The old desktop standby has a few surprises in store for a wave of new buyers
The humble desktop PC has taken a back seat in recent years.
A slew of portable devices have become the darlings of the computing scene, and consumers are snapping them up in unprecedented numbers. Indeed, unit shipments of mobile machines are making up almost half of all PC sales. Market research firm IDC projects that notebook PCs will account for 47 percent of units shipped in the United States in 2007.
That said, desktop innovation marches on. And that's good news for federal buyers who continue to purchase traditional PCs for security and other considerations. Agency officials scanning the desktop market will find that the current crop is faster, sports more memory and offers greater storage
What buyers may find surprising is that desktops have taken a cue from their sleek notebook counterparts. Desktop PCs are smaller, with some products able to reside inconspicuously behind a flat-panel display. Individual models may also ship with tool-less maintenance features designed to ease the total cost of ownership.
Beyond the manufacturer's standard feature set, agencies can avail themselves of more cutting-edge options. Those include large monitors, microprocessors with Hyper-Threading Technology and Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) hard drives. Such features, however, add significant cost and will most likely appeal mainly to power users.
A considerable number of new desktops could be landing in the federal workplace this year. Some officials are looking to replace units purchased in the late 1990s to prepare for the Year 2000 date change.
"We are starting to see an interest in responding to the aging fleet of PCs installed during the year leading up to" 2000, said Tom Buchsbaum, vice president of federal systems at Dell Inc. "They see an enormous advantage in replacing a vintage 1999 computer."
Agencies that haven't been in the desktop market in a while will discover a new look to the old standby. "They're lighter and thinner," Buchsbaum said.
Indeed, vendors such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. now offer machines much smaller than those available just a couple of years ago. Dell's OptiPlex SX270, for example, stands less than 10 inches high and is a svelte 3.5 inches wide. "It can hide behind a flat-panel monitor," Buchsbaum said. The OptiPlex SX270 is called an ultra-small form factor machine, as opposed to earlier small form factor products.
IBM's ThinkCentre S50 desktop family also offers a small form factor option. HP's Compaq Business Desktop d530 provides another example.
Not surprisingly, tiny desktops are attracting the most attention among government customers concerned about space. Alex Wong, a federal sales manager at IBM, cited Defense Department medical facilities where examining rooms have limited space for computing tools. The new desktops "take up less real estate," Wong said.
Slim desktop PCs save more than space, Buchsbaum said, adding that smaller machines combined with flat-panel monitors also conserve energy. Compared to bulkier, pre-Year 2000 models, the SX270 reduces energy costs by up to 85 percent over three years, he said.
In addition, Buchsbaum said the smaller form factor desktops are positioned against manufacturers offering all-in-one desktop PCs in which the processor and other components are grafted to the back of a flat-panel display. By comparison, a small form factor solution makes for easier upgrades than the all-in-one, he said. A customer seeking more speed, memory and storage can swap out the CPU and leave the display in place, he said.
Inside the cover, desktop buyers will discover that Moore's Law is alive and well. Processors in excess of 3 GHz are becoming standard fare in today's commercial market, while a 600 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium III chip was considered state of the art in 1999.
Among government customers, the current CPU standard for desktop machines tends to be 2G or more. In one example, the minimum PC specification under DOD's Composite Health Care System has been boosted to 2.6G systems, according to Karen Jenkins, a program manager at PlanetGov Inc. Elsewhere, the Air Force Information Technology Commodity Council late last year got three commands to agree to a common desktop processor specification: 2.6 GHz (see box, Page 24).
Beyond pure speed, another notable innovation in processors is Intel's Hyper-Threading Technology, which improves a PC's ability to run more than one application at a time. Intel officials claim software performance benefits of up to 25 percent in multitasking situations.
Hyper-Threading chips have been available since late 2002, but have not been much in demand in the government market.
Intel featured Hyper-Threading on new Pentium 4 chips that the company debuted last month. The chips, code named Prescott, run at speeds of up to 3.2 GHz; a 3.4 GHz processor is in the works. An earlier-generation Northwood chip, Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, also features Hyper-Threading.
Wong said he hasn't seen requests for proposals calling for Northwood- and Prescott-type processors with Hyper-Threading. At this point, the technology is seen as a nicety for power users, he said.
But Alan Bechara, president of PCMall Government, said he is starting to see interest in Hyper-Threading, particularly within DOD.
Indeed, Hyper-Threading may become more prevalent in future purchasing cycles. Chuck Puschell, chief of the network and operations division at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency's next standard for high-end, premium PCs will call for 3.2 GHz processors with Hyper-Threading capability.
In demand: More memory,
The bottom line in memory and storage is that users want both in greater quantity. "We see demand for more memory and larger hard drives," Jenkins said.
The current standard for memory among government customers is 512M, Wong said. Proactive customers are buying desktops with expansion capabilities. He said the pattern is for federal purchasers to seek the ability to expand memory to 2G.
Buying extra capacity is also a common strategy with storage. Many government requirements reflect an interest in 40G hard drives, but demand for 60G or 80G drives is growing, according to industry officials. An 80G hard drive is part of the premium PC configuration at the VA.
The majority of desktop hard drives are traditional Parallel ATA devices. Serial ATA technology, however, offers faster throughput and is already prevalent in server storage. Serial ATA hasn't made serious desktop inroads in the government sector, but industry observers believe that is where the market is heading.
Serial ATA now offers 150 megabytes/sec throughput and eventually will reach
600 megabytes/sec, according to Wong.
Parallel ATA provides throughput of 100 megabytes/sec. Price is a factor that has kept Serial ATA off desktop PCs. It is more expensive, in part, because it tends to ship with high-performance, higher-RPM disk drives.
Like Hyper-Threading, Serial ATA is currently more of a power-user feature. "It's not the norm," Wong said. "Eventually, it will start becoming the norm as pricing comes down."
Outside the box, most federal customers are requesting 17-inch LCD flat-panel displays, industry executives say. Seventeen inches is the de facto standard, Wong said. Requests for CRT monitors are rare at this point, Bechara said.
He believes the market will move to 19-inch flat-panel displays when pricing becomes favorable. For now, users will still pay a premium for the larger screen size (see box, Page 19).
As for USB peripherals, government buyers are specifying two to four ports on their desktop machines, Wong said. Also, USB 2.0, which runs at up to 480 megabits/sec compared to USB 1.1's peak 12 megabits/sec, is often specified in new desktop acquisitions.
One of the hottest USB peripherals is the memory key. Available in sizes of 56M, 128M and 256M, it can hold the equivalent of dozens of floppies. For example, Dell's 128M USB memory key will hold the equivalent 88 floppies, according to the company.
Jack Littley, senior vice president of program and information services at GTSI Corp., said such products are experiencing high demand among customers. The memory keys, he said, "allow you to have some data mobility," but also represent an increased security risk.
Wong also has noticed the interest in memory keys. But he said federal customers continue to purchase floppy drives. "There are still requirements in federal RFPs for floppy drives," he said.
So, despite near-constant desktop innovation, some vestiges of the older generation endure. But then, the technology adoption curve never did run smoothly.
Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.
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