NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2012
Where’s the Technology?
Greg Skalka, President,
Under the Computer Hood User Group, CA
July 2012 issue, Drive Light
president (at) uchug.org (click to email author)

With all the political posturing going on in this election year, we should be used to promises that go unfulfilled. In the technical arena, we hear a lot about potential new advances; though often wait a long time to see the benefits ourselves. Sometimes the prognosticators are wildly optimistic or the development proves too difficult, and we never see (or at least haven’t seen up to this point) the mass application of a great new product or technology (an example is the Segway personal transporter). I’ve bought a number of new computers recently, and have been a little surprised about some of the features currently available. There are a few features that I’ve some of the features currently available. There are a few features that I’ve been hearing about for a few years that still are not available on most new PCs. There are also features that I’ve never heard of that now appear to be standard. All in all, just like the 1980’s Wendy’s commercials that asked “Where’s the beef?” I’m left asking “Where’s the technology?”

The entertainment industry has also made its contributions to our unmet expectations for technology over the years. Remember the late 1960’s television series “Lost in Space”? It was scripted to occur in 1997, yet we are still waiting for interplanetary space travel, talking autonomous robots and other innovations portrayed as commonplace. The movies “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “2010” portrayed many similar technological advances for times we have now passed. We do have the International Space Station, but it is not in the same league as the one in “2001”. We never got the public videophone capability Dr. Heywood Floyd used to call back to Earth from the station in the film, though I guess it was really not much better than what we can do with Skype today. Some might argue it is just as well we don’t yet have computers as sophisticated (especially in interaction with humans) as HAL 9000, though maybe IBM’s Watson is getting close.

The reality of technological advancement in personal computers is that, though computers are not yet as sophisticated as HAL or Watson, they are pervasive. Only cell phones are more common now as tech tools in our society, and with smart phones the lines between phones and computers are blurring. There are often examples of advanced technology available to a few at great price, such as Watson in computing or the few wealthy individuals that have bought their way into space on a Russian rocket. These don’t really portray the true advancement in technology available to the general public, so I’ve looked to the computers I’ve bought recently as a better representation of technology promised and fulfilled.

In the last two years, I’ve bought two new laptops and two new desktop computers for my wife and myself. These replace XP computers that were up to seven years old, and so represent a big step up in computer technology. The first replacement, and first Windows 7 machine in my house was an Acer Aspire X3950 mini desktop for my wife. Last year I bought myself a Lenovo IdeaCentre K330B desktop, and I bought a 15.6” Fujitsu Lifebook AH531 notebook for my wife. I liked the laptop so much I got a 14” Fujitsu Lifebook LH531 laptop for myself this year. All had Windows 7 and Intel i3 or i5 processors. These were not the fanciest nor the cheapest computers, but are ones I thought represented the best in value in the $400 to $600 price range. It is interesting to review the features available in these “typical” computers as compared to the latest technology has to offer.

In networking, we have come a long way. Once, everyone connected to the Internet through a phone modem. Now modems are absent from new computers, having been removed years ago. Wired Ethernet capability became the replacement, proceeding quickly from 10/100BASE-TX to Gigabit Ethernet, which is now the standard on all new computers. All four of my new computers include 10/100/1000 wired Ethernet capability, though I don’t take advantage of the increased Gigabit speed, as my router and switches are all still only 10/100 capable. A survey of Fry’s items online showed that for new networking gear, Gigabit has not become the standard that it has for computers and laptops. Most new switches available are 10/100/1000, but only about half the routers are.

The big push in networking improvement is now in wireless networking. Wireless computer users started out in 1999 with 11 Mbit/s 802.11b, and have proceeded up the alphabet with 802.11g (54 Mbit/s), n (up to 150 Mbit/s) and finally ac (up to 866 Mbit/s). My two new laptops both are b/g/n capable, though once again my present router is limited to 802.11g. Here my home network is again behind the times, as most new routers only go up to n capability. Though Fry’s does sell an 802.11ac router, I was not able to find any of their laptops with that capability. Even the thin Ultrabook laptops, which don’t have a wired Ethernet RJ-45 connector, have yet to add 802.11ac to their features.

It is somewhat surprising to me that there has been such an emphasis on networking speed improvement recently, when for most people the benefits above 10/100 wired and 802.11g wireless are lost. Since few people have network hard drives, their network traffic consists exclusively of an Internet connection, which is often 10 Mbps or less. My Time Warner Cable plan presently gives me a measured 16 Mbps, but even if I bought the 50 Mbps “Ultimate” plan, my present network would not be a limiting factor.

The other typical computer interface is for peripheral devices. This used to consist of a serial port DB-9 connector, but computers lost those years ago. USB2 (Universal Serial Bus, version 2.0, 480 Mbps) became and still is the replacement peripheral interface standard, though now USB3 (5 Gbps) is finally appearing on some accessory devices and computers. USB3 adoption on computers presently appears to be related to price, with USB3 more likely on higher-end computers and laptops. None of my four new computers have USB3 capability, though Fry’s showed it was available (often one port only, along with a couple USB2 ports) on some computers in the $500 to $1000 price range, and appeared to be on most all computers above $1000. It surprised me to learn that of the two versions of Microsoft Surface tablet computer announced, the one based on the ARM processor had a USB2 port, with USB3 only available on the Windows 8, Intel processor version. For some reason (perhaps cost), the adoption of USB3 has not gone as fast as I would have thought.

Another interface I’d thought would become more popular and prevalent is eSATA, but for some reason it has not. It provides an external interface for the 3 or 6 Gbps SATA interface commonly used on hard drives. Though eSATA interface cards are available to add to computers, I’ve not seen any new machines come with this interface built in. Another very new high-speed serial interface that appears for now to be only available in iMacs is Intel’s Thunderbolt; it promises 20 Gbps.

A surprise in the other direction is the addition of an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) video output to almost every new computer. It is present on all of my new laptops and desktops. Since HDMI is available on all new HDTVs as an input, it has become for me the default way to hook up a laptop to my TV. When I want to show new photos to my family, the best way is to display them on our HDTV, using an HDMI connected laptop as the source. Since there are more and more devices (like set top boxes, DVD/Blu-ray disc players and HD video camcorders) already competing for the few TV HDMI inputs, I think HDMI switches, which allow multiple devices to use the TV ports, will become popular.

Another new video interface, one I’d never seen before I bought my laptops, is Intel wireless Display, or WiDi. Though both my new laptops have it, I’ve yet to try it, as it requires a compatible TV or monitor, or an adapter. While the concept sounds good, I was not able to locate many adapters, and the one I did find on Fry’s site was around $100. While it looks like Intel has pushed adoption of this interface on the laptops using their processors, having a TV to wirelessly broadcast video to will be the problem for now.

Another wireless interface that now appears to be implemented on almost all new laptops is Bluetooth. Typical uses include interface with Bluetooth mice and keyboards. While Bluetooth is available on both of my new laptops, I so far have no peripheral devices to use with it.

Blu-ray optical drive technology has been available for over five years, but it has not displaced the standard DVD as the most popular optical disc format. I think cost is again the limiting factor in its acceptance, as Bluray capability appears more often in higher-cost computers. At the lower end of the capability spectrum are Blu-ray read-capable drives, which start to become available in mid to high-cost computers. Blu-ray writer drives are presently available only in the upper price tier of computers. None of my new computers came with any Blu-ray compatibility.

As time goes on, I’d expect costs to come down and allow greater adoption of some of the new features that appear limited to high-end computers, such as USB3 and Blu-ray. Until then, all I can do is pay more, or ask “Where’s the technology?”

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