives based on Blu-ray technology, a type of optical storage that uses blue lasers to record data onto DVD-size discs. Since blue lasers have a shorter wavelength, they can burn smaller pits than your DVD or CD drive. Smaller pits mean more densely packed data, which in turn means more storage--to the tune of a whopping 27GB for a single-sided, single-layer Blu-ray disc. That's enough space to store 13 hours of DVD-quality video, or more than 2 hours of high-definition video.

          -- Eric Dahl

          News Flash: The web won't stay free

          You've been browsing the web for years, and -- apart from the monthly payment to your ISP -- you haven't opened your wallet once. (We're not counting your many online purchases.) You've even installed a pop-up stopper and an ad blocker to keep your browsing commercial-free. Face it: You're a web freeloader. But somebody's got to pay for all that great information you pick up from your favorite sites.

          The web is tough to make a living on if you're in the information business. In what other industry do vendors have to convince their customers to pay for something they're used to getting free? Slowly, inexorably, and with more than a few hiccups, the web is evolving into a great big subscription service -- whether you like it or not.

          Leading the way are big online names like The New York Times, which now charges for full access to its archives, and Consumer Reports, whose product ratings have always carried a price tag. Print publications can use services such as Zinio Systems to create and sell electronic versions of their magazines.

          Critics point out that people who've switched from a $US22-a-month dial-up account to a $US50-a-month broadband service won't be anxious to pay even a couple of extra bucks a month anytime soon. Even the least expensive subscriptions will be a tough sell for quite some time. But don't be surprised if this is the year in which for the first time you find yourself paying a website for its content.

          -- Dennis O'Reilly

          Technology worth waiting for

          We've been hearing about Bluetooth wireless technology for over four years now. The spec, called Bluetooth after the surname of a tenth-century Danish king, has been final since 2000, but products incorporating it have been slow to appear. Late in 2002 we got our hands on the first real crop of Bluetooth products, including Microsoft's Bluetooth-ready mouse and keyboard. The $US159 Wireless Optical Desktop package includes a very comfy mouse, a keyboard, and a transceiver. If you have HP's $US299 Bluetooth-ready Deskjet 450 mobile printer parked in another room, you can easily beam pages through most walls for it to print.

          The popularity of cellphones--and some states' legislation prohibiting their use while driving--has spawned other types of Bluetooth accessories: Plantronics's M1500 ($US200) and M1000 ($US120) Bluetooth-enabled headsets use an ear loop to attach to your ear. The M1500 comes with an adapter that works with most non-Bluetooth cellphones that can accommodate a headset. Jabra's $US179 FreeSpeak works with non-Bluetooth phones, too -- and it's more comfortable than the Plantronics headsets, thanks to its soft gel earpiece. Expect to see many more companies (such as Logitech) jumping on the Bluetooth bandwagon in 2003.

          -- Aoife McEvoy

          A long-distance Wi-Fi solution

          If you're tired of waiting for fast mobile internet access or live in a town where the homes are just too sparse to justify running the wires necessary for either cable or DSL broadband service, relief could come from an unlikely source: 802.11 wireless networks.

          The ranges of Wi-Fi networks are usually limited to only about 300 feet. But San Francisco-based Vivato Inc. has found a way to extend network range to more than four miles. How does Vivato do it? Typical Wi-Fi access points broadcast data in all directions at once. Vivato's system uses a special antenna to beam data requested by your PC to your PC only. Focusing that energy allows it to travel a much longer distance.

          Vivato "Wi-Fi switches" are due out in the first quarter of 2003 and will initially be marketed to large enterprises that want to set up large-scale networks. But the company says its technology could easily be used to set up Wi-Fi networks on campuses or in an entire downtown. And researchers at Intel are using a similar arrangement to provide broadband internet access to some employees in rural Oregon.

          -- Ed Albro

          Linux waits in the wings

          With businesses anxious to slash IT budgets, could 2003 be the year Linux finally makes a splash on the desktop? Add Linux's improved user-friendliness and Microsoft compatibility (particularly in networking and with Office) to its lack of licensing costs and use restrictions, and you've got a potentially winning combination.

          The three big commercial Linux vendors--Red Hat, MandrakeSoft, and SuSE Linux -- all shipped new editions of their Linux distributions in the waning months of 2002. Upstarts Xandros, Lindows.com, and Lycoris remain in the mix, too, focusing solely on end users. And Red Hat achieved an important advance toward desktop acceptance with version 8 of its distribution, tweaking the system so that point-and-click apps look and feel the same, under any of Linux's desktop environments. Look for other distributions to follow suit this year.

          All of these companies have at their disposal the strongest building blocks yet produced by the open-source community. The KDE and Gnome desktop environments now sport most of the features that Windows users expect to see. For their part, OpenOffice.org's office suite and its commercial cousin, Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, continue to improve. The Wine libraries (which enable Linux to run Windows programs) have Microsoft Office (though not Office XP) running on Linux. By the end of 2003, you'll probably see low-cost Linux-based PCs for sale at places other than Walmart.com, where you can currently pick up a Microtel PC running LindowsOS for $US199.

          -- Matthew Newton

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