Designers are looking at new materials to give PCs a less-plastic feel. Apple has led the charge with titanium and now aluminum models. And around the corner are “inmolding” technologies, where colored plastics are topped off with a textured, metallic sheen for a more high-end look.

But Intel and Microsoft have bigger changes in mind. Later this year, models based on a new internal design called PCI Express will hit the market. By cranking up the speed at which internal components such as graphics chips and memory modules talk to each other, PCs will be far better at handling real-time jobs, such as keeping a phone line clear for a conversation or playing music or video.

The new design also will enable designers to cram far more electronics into less space. Laptops should close the speed gap with more spacious desktops. Today, consumers who want a “desktop replacement” with all the bells and whistles normally have to go with 9-pound, three-inch-thick clunkers. With PCI Express, it should be possible to stuff all the goodies into thinner, 6-pound forms, says Tom Bernhard, director of strategic product planning for Fujitsu Computer Systems. “You’re going to see really good performance in thinner, lighter notebooks,” he adds.

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