The Future of NT-Compatible Hardware

Powerful new components and standards are on the horizon

We've all had it: driver envy, that wrenching feeling you get when you purchase new hardware only to discover it doesn't work with Windows NT. Driver envy is a close cousin to the even more insidious driver betrayal, in which a vendor claims NT compatibility in its literature but instead delivers only a subset of the product's functionality.

Whether you're feeling envious or betrayed, all NT users take a back seat with hardware vendors who are more interested in pursuing the lucrative (in terms of volume) Windows 3.x and Windows 9x markets. However, NT users are serious about their hardware and invest in higher-quality, higher-margin hardware than DOS and Windows users--vendors would be wise to pay attention.

Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn. Driven by swelling ranks (more than 11 million NT Workstation licenses sold) and Microsoft's push to place NT on client machines, hardware vendors are realizing that the NT-compatible hardware market is booming. From the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) to Windows World, the future of NT hardware support looks brighter by the minute.

NT Steals the Show at WinHEC
Developers are starting to catch on to the Win32 Driver Model, Microsoft's attempt to unify the NT and Win9x device driver architectures. At WinHEC '98, Microsoft demonstrated NT 5.0 systems driving everything from Universal Serial Bus (USB) to Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)-1394 FireWire. Microsoft even demonstrated supposedly NT-incompatible devices, such as the SideWinder joystick, working under NT's direction.

Even more telling was the overall tone of the conference, which had a clear NT bias. Microsoft stated unequivocally that NT is the future of client computing and backed these claims with several sessions about NT-related topics and technologies. Microsoft integrated new specifications (e.g., PC99) with discussions about IntelliMirror and the new breed of high-powered Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI)-compliant desktop and mobile systems.

One theme that was evident during the conference was the need for NT. From multimedia to performance I/O, Microsoft kept pushing the virtues of NT and its associated technologies and quieted some critics (for a discussion about NT-related misconceptions, see the sidebar, "Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks").

Microsoft only touched on Win9x, the venerable DOS-based operating system (OS), at this year's WinHEC. Win9x's presence was in a much diminished consumer role. The stage belonged to NT, and developers and conference attendees walked away with new NT 5.0 code builds and lots of material to ponder.

If I Only Had a Brain
Most of the exciting NT hardware developments fall into the CPU and system bus enhancement categories. WinHEC attendees were talking about the 100MHz Slot 1 design and the server-centric Slot 2 interfaces for Pentium II processors. Much of the discussion centered on identifying differences between the designs. The 100MHz Slot 1 design is a higher-clocked version of the Slot 1 design. The Slot 2 design incorporates a larger connector with more grounding pins and features a new CPU cartridge model with a full-speed Level 2 cache interface (current Pentium II cartridges use a half-speed interface). The Slot 2 design will use the new 0.25-micron Deschutes version of the Pentium II.

As with most new CPU and bus technologies, Intel will position the Slot 2 design for use in servers. However, if history is any indicator, you can expect to see Slot 2-based workstations in early 1999. In the long term, you can expect to see additional tweaks (e.g., MMX2) to the Slot 2 design and a larger Level 1 cache as part of the next revision (code-named Katmai). Another of Intel's advanced projects (code-named Willamette) promises a reengineered core, which might create the Pentium III.

Of course, thorn-in-Intel's-side Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), the little chip company that could, isn't waiting on Intel's slot designs. Although Intel's patent lawyers have shut out AMD from the slot-design market, AMD is busy working on its own chipset in an effort to stave off obsolescence. AMD is combining its Pentium-throwback socket design with a souped-up 3-D version of the K6 chip to provide an interesting alternative for bargain-hunting NT users.

The real action is in the Pentium II arena. My experience with the latest NT 5.0 beta builds indicates you need the added power that only a Pentium II can provide. The combination of a bigger working set, a dynamic configuration architecture, and support for cutting-edge hardware translate into a hefty, power-hungry OS. A Pentium II (350MHz to 400MHz) with a 100MHz system bus and Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) Pro graphics is the unofficial design point for NT Workstation 5.0.

In and Out
"Squeezing Play-Doh through a sifter" is how one Intel engineer described the limitations of the current PCI I/O bus. With bandwidth-hungry technologies (e.g., IEEE-1394 FireWire) around the corner, Intel and Microsoft are looking at the current PC architecture. What they're seeing doesn't inspire confidence. "The PCI bus can't deliver the necessary bandwidth to 1394 devices," said Carl Stork, general manager for Windows hardware platforms at Microsoft. "It's out of gas."

