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THE CUTTING EDGE | PC FOCUS

A Preview of What's Coming to Comdex

November 16, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I must be a glutton for punishment, because by the time you read this, I'll be on my 17th annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to attend the fall Comdex, where I'll pay as much as $300 for a $49 room, fight my way through crowds and wait in lines for a taxi.

Comdex, which once stood for Computer Dealer Exposition, is expected to attract 220,000 people this year. It had been a place for computer dealers to find out about new software and hardware but has evolved into a gigantic "meet and greet" for the entire computer industry--a place where technology companies from around the world gather to show off products, entertain customers and make deals.

Although hundreds of companies will announce new products at the show, there are rarely any major surprises. The big PC vendors typically announce products before Comdex and use the show to demonstrate them to the public. Some major companies, including Intel, Dell, Compaq and IBM, won't even have exhibit space this year, but will rent private rooms to meet with customers, partners and media.

What show-goers will see on the exhibit floor this year are plenty of hand-held gadgets, some new mini-notebook and hand-held PCs and a whole new crop of digital cameras, scanners, modems and printers. Cellular phones and pagers have never been featured at Comdex, but they will be this year now that companies are finding ways to connect these devices to PCs or use them as e-mail terminals. 3Com's Palm division and Qualcomm, for example, are expected to demonstrate their jointly produced combination cell phone and Palm personal organizer. Last week, Qualcomm entered into a joint venture with Microsoft to bring wireless connectivity to devices that use Microsoft's Windows CE operating system.

In another form of convergence, Compaq and Panasonic are planning to show off PCs with built-in digital TV converters. I've never been a big fan of turning an expensive PC into a cheap TV but, at least for a while, these boards could make PCs the cheapest way to get digital TV. Digital TV sets are selling in the $5,000 range, but kits to convert PCs into digital TV could initially cost PC makers as little as $800.

Intel and other USB (universal serial bus) proponents have been at previous Comdexes promoting the advantages of this new way to connect devices to PCs. But this is the first year we'll see a significant number of products that actually plug into USB ports. USB couldn't take off until Microsoft added support in Windows 98. It's now also available on the Apple iMac and will become the connection of choice for a variety of peripherals and other equipment.

Traveling Software will show a version of LapLink that lets you copy files between two PCs at 6 megabits per second using a USB cable. Unlike other PC connectivity options, you can install many USB devices by daisy-chaining them to each other or connecting them to hubs that are plugged into a single USB port. A consortium of USB proponents plans to hold a contest to see how many devices can be plugged into a single PC.

This also is the year of the thin notebook PC. Sony led the way this summer, when it released its 3-pound Vaio 505 that's less than an inch thick. At Comdex, the company will show faster and cheaper (starting at $1,899) versions of the machine, but it will have competition from Sharp, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and lots of other companies who agree that thin is in.

I've been playing with Gateway's 1.2-inch (5-pound) Solo 3100 that sports an optional DVD drive. It can be used for word processing, e-mail and other important tasks, but I mostly use it to watch DVD movies on airplanes.

For those who want even smaller and cheaper portable systems, Philips, Casio, Sharp and LG Electronics will have sub-mini- notebooks that run Windows CE. They're not full-fledged notebook computers but adequate for note taking, Web surfing and e-mail.

Last year, several companies introduced flat-panel liquid crystal displays for desktop PCs, but most were $2,000 or more. This year, several companies, including Viewsonic, will introduce 15-inch flat panels for less than $1,000. Panasonic is expected to show 18- and 19-inch monitors suitable for professional desktop publishing tasks.

Speech recognition software from Dragon Systems and IBM were a hit at last year's Comdex, but the companies will be back with software that is faster and more accurate. They'll also be joined by Lernout & Hauspie, which will show its new L&H Voice Xpress software. Dragon Systems will be showing its NaturallySpeaking Mobile product that consists of software, a microphone for the PC and a hand-held digital voice recorder that lets you dictate when you're away from the PC.

Dragon also is introducing Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Teens, so teenagers can dictate their homework and e-mail and chat messages into their PCs. If this software can actually understand teenagers, then Dragon will have accomplished something that parents and teachers have ever been able to do.

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at magid@latimes.com. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com or keyword "LarryMagid" on AOL.

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