RealTime IT News

PC Peripherals Getting Smarter

SEATTLE –- Bill Gates told a WinHec audience this week that the PC is changing. But it's not just Microsoft's forthcoming Vista software and faster processors that are prompting that change.

At WinHec, Microsoft's annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, several companies showed innovative hardware advances.

Samsung unveiled a working prototype of a Hybrid Hard Disk (HHD), a next-generation drive for notebooks and PCs that integrates NAND Flash memory with rotating magnetic storage.

The company presented HHDs with 128MB and 256MB of storage. Samsung claimed the HHD can boot or resume PCs up to twice as fast as a conventional hard drive. For notebooks, the HHD can operate 20 to 30 minutes longer on battery power and, Samsung said, is up to five times as reliable.

In conjunction with Vista's rollout, the company plans to ship HHDs starting in January.

Samsung also previewed a solid-state drive it designed for PCs. One demo showed an AlienWare notebook with two drive ports outfitted with an HHD in addition to the hard disk that came with the system.

"What causes most of the bottlenecks in running applications on the PC today is I/O," said Don Barnetson, associate director of Flash marketing with Samsung Semiconductor.

He said users can expect a 30 percent to 50 percent improvement with additional solid-state drive. Traditionally, such drives are extremely expensive when matched against equivalent magnetic hard-drive storage.

Barnetson said solid-state drives are an expensive niche market, but Samsung sees a market for power users and high-end gamers who demand better performance.

Plus, the addition of a smaller capacity and relatively less expensive 4GB solid-state drive combined with SuperFetch and other caching features of Vista, can greatly improve performance.

While most of us are used to using headsets for voice recognition and VoIP calls, InSync Speech Technologies (IST) has revisited a concept that's been around for at least 30 years: array microphones.

The basic idea is that an array of microphones can better recognize the sound waves made from speech, which is sent from different angles depending on how a person is sitting or facing.

IST's product is designed to be built into a computer display or notebook, or even as a peripheral that clamps onto the monitor.

"When sound travels to the microphone it doesn't travel at the same time; it looks for the strongest source," explained Parmod Gandhi, president of IST. "The more microphones you have the better it identifies the source."

Gandhi said most array microphones to date are either very expensive or don't work well, but said his company has technology for dealing with extraneous sounds like air conditioning or other people talking nearby.

The array concept has great potential, but unless it's a system that's adaptable to different environments, it's always going to have its ups and downs," Richard Doherty, director of The Envisioneering Group, told internetnews.com.

Doherty said arrays traditionally have worked much better in more controlled environments such as a uniform set of office cubicles.

The array system also avoids the hassle of wearing a headset, bringing more comfort to the growing number of VoIP users much like a speaker phone. But headsets still work better for private conversations.

A company called A Living Picture showed prototypes of various Digital Photo Frames it's working on for release in conjunction with Vista.

Unlike standard digital picture viewers, A Living Picture said its technology is software upgradeable and will evolve.

Using Vista's SideShow feature, A Living Picture said its products will be able to transfer digital photos to other devices using Wi-Fi and other means.

"Some studies have said the average consumer keeps about a thousand photos on their computers," said Jesse Grindeland, cofounder and president of A Living Picture. "Gartner projects there will be 250 million PCs shipped this year, so that's a huge number of images we want to help people distribute easily."