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At Comdex, It's Connect and Conquer

November 15, 2001|CHRISTINE FREY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If many of the high-tech goodies at this week's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas seemed familiar, it's because they've been talked about for years.

Mobile phones married to hand-held computers. Notepad-size tablets doing the work of a PC. Computers that run the home entertainment system.

Now, they're here--or at least getting closer.

Even though the engineers have shown it can be built, the key question remains: Can it be sold? Or are living rooms and offices already so stuffed with devices from the binge of the last five years that consumers need a break from the relentless upgrade cycle?

Among the most talked about devices at Comdex were Microsoft's Tablet PC and Handspring's Treo, both of which combine the functions of several devices and tout the virtues of ubiquitous connectivity.

Several companies showed off prototypes of the Tablet PC--complete with searchable handwriting-recognition software--but no one had a working model ready to sell.

Jim Cox, the lead Tablet PC software planner for Microsoft, said Compaq, Toshiba, NEC, Fujitsu, Acer, Tatung, FIC and Pad Products all have signed development agreements with Microsoft. He added that the first of the ultra-light tablets, which are fully functional computers with a touch-sensitive screen instead of (or in addition to) a keyboard, should be out in mid-2002.

Handspring's $400 Treo is part hand-held computer, part mobile phone. It runs the Palm operating system, sends wireless text messages, connects to the Web and acts as a dual-band phone. At 5.4 ounces, the Treo is about the size of clamshell organizers. Its protective lid flips open to serve as the phone's earpiece.

The device boasts 16 megabytes of memory with a battery that can handle 2.5 hours of talk time and 60 hours of standby time.

The Treo 180 features a built-in keyboard, and the 180G uses Graffiti handwriting software. Handspring plans to release a monochrome screen Treo at the beginning of the year.

Nokia's 9290 mobile communication device, which made its U.S. debut at Comdex, is twice as expensive as the Treo, but it can do about twice as much. In addition to phone and PDA functions, the 56-MB device can connect to the Internet with a color display, e-mail with attachments, play video and open Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents.

Its battery lasts for as long as 10 hours of talk time and nine days of digital standby.

Shaped like a small pencil box, the 9290 is a little larger than most phones: about 5 inches long, an inch deep and 2 inches across. Nokia expects to release the $800 mobile communicator, which looks like a tiny laptop, this spring.

Although it lacks the phone functions of the Handspring and Nokia hand-helds, Hewlett-Packard's new color PDA, the $649 Jornada 567, is more powerful than desktop computers of just a few years ago. Running Microsoft Pocket PC 2002, the 64-MB hand-held can browse the Web, check e-mail and play video clips with its optional wireless modem.

With its CompactFlash slot, accessories--such as a $170 digital camera attachment--can be added.

Digital cameras have proliferated at Comdex, and one new element this year was portable color photo printers that work with or without a computer. The Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 100, for example, is a $179 inkjet printer the size of an alarm clock that prints 4-inch-by-6-inch photos. It can read three types of flash memory cards--CompactFlash, SmartMedia and Memory Stick--or connect directly to a Windows PC.

Canon and Olympus offer more polished dye sublimation prints in their portables but charge more and produce smaller pictures. Canon's $199 CP-10 prints 2-inch-by-3-inch photos directly from Canon digital cameras or from a computer hard drive. Olympus' $499 Camedia P-2000 prints 3-inch-by-4-inch photos from SmartMedia and CompactFlash cards or Windows PCs.

Even smaller printers will be available later this year from SiPix, which offers two pocket-size printers that make thermal color transfer prints. The $99 PocketColor 100 makes 1.25-inch-by-1.6-inch images, and the $179 PocketColor 200 makes 2-inch-by-2.5-inch images.

Sony showed one of its smallest laptops, the $1,900 C1 PictureBook, which is about half the size of a typical laptop at just more than an inch thick and 2.2 pounds. The computer has an integrated digital camera mounted above the screen that can capture still images and 60-second video clips.

But the small size forced Sony to leave out some things. The C1 PictureBook has no floppy disk or CD-ROM drives. An external floppy drive costs an additional $80, and an external CD-ROM drive starts at $200. The laptop will be available in January.

That merging of entertainment and computing permeates Sony's products.

For instance, it can be tough to tell whether Sony's Vaio MXS10 is a killer personal computer or a killer home entertainment system. It performs the functions of both and is a big step toward the promise of uniting household electronics under a single conductor.

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