Speed just isn't what it used to be

These days, higher processor speeds alone aren't enough to justify the purchase of a new PC.

Processor clock speed has been a staple of PC marketing efforts for years. Faster always meant better. Users easily noticed a difference in performance between Intel's 75MHz Pentium processor and the 166MHz Pentium, for example, with many common desktop applications. But those incremental performance gains are less obvious today to most users, even as desktop processor speeds have soared to 2GHz.

"If you're (just) doing text-based e-mail, you don't need an Athlon," said Pat Moorhead, Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s (AMD's) vice president of consumer advocacy, referring to his company's flagship desktop processor. "You should buy the cheapest Duron system you can find."

Instead of relying on incremental gains in processor clock speed alone to draw customers, PC vendors are increasingly betting on multimedia applications and new PC form factors to help drive sales.

"Faster clock speeds aren't quite enough to get people to upgrade anymore," said Leland Rockoff, director of marketing and business development at Microsoft's Tablet PC group.

High-end processors such as AMD's Athlon XP chip -- and Intel's rival Pentium 4 processor -- are geared towards users who require extra PC horsepower for editing video and converting music CDs to MP3 formats, Moorhead said. Those applications and the peripherals associated with them, such as digital cameras and MP3 players, are helping to sell PCs based on today's fastest processors and Microsoft's recently released Windows XP operating system.

"Peripheral sales are booming around (PCs based on) Windows XP," Moorhead said.

In addition to multimedia applications, vendors are turning to new PC form factors. The most visible of these new form factors on display at Comdex Fall in Las Vegas last week was the Tablet PC, unveiled by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates during his keynote speech at the exhibition.

The Tablet PCs are being pushed as a substitute for both laptops and -- with the addition of a docking station and a wireless keyboard and mouse -- desktop PCs. When they begin shipping late next year, the lightweight devices are expected to offer battery life of up to four hours or more, the Tablet PC edition of the Windows XP operating system, integrated wireless networking, and a pen-based input system that offers sophisticated handwriting recognition capabilities, among other features.

Compaq Computer Corp. and Acer Inc., among others, demonstrated prototype Tablet PCs at Comdex. While Compaq showed off a clipboard-like design, Acer showed off a prototype laptop with a swivel display that can be converted from a clamshell design into a tablet.

But a senior executive at NEC Computers Inc., one of the vendors that has signed on to the Tablet PC initiative, thinks the vision of the Tablet PC being pushed by Microsoft and others at Comdex may be flawed.

"I think Microsoft is a bit off," said Larry Miller, NEC's vice president of marketing. Instead of a single, clipboard-like form factor or a "Swiss Army Knife"-like device that can transform from a notebook into a tablet, Miller envisages a variety of unique Tablet PC form factors, designed with specific applications and work environments in mind.

In addition to Tablet PC prototypes, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard Co. unveiled smaller desktop PC form factors designed for corporate customers.

Compaq pulled the wraps off its Evo ultra-slim desktop PC, which measures 2.7 inches (width) x 12.4 inches (height) x 12.8 inches (depth) (69 by 315 by 325 millimeters) and weighs about 11 pounds (5 kilograms). The Evo uses either the Pentium 4 or Celeron processor, depending on the specific model. At the same time, HP introduced its Pentium 4-based e-pc, which measures 3.7 inches (width) x 9.8 inches (height) x 11.0 inches (depth) (94 by 249 by 279 millimeters) and weighs in around 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).

HP also gave a glimpse into its vision of the future of desktop PCs. The company's Concept PC 2001 has a retro, 60s look and is separated into two components -- an end-user interface and a computing component -- that are connected via a USB 2.0 link. With its textured blue face and metal accents, the Concept PC 2001 was designed to use a minimum of desktop space and can be mounted on a wall, said Eric Chaniot, an HP spokesman.

The Concept PC 2001's computing component -- which includes the processor, memory and storage -- was designed so that users can upgrade their PC's computing capabilities while using the same user interface component, Chariot said.

The USB 2.0 link that connects the Concept PC 2001's two components can currently stretch to 5 meters and will be extended to up to 100 meters in the future, Chaniot said. In offices or homes with multiple computers, users will be able to stack several of the small boxes together in a central location, reducing the amount of space required to store the PCs, he said.

But new form factors and multimedia applications won't completely replace processor speed as a reason for users to upgrade their PCs. "Customers still fear obsolescence," AMD's Moorhead said.