1998 looks likely to be the year of power. Processors will get faster, with more memory and significantly bigger hard disks. PCs will be able to do things they have never done before. Steve Homer reports.

1998 will be the year that PCs deliver. A prime example of this can be seen in relation to speech recognition. Several companies have been trying to get speech recognition up and running for about six years. You speak to your computer and it understands what you are saying. It either interprets your commands or it takes what you are saying as dictation and transcribes it into a document. Well that is the theory, but previously the technology was not up to the task.

This year things will change. Partly because speech recognition is getting better but also because the machines we use in our offices and homes are getting more powerful.

Processors now have more "space" to work in. Memory is the desktop on which your computer sorts its work out, and the hard disk is the filing cabinet next to your desk where it can store things in a hurry. Last year the price of memory fell dramatically and it will carry on dropping this year. The cost of hard disks also fell through the floor. Today a typical pounds 1,500 machine will have around 16 to 32 Mbytes of memory and a 2-3 Gbyte hard disk. By the end of the year that will have moved up to a 32-64 Mbyte machine with a 5-7 Gbyte hard disk. To that you have to add a huge step up in processing power. Simply put - the processor will go around twice as fast.

IBM's latest pounds 99 speech recognition offering achieves around 98 per cent accurate word recognition. Not much worse than your average dictation typist. It stores a whopping 400 Mbytes of data on your hard disk and requires at least 32 Mbytes, and ideally 64 Mbytes, of memory in which to shuffle around its ideas while it works. Two years ago that would have been the specification for a departmental computer, not something to sit on your desk. But as they are getting more powerful computers are getting smaller - much smaller.

Last year the pocket computer really took off. British company Psion has long been the leader in this field but it let the grass grow under its feet and now the competition has swooped in. The most exciting development which arrived was the 3Com Palm Pilot. This is really a very basic pocket computer but it has two great saving graces. Firstly it does away with need for a keyboard by including a simple form of handwriting recognition. But it was the second innovation that really drove the market forward. The Pilot comes with a docking station. You simply put your Pilot into its cradle, push a button on the front and the files on your Pilot and on the PC are automatically synchronised.

Today 3Com claims it has 66 per cent of the US market for handheld computers and 38 per cent of the worldwide market. Inevitably this developing market has caught the eye of Microsoft. Just over a year ago it brought out a cut down version of its Windows 95 operating system called Windows CE. This is intended to be used everywhere: in your washing machine, your TV set, your car, but originally it appeared in handheld PCs.

Companies like Casio and Philips have carved out a small slice of the market but sales have not been staggering. However this January Microsoft unveiled a Palm Pilot clone which it even had the nerve to call the Palm PC. Once again it has handwriting recognition input, it is the same tiny size (smaller than two cigarette packets) and, importantly, it is designed to quickly synchronise with files on the PC. It also has an added advantage, it runs a Microsoft operating system so it looks and feels very like Windows 95 and the applications on the Palm PC are cut down versions of the word processor and spreadsheet that users are familiar with from their desk PCs. However, only a few trial units are available as yet and no one is 100 per cent sure how good the product will be.

But computers are not just getting into our pockets; in 1998 they will be turning up everywhere.When Microsoft announced the Palm PC it also announced the Auto PC. It uses speech recognition so you don't have take your eyes off the road and speech synthesis to tell you what is happening. It will control the radio, a CD changer if you have one, car navigation system and importantly, your mobile phone. It should be in the shops by Christmas.

In fact mobile phones will get a lot of computing attachments this year. One of the neatest will be Philips' Synergy. This is a flat panel that clips on the back to receive faxes, e-mails and even browse the Web. This combats the problem of computer mobile phones being too bulky for normal use.

But while handheld PCs and mobile phone computers are taking over the market, the traditional portable computer will be going from strength to strength. Firstly they will be smaller. Not overall but thinner. Most top-end notebooks now have 12.1 and 13.3 inch screens but the market will be moving up to 14.1 inch screens in 1998.

Screens have improved dramatically over the last two years and there is really no need for a bulky old fashioned monitor in the office. As to the keyboard, well Siemens Nixdorf is looking at introducing notebooks with detachable keyboards that can be put at a comfortable angle and connect to the PC by infra-red.

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