Stork and his Wintel comrades want to replace PCI with something better. However, they must first do away with the ISA bus. Getting rid of ISA has proved difficult, but Microsoft is trying to make PCI the only approved bus in the PC99 specification. If vendors want the Designed for Windows 98/NT logo, they must comply.

Of course, Microsoft's reach is limited. Despite its near-omnipresence in the computer industry, Microsoft can't force-feed a new specification, especially when vendors can still make money by violating the letter of the law. Multimedia hardware vendors continue to be the most frequent offenders. Popular hardware devices (e.g., the ISA-based SoundBlaster AWE-series audio cards) continue to sell well, so many vendors are reluctant to force the PCI specification on their customers. The result is a lack of competitive PCI-based offerings, which creates a price-premium for PCI devices.

Will NT 5.0 be the first OS for the PC to outpace the underlying hardware? Stranger things have happened. However, until the industry can boost the PC's I/O bus performance, your Digital Video Disc (DVD) player and high-speed optical devices will continue to run at a fraction of their potential performance.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Microsoft devoted much of WinHEC to topics such as power management and Plug and Play (PnP) for mobile users. Not all the revelations were positive. NT 5.0 will provide only limited support for Advanced Power Management (APM) systems. In addition, the company has done a poor job handling third-party APM migrations (e.g., NT 5.0 beta 2 still chokes on Softex drivers).

To take advantage of advanced features (such as hot docking), mobile NT 5.0 users will have to rely on ACPI. This requirement is not necessarily bad: If Microsoft continues to delay NT 5.0 and enough users swap legacy APM-based notebooks for ACPI-based models, Microsoft might escape unscathed. However, NT 5.0 users caught with APM-based systems will suffer.

Microsoft's predilection for ACPI is understandable. Unlike the BIOS-based APM, ACPI is a register-level implementation. With ACPI, the OS talks directly to the underlying chipset's power-management capabilities and perform tasks such as turning off specific pins on an I/O device and powering down part of the PCI bus. As a result, ACPI part more granularity than APM.

Still, Microsoft is gambling that users won't need comprehensive APM support. Both Softex and SystemSoft have committed to providing a solution for users who want to use NT 5.0 on APM-based systems. In the meantime, start budgeting for a new notebook. For a few more potential hurdles to migrating to NT 5.0, see the sidebar, "NT 5.0 Gotchas!"

You Ought to Be in Pictures
In terms of multimedia drivers, features, and performance, NT has always lagged behind Win95. Few multimedia devices come with NT drivers, and those that do include these drivers only as a token acknowledgement. The code is often buggy and incomplete, or supports limited device functions.

The tide is turning. One by one, multimedia peripheral vendors are learning that technology-savvy client NT users exist. The result is a new crop of NT-aware devices with fully functional drivers that deliver state-of-the-art performance and features. One vendor creating these new NT-aware devices is Creative Labs. Although the company dragged its feet early on, Creative Labs has aggressively pursued NT users in recent months and now ships stable and capable SoundBlaster drivers for NT.

Still, some notable NT holdouts exist. For example, ATI Technologies ships its top-of-the-line All-in-Wonder video card with Win9x-centric drivers. Although you lose this graphics card in NT, you can use several features, such as the built-in TV tuner and Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) decoding.

Connectix is another offender. Its popular QuickCam product line is for Win95 only. The company doesn't provide NT drivers, which is frustrating for NT users wanting to use these product.

According to Microsoft, NT 5.0 will solve these problems through its support for PnP devices. However, NT 5.0's success as a mainstream multimedia platform hinges on the availability of new Win32 Driver Model device drivers. Although Microsoft has been pushing these new drivers (NT-specific DirectX 6.0 multimedia will be entirely Win32 Driver Model-based), the company is fighting against a peripheral vendor community that's reluctant to rewrite drivers for a low-volume platform.

A Bright Future
Powerful new CPUs, high-bandwidth I/O, new technology standards such as PC99, and a friendlier vendor community are all in NT's future. After finishing second to Win9x for so long, NT Workstation in particular is gaining ground in driver support and deployment flexibility. Now, more than ever, NT makes sense on the desktop. From IntelliMirror to DirectX 6.0 to Intelligent Input/Output (I2O), Microsoft is positioning NT 5.0 as the platform to host cutting-edge technologies.

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