We survey developments from the recent Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, which brought to light new information concerning the future of the forthcoming 'Longhorn' version of Windows.
I'm sure readers of this column will be pleased to hear that it now reaches the eyes of Microsoft. Following my February 2003 column on the new Windows Longhorn operating system, I got an email from Martin Puryear, Development Manager of the Windows Audio/Video Platform, in which he reassured me that (contrary to rumours) Windows Longhorn will still be compatible with drivers written for previous versions of Windows, and will still support PCI expansion cards. Panic over!
Moreover, a lot more information was revealed at WinHEC (the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) 2003, held in New Orleans in early May. Apparently Longhorn will not now be released even in Beta form until early 2004, with a likely manufacturing release date of sometime in 2005. It's unlikely that there will be any more interim Windows releases until then, although Windows XP will have new Media Center (sic) and Tablet PC Editions (see the 'PC Snippets' box for more).
However, Longhorn will be of great interest to us musicians, since it has a new and rather more robust audio architecture that aims to eliminate audio glitches and reduce latency, while maintaining backward compatibility with older drivers, as mentioned earlier (although these won't benefit from the new features). It will have prioritised I/O for audio and video, various audio acceleration features, a finely adjustable playback rate that can be slaved to external video or audio clocks, and it will support timestamping.
On the surface, Microsoft are also aiming to to simplify AV device setup with centralised, easy-to-use Control Panels that replace the current and rather outmoded Volume Control. Underneath, their new UAA (Universal Audio Architecture) will run devices based on three specifications — USB, FireWire, or Azalia.
Azalia is the next generation PC audio specification from Intel that replaces the current AC97, and applies to integrated motherboard chipsets and expansion cards. The Azalia controller interface is designed to support one high-rate stream of eight channels of 24-bit/192kHz audio plus additional lower-rate streams for such things as modems and voice communications, while the proposed new 'Entertainment PC' spec also recommends an S/N ratio in excess of 110dB, which all sounds most promising. Longhorn will provide native support for all this, but Win XP and 2000 should also get a suitable update.
Microsoft distributed preview versions of their Windows XP 64-bit Edition and Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition for AMD processors during WinHEC 2003 (see main text). The XP 64-bit Edition will support AMD's new Opteron processor, and the Athlon 64 that's expected to ship later this year, while the Enterprise will also support the Opteron. This shows that Microsoft are now more committed to supporting AMD.
Sonic Foundry's desktop software assets, including Sound Forge, CD Architect, and the ACID and Vegas ranges, have been acquired by Sony Pictures Digital, following the recent release of Sony's Screenblast Movie Studio and Screenblast Music Studio applications, created in conjunction with the Sonic Foundry development team. This will allow Sonic Foundry to write off existing debts, as well as injecting plenty of capital, and should allow the same team to carry on developing, although they say they will concentrate on 'rich media' applications, following on from their web presentation software Media Site Live. What this means for for existing users of their other products isn't yet clear, but I'll keep you informed.
The current Windows XP Media Center Edition has been available for some months, and is an entertainment version of Windows XP with an additional Media Center application that runs on a special 'PC TV'. This replaces a separate TV, VCR, jukebox, and stand-alone DVD player, letting you listen to music, watch TV and record programmes onto your hard drive, watch DVDs, store and view your digital pictures, and so on, all controlled from one handy remote, as well as being a fully-featured PC [see Cutting Edge, p.34, for more.]. It should eventually prove popular in family living rooms and to those with limited space if the price comes down — currently Media Center PCs cost about double what most people pay for a home PC. The forthcoming Media Center Edition announced during WinHEC 2003 will add better handwriting recognition for non-English languages and new Media Center Guide data for European television.
While existing Windows desktop displays can already host multiple screen 'windows', each one is responsible for its own display area. In Longhorn, the desktop is re-rendered many times a second by combining the contents of each open window, each window having its own 'surface' and translucency level. This should enable us (for instance) to work in a mixer or synth editor window while our sequencer's arrange page is still partially visible beneath it. Even those who already work with dual-head setups to provide more screen 'real estate' should find this useful.
There are various other graphic and animation effects on offer in Longhorn, but they all use the features of existing 3D graphic cards, which currently remain largely unused except when running games and 3D graphic applications. IT staff may perhaps be a little cynical that Microsoft's vision for office PCs of the future includes expensive 3D graphic accelerators, but the good news is that these graphic features will be immediately available to any Windows application running under Longhorn, including existing ones. No re-compiling is required by software developers, and the new features will be optional if your PC doesn't have suitable hardware.
Longhorn will also feature a new control interface called Xeel, which has been described as a cluster of hardware components based on the success of the mouse scroll wheel. Details are still sketchy, but apparently Bill Gates has described it as "a ruler that can be pushed in or moved to the left or right", along with some additional vertically stacked buttons. Xeel aims to provide a consistent interface and navigation scheme across Windows powered smart displays and phones, as well as pocket and tablet PCs.
