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Goodies Galore for the Techie in Us All

Tons of 'Wow!' to go around at Comdex, from pens with memory to wireless wizardry to TV goggles.

November 16, 2000|JON HEALEY | jon.healey@latimes.com

The fall edition of Comdex is the tech industry's largest trade show in North America, with more than 2,100 exhibitors trying to sell all manner of hardware, software and vaporware to a slack-jawed throng of more than 200,000.

Although it's aimed mainly at corporate buyers, there's plenty of stuff on hand for consumers--particularly those who don't have the good sense to wait a few years for more reliable, cheaper versions of the same technology.

Perhaps the biggest development in computers this year wasn't at the show, at least not officially. That's the new generation of Intel microprocessors, dubbed the Pentium 4.

Although Intel had a large booth showing off plenty of software customized for the Pentium 4, there were no computers with the new chip because Intel wasn't ready to release it. The first Pentium 4-based machines won't be announced until shortly after Comdex.

Comdex hasn't been a big show for new PCs since the major computer manufacturers pulled out a few years ago. Instead, it's been a forum for potential new approaches to personal computing, many of which never turn into products.

This year's hot items: entry-level computers and tablets that you can write on. No, those aren't new ideas. Yes, they've failed before. But hey, this is Comdex, and hope springs eternal.

Intel, for example, gave a brief showing of its Dot.Station, a computer designed for people who don't already have one. Emphasizing simplicity over power, the box won't do much besides browse the Internet, read and send e-mail and help with some personal organizing.

But if all goes according to plan, it will do those things in a way that even a technophobe can understand. The box sports a Celeron chip--Intel's lowest-level microprocessor--and 64 megabytes of memory. Intel has yet to set a price on the device.

One of Intel's competitors, National Semiconductor, showed off its Geode WebPAD Metro prototype, a fully functional, 2.5-pound computer the size of an Etch-A-Sketch. The tablet is designed to roam, connecting to the Internet through a wireless service provided by Ricochet.

The Ricochet service is available in nine cities today, offering about twice the speed of a dial-up modem, without the wires.

Instead of a physical keyboard, the Metro boasts an 8.4-inch touch-screen that operates with the stroke of a pen. National Semi is still lining up manufacturers for the device, which is expected to be available in the middle of next year for about $1,000.

Great Cities Inc. showed off a new version of its Qbe Personal Computing Tablet, the Vivo. It's bigger than many of its tablet brethren and a little heavier, providing users with a full-size touch-screen and snappy handwriting-recognition software. It also can connect wirelessly to a local network at high speed.

Available with varying degrees of computing muscle, the Vivo has a built-in camera and video editing software for creating multimedia presentations away from your desk. Due in January, the Vivo models will range from $1,799 to $2,500.

At the very, very high end of computers with screens you can write on is Sony's out-sized Vaio LX tablet, which sells for about $12,000 in Japan.

Slated for the U.S. sometime late next year, the tablet lies on the desktop, screen facing up. Users choose programs and enter data through a pen that senses the radio waves emanating from the screen. Cool.

Now here's an intriguing idea: How about boiling the core of a computer down into a module that can plug in and out of a desktop, laptop, wireless tablet or even a personal digital assistant?

IBM has been showing analysts this kind of thing recently, although it's still very early in the development process.

Acqis Technology of Mountain View, Calif., showed off its Interputer module, a 1-pound box the size of a note pad with an Intel mobile chip. The device holds as much as 256 MB of memory, as much as 20 gigabytes of storage, a sound card, a graphics accelerator and an Ethernet port. The module works with a variety of shells that provide the keyboard, monitor and external connectors.

Expected to be available early next year, the module will sell for about $930. Acqis also plans a desktop shell for less than $400, a laptop shell for less than $800 and a satellite station for less than $400 that will connect to any conventional PC.

Going Mobile

The main news on the palm-size computer front was a host of new ways to connect to wireless networks on the ground and in the air.

For example, Novatel Wireless of San Diego announced new wireless modems for the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 540 series, the Handspring Visor and the Compaq iPaq Pocket PC.

The first two, available now for $369, use a relatively slow-speed packet data network. The iPaq modem, however, uses Ricochet's network, which is about six times faster.

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