COMDEX: Peripherals abound

The list of PC peripheral devices that will be displayed at the upcoming Comdex trade show reads like a gadget lover's dream -- digital cameras, the first prototypes for digital camcorders, handhelds of every stripe, scanners, printers, flat-panel monitors, joysticks for gamers and options like Universal Serial Bus (USB) for connecting all of those "extras".

"From the peripherals' perspective, there's a lot more at the show than in the other categories," said Bill Sell, Comdex general manager, before launching into a breakdown of what he expects will be hot this year.

Given the plethora of peripheral devices, it's no surprise that USB is expected to capture a lot of attention, despite predictions just a few months back that the new cabelling and interface technology might take some time to catch on.

If there seemed to be a dearth of USB devices earlier this year, Comdex should lay concerns to rest.

"From a connectivity point of view, USB is hot," Sell said.

USB is a cross-platform standard devised by PC vendors and industry leaders like Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp., which offers USB support in its Windows 98 operating system. USB can support up to 127 low and medium speed peripherals on one bus, and is hot-pluggable so that there's no need to reboot to connect a peripheral to a PC.

Comdex visitors should expect to see cards costing $US35 to $US50 that allow them to retrofit older computers for USB use and plenty of USB-compatible peripherals, many of which are expected out by the end of next year.

Although it's relatively new to the peripherals scene, it has been clear that something beyond USB also is needed to enable faster transfer rates. Digital cameras are a handy way to quickly put photos on to Internet sites or to share pictures of the grandkids with grandma, but high-resolution digital images eat a lot of bandwidth when they're sent over the Internet and can slow down transfer rates.

Enter the IEEE 1394 architecture and its close kin FireWire, which takes the high-speed digital bus interface up to the wicked fast transfer rate of 400MB/sec. The 1394 Trade Association, composed of representatives from various companies, will hold forth at Comdex and more than 20 vendors are expected to show how IEEE 1394 standard peripherals can be connected.

Comdex wouldn't be complete without the wacky element, so the USB Implementers Forum is stepping up to the port (again and again) in an attempt to set the world's record for the number of peripherals that can be hooked to a single PC.

Speaking of connectivity, modems, some of them also USB-compliant, will be abundant. 3Com Corp. and Lucent Technologies Inc. will be showing off 56K modems, which were one of the big trend stories out of last year's Comdex. But there will also be a lot of talk about cable modems and Motorola Inc. can be expected to join in that chorus.

Cable modems allow high-speed always-on Internet access by linking PCs to broadband cable rather than going the traditional analogue dialup route.

And because PC lovers increasingly find they have to have multiple machines to accommodate the entire household, home networking products will be out in force at Comdex, though exactly how that market will take shape is still anyone's guess.

"We all can be sharing the same (Internet) account and the same line," said Elliot Hadaegh, vice president of marketing and sales for ActionTec Electronics Inc., which will be showing off phone-line based home networking products that allow users to connect multiple PCs and peripherals together and with the Internet.

Sell said that various smaller vendors will have home networking wares on display at Comdex and that those products are likely to also be of interest to show visitors looking for ways to create networks for small businesses.

Storage options for networks are going to be abundant. Storage Area Network (SAN) is liable to receive a lot of vendor attention, with Compaq Computer Corp.'s Storage Products Division and Artecon Inc. among those ready to chat with visitors about the wonders of storage.

Those browsing the Comdex aisles in search of other business products will find plenty of multifunction machines, as well as printers and scanners that are smaller, work faster and offer better resolution.

Also in the faster-better-more category, 19-inch flat-panel displays will be out in force and prospective buyers will find 15-inch displays from a number of vendors priced at $US999. While Comdex press releases have dubbed that price "affordable", it's likely that by the spring version of the trade show, flat-panel displays will cost even less, prompting Sell to predicted that many buyers will hold off.

"They will wait for one more iteration, which will be in that $US500 category," he said.

They aren't the only buyers who will wait -- those interested in digital camcorders will have no choice.

Workable prototypes will be one of the big buzzes at Comdex, but retail offerings won't kick into gear until early next year.

Maybe by then DVD will really start to take hold as predicted by vendors and analysts. DVD market movement remains sluggish, owing to the fallout from a nasty standards battle, a lack of business applications and the persistent notion that DVD is for entertainment and not work. Still, there will be loads of digital video disk or digital versatile disk (depending on the vendor pitch) products, as well as the competing rewriteable CD spate of offerings.

Although there is likely to be a push for DVD as a business application, it remains true that most disk titles are for entertainment purposes. There will be plenty of other entertainment-oriented peripherals to amuse Comdex visitors with a fair share of toys for gamers searching for force-feedback steering wheels and joysticks to accelerators that enable 3D sound.

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