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Near-Future Tech

August 15th, 2006

Look Ma, No Cables: USB is going wireless, maybe as soon as this Fall. Reportedly, the wireless version of the most ubiquitous computer cable will allow for the same speed as the cable up to ten feet away, or one-quarter speed up to 30 feet away. That will effectively make peripheral cables (not to mention poor old Bluetooth) obsolete–assuming, of course, that it works as advertised, and assuming that you’ll be willing to pay for the convenience.

However, it’s not the only game in town. Under the unromantic moniker “IEEE 802.11n,” Wi-Fi will be also getting an upgrade. The first Wi-Fi signals sent data at a rate of 2 Mbps, or 250 KB per second. That was earlier on, however, and most people started with WiFi-b, which could deliver 11 Mbps (over 1 MB per second). WiFi-a topped that at 56 Mbps (7 MB per second), but it was incompatible with -b; then WiFi-g came out with the same speed as -a, but was compatible with -b (though not with -a). Confused yet?

Well, WiFi-n will transmit at 560 Mbps (70 MB per second), 10 times faster than current speeds. In fact, that’s faster than USB 2 cables or their new wireless counterparts. The catch: it’s not due until 2008.

WiFi is usually for networking, however, so between WiFi and Wireless USB, the only cable you’ll need in the future is a power cable.

Look Ma, No Boot: Flash memory is making a splash as it is being used now as a buffer for hard drives (saving laptops huge amounts of power and a good deal of time by not making the drive spin up all the time), and may even supplant hard drives entirely in the future. However, since 1 GB of Flash memory costs $45, it can be prohibitively expensive as a total replacement, even if the price drops to the predicted $9/GB in three years.

But Flash can’t replace an even more important component: RAM. Flash degrades over time, making it iffy even for hard disk drive replacements, and not acceptable as RAM memory. However, there is another solution: MRAM, or magnetic RAM. Like Flash, MRAM is non-volatile, which means that it retains its memory after power has been shut off. Traditional RAM is volatile, which is why you lose all your data when your computer’s power is interrupted. Additionally, it’s why your computer takes anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes to boot: memory must be loaded off the hard drive (slow) and onto RAM. Essentially, it’s like your computer wakes up an empty vessel each time and must be filled with the OS and all apps before it can start functioning. Non-volatile RAM, like MRAM, would make that unnecessary.

So once MRAM is in your computer, you won’t have to wait for lengthy shutdowns and reboots; your computer will turn on and off like a light switch. You’ll still have to reboot from time to time to let the OS flush itself out, but that hassle too will likely be engineered out and made unnecessary.

The only problem: cost and speed. MRAM is faster than Flash memory, but what’s going into production right now is still slower than the DRAM currently used. So at first, MRAM might be used in concert with DRAM, but when speed increases to DRAM levels and costs drop, MRAM will likely wholly replace DRAM. MRAM will not replace hard disks like Flash might, however.

So put all this together, and you’ll have quite a different computer in just a few years. A computer that will start up instantly, require much less power, save data faster, and make data loss far less likely; a computer that will be able to wirelessly connect with all your peripherals at high speeds, making every cable except the power cable extraneous. And that’s just from two basic areas of new technology, just over the horizon.

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  1. August 16th, 2006 at 01:23 | #1

    *looks at the cables running all over his work desk to the two computers he’s using*

    Can’t happen soon enough in my book!

  2. ykw
    August 16th, 2006 at 01:29 | #2

    I think it might be a long time before we have mram that is as fast as dram and at a similar price. dram is very fast and low cost. I think we’re going to see hard disks with faster access times, faster transfer rates, and dram that is faster and lower cost. Which means one can use the dram as a cache for the hard disk, which works very fast.

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