Also demonstrated at WinHEC 2003 was a prototype 'Athens' office PC, co-developed by Microsoft and HP, and designed to take advantage of Longhorn when it finally appears. It features 'next-generation' voice, video, and text messaging, and as you can see from the photograph on the left, has a a high-DPI (at least 120 dots per inch) flat-screen display with a horizontal 16:10 aspect ratio designed to make it easier to work with multiple documents (and, I suspect, with MIDI + Audio sequencer applications!). Microsoft predict that this 20-inch panel display should cost just $400 by next year, although many hardware experts seem highly sceptical about this.
Athens also has a wireless handset and headset on its left-hand side, using Bluetooth technology, and a video-conferencing camera on its right. Caller ID will let you know who's dialling in, using a pop-up screen, or you can mute the display, whereupon incoming calls will blink on the monitor bezel or keyboard. The new machine is designed to boot in under two seconds, power itself down when not in use, includes a rechargeable dock for tablet PCs, and has a battery powerful enough to enter hibernation mode or save any open files in the event of a power failure.
However, it's still got a small footprint, so it will be interesting to see what internal expansion possibilities there are. One interesting point for musicians is that Athens features "truly quiet" operation, which sounds encouraging, although this may simply mean low noise rather than complete silence. Even so, it's a sign that acoustics are now being taken a lot more seriously, because few people now want a noisy computer in the office or living room, let alone a music studio.
Here's a quick update to my two-part PC Musician feature on real-world latency in SOS September and October 2002. As you may remember, I concluded from my measurements that, of the various PC MIDI interfaces, those found on PCI cards seemed to exhibit the lowest latency, followed by serial/parallel port devices, while USB generally gave the largest latencies, although all types offered similarly low levels of MIDI timing jitter.
However, having recently acquired an Evolution MK225C two-octave keyboard with integral MIDI controllers, to replace my trusty MK125, I've had the opportunity to test out its direct USB MIDI connection and compare it with its standard MIDI output routed through a variety of PC MIDI interfaces. This time, instead of using my modified MIDI lead, I was able to directly compare the arrival time of MIDI messages via both routes simultaneously, by using MIDI-OX, which provides a 'timestamp' counter with 0.1ms resolution that starts when you first launch the utility.
Connecting the USB lead from the MK225C to my PC, as well as a standard MIDI lead from the MK225C MIDI output to the input of the comparison PC MIDI interface, and then enabling both inputs simultaneously in MIDI-OX, meant that each time I pressed or released a key two identical MIDI signals arrived at slightly different times. MIDI-OX then displayed which arrived soonest, and by how much.
MIDI signals from the direct USB keyboard connection proved never to be more than a tiny 1ms later than those routed through my PCI MIDI interface, but up to 2ms earlier than my serial port-connected Midisport 8x8, and up to 3ms earlier than the latest Midisport 8x8 USB drivers (see screenshot). From these results I think we can assume that if your keyboard has a USB MIDI connection this will nearly always provide the lowest MIDI latency, unless you use your soundcard's MIDI input. However, a quick check with MIDI-OX will confirm this.
The newest Intel Pentium 4 processors feature hyperthreading technology, which lets the chip operate more like a dual processor that can run two applications simultaneously, or run a single application much faster than it would on a standard P4 processor. This technology first appeared in Intel's Xeon chips last year, and as you might expect it's not as powerful as a real dualprocessor PC.
Older 533MHz FSB (Front Side Buss) P4s do have hyperthreading technology built-in (but disabled), and Intel officially specify a P4 3.06GHz or faster processor to support it. However, if you're thinking of splashing out on one of these, there are various things to bear in mind. First, you need a suitable motherboard with a hyperthreading-enabled chipset, and second, you can only run it under Linux 2.4x, Windows XP Home, or XP Professional. This is good news for users of Win XP Home, since only Professional users get true multiple processor support, but users of Win 98, 98SE, Me, 2000, and NT4 will need to disable the hyperthreading function in their BIOS setup to prevent problems.
Under XP, while you should see performance improvements when running several applications simultaneously, only one app at a time can access the FPU (Floating Point Unit), so it's difficult to generalise about how big these improvements might be. Individual applications won't improve until they have been rewritten to take advantage of hyperthreading, and here your choices narrow considerably. Steinberg's Nuendo 2 is one of the few music apps that currently supports hyperthreading, though others should gain support in coming months. As it stands, many applications won't show any benefit at all.
Moreover, there have been some teething troubles with existing music software, which is hardly surprising considering that most developers don't even have a hyperthreading-enabled PC. Anyone experiencing random CPU spikes, higher overheads, or clicks and pops should try temporarily disabling hyperthreading in the BIOS to see if the symptoms disappear. I've spotted forum users complaining of problems with Reaktor 4, Steinberg's Virtual Guitarist, the PowerCore DSP card, and Cubase SX. Steinberg have already promised hyperthreading support for Cubase SX in its next major update, due some time later this year.