Big Changes Coming

BY STANLEY ZAROWIN

Q. Ounce for ounce, my cell phone and personal digital assistant (PDA) are more powerful and technologically advanced than my laptop, and they cost a lot less. Why are laptops so far behind the technology times?

A. The reason for the gap can be summed up this way: Last year consumers bought 700 million cell phones but only 50 million laptops. On top of that, phones and some PDAs generate big wireless connection fees. Because the potential profits from them far outstrip those from laptops, they get more attention from manufacturers.

But that’s beginning to change. Here are some advances for laptops coming down the pike:

Always-on small screens. Tomorrow’s laptops will mimic the clamshell-style cell phones, which have a second, smaller screen on the outside that displays basic information such as time, date, caller identification and connection accessibility.

Small laptops with phones. In the next year or two, we should begin to see ultrasmall laptops that have built-in cell phones.

Touch-screen laptops. Longhorn, the code name for Microsoft’s next operating system, will be able to handle inputs from a stylus or finger la tablet PCs.

Better battery monitors. Those electricity-reserve gauges on today’s laptops are useless; they tell you 20 minutes of power remain when your laptop’s about to black out or report no power is left when you have an hour in reserve. Late this year or early next, expect to see gauges that have an accuracy within 1%.

While we’re on the subject, here are some other advances we’ll start seeing in all computers:

Less reliance on disk drives. Microsoft is urging laptop and desktop makers to add power-efficient flash memory drives to store often-used programs. Less reliance on spinning power-hungry hard drives will shorten computers’ start-up time—eventually to nearly instantly.

Dual chips that run faster. Manufacturers of computers’ central processing chips—the computer’s brain—are introducing a new design that packages together two chips, each running independently of the other. The chips divide the processing of a command between them, each solving part of it, and then forward the completed solution. This parallel processing results in a much faster computer. The dual chips are being installed in high-power server computers now and in a year will be introduced in all other ones.

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