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Compaq aims for PC nirvana

Technology that computer users have been pleading for since the PC was invented is being demonstrated by Compaq at Comdex.

LAS VEGAS--Technology that computer users have been pleading for since the PC was invented is being demonstrated by Compaq at Fall Comdex '97.

Numerous prototype PCs and peripheral devices using the 1394, or FireWire, standard are on display at the trade show, including a Compaq PC which may truly break new ground in ease of use and integration of consumer electronics technology.

First developed by Apple, FireWire-1394 was designed to enable peripheral devices to be easily connected and rapidly transfer large amounts of data to a computer.

One of the main attractions of 1394 technology is that it could be a giant step in making computers easier to use because add-on devices, such as hard drives, will no longer require the hours of tinkering and retinkering which, at one time or another, has plagued almost every personal computer user.

Instead, devices can simply be inserted in the bays, or receptacles, which are external to the PC. Currently, users have to take off the PC cover and spend hours, or even days in the worst-case scenario, configuring both the hardware and software for devices such as CD-ROM drives and hard drives.

Typically, two bays will be situated at the front of the PC, allowing users to routinely plug in--and swap out--hard drives, DVD drives, CD-ROM drives, and other devices such as digital cameras or a set of compact speakers, according to Sonny Chetty, a product manager for Compaq.

The Compaq Deskpro desktop PC prototype accommodates 1394-compliant DVD-ROM drives from Toshiba, CD-ROM drives from Hitachi and Toshiba, and hard drives from Maxtor, Western Digital, and Seagate.

"What used to take as much as 35 to 40 minutes will take 30 seconds," predicted Chetty. "This is also great for business because if a drive goes down, they just pop it out and pop in a new one."

The ability to use interoperable peripherals results from the work Compaq and numerous other companies are doing on a product specification called Device Bay. The bay is the actual receptical that accepts the different devices.

Standardized component sizes may permit a user to buy a DVD-ROM drive, for example, and plug it into a PC made by Compaq, Dell, IBM, or any other manufacturer.

The Compaq prototype also accommodates plug-and-play devices based on another standard called Universal Serial Bus (USB). But this standard, which is already being adopted by manufacturers, cannot accommodate devices which send large amounts of data, such as DVD drives, according to Compaq's Chetty.

Because a 1394-compliant PC automatically recognizes or "reads" the peripheral, products are also expected to be very popular with information systems department professionals. Should a hard drive fail, for instance, replacing the drive would be a matter of swapping out the defective one. This feature is currently available from vendors like Compaq but only on very high-end servers.

Significant performance gains over today's PCs could be another benefit of the technology because FireWire is essentially a high-speed "bus," or data pathway that moves data from the peripheral device to the PC at a maximum of 400 mbps. This is faster than conventional SCSI (Small Computer System Interface), a peripheral interconnect technology commonly found in today's desktop.

Desktop computers should begin to get the new Device Bay drives by mid-1998, but notebooks users might have to wait longer. Vendors have not yet settled upon a standard size for Device Bay drives in notebooks for a number of reasons. For one, not all notebooks are the same thickness, so there have to be several different size bays available.

Also, adding FireWire capabilities means adding a specialized "controller" chip that manages the flow of information between the device and computer. This chip requires a significant amount of power to run, which isn't a problem in desktop computers, but does pose a design problem for notebook vendors, according to Chris Pollit, manager for Toshiba's portable product marketing group. By next year, Intel-based notebooks will be using processors that are more power-hungry, so adding components that further reduce battery life may not be very appealing to users.

Still, the premise of FireWire is so appealing that virtually all of the major PC manufacturers--Compaq, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment, Toshiba, Dell, and Apple--are working together in the 1394 Trade Association.. Industry giants Microsoft and Intel too are members.

Apple is already offering support in the Mac OS 8 operating system for devices using FireWire. Microsoft earlier this year announced specifications that would allow hardware vendors to create and incorporate peripheral devices into new computer systems, but this still leaves vendors the job of making the necessary software that enables the Windows operating system to control the devices.

Microsoft will be incorporating support for FireWire into Windows 98 and NT 5.0 when those products are released in mid-1998.