Fast wares, good prices, small crowds

The technology tribes are gathering in Las Vegas this week for the annual Fall Comdex, where they're finding cheaper DVD+RW (digital versatile disc+rewritable) drives, Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox, technology for faster connectivity, a wealth of wireless networks, and heavy emphasis on security--both at the show and in the products.

Some things at Comdex are getting faster. Several vendors expect to show CD-RW (compact disc-rewritable) drives with dual speed jumps, and USB 2.0 looks to make a big splash with its faster transfer speeds. And some things are going to be slower--such as long security checkpoint lines for all attendees.

Security grows

Expect a spike in interest in security technology this year, says Rob Enderle, a research fellow at Giga Information Group. While biometrics, smart card readers, and other such technologies were shown last year, recent events will have people taking a closer look, he says.

Biometrics products, which use fingerprints and other physical characteristics to verify a person's identity, are drawing interest not only because of security fears, but because the technology has improved even in the past 18 months, according to Thor Christensen, president and chief executive officer of BioconX, which makes network security software.

"In terms of biometrics, smart cards, (and) firewalls, the market seems to be very interested right now in things that make people feel safe and secure," Giga's Enderle says.

Past Comdex shows often developed overarching themes, but this year seems to lack a pervasive topic. That may not be a bad thing, however. Last year, Bluetooth technology seemed quite prominent--but a year later, it has yet to take off. Before that, Internet appliances made a splash--and many products turned out to be complete flops.

Some areas are generating a bit of buzz, however.

Storage: Faster, versatile

The long-awaited DVD+RW format steps up to challenge the existing DVD-RAM and DVD-RW standards. Hewlett Packard and Sony say their new DVD+RW drives are priced about US$600, which is $400 less than Pioneer's DVR-A03 DVD-R drive, which debuted earlier this year. Further blurring the lines between the formats are combination drives that will handle more than one standard. For example, Hitachi-LG Storage is announcing a drive capable of writing to DVD-RAM, DVD-R/RW, and CD-R/RW discs. Get ready to record.

And several companies are showing their next-generation CD-RW drives, which, in some cases, represent a dual speed jump. Not only will the drives raise the CD-R (compact disc-recordable) record speed from 24X to 32X, but some bump the speed for using packet writing to write to CD-RW discs from 10X to 12X--the first such jump in more than a year.

The view from Microsoft

Microsoft, fresh from its XP launch and its antitrust settlement with the U.S. government (if not all of the plaintiff states) is plugging its upcoming Tablet PC, a stylized notebook computer that's carried like a clipboard, connects wirelessly to the Internet, and lets users write and edit handwritten text with a touch-screen pen.

First shown at Comdex 2000, the product isn't due to ship until the second half of 2002, but that won't stop Bill Gates from highlighting it at Sunday's opening keynote. The Microsoft chairman and chief software architect is showing variations of the device and announcing new partners who'll help bring it to market, according to sources.

Another feature of Gates' keynote is the company's bold push into consumer gaming. Its Xbox console is due to launch on Thursday, and Microsoft will is displaying 30 consoles for attendees to play with.

Processor presentations

Last year the PC, hallmark of Comdex, was nearly pushed off stage by newer technologies. This year, it may regain a modicum of respect.

Intel is likely to show off some of the latest notebooks using its wide range of Mobile Pentium III M chips--including its newest Ultra Low Voltage processor geared toward extending battery life. On the desktop side, Intel may discuss its forthcoming Northwood chip with some select guests, says Dean McCarron of Mercury Research. Northwood is the next version of the Pentium 4.

Over at Advanced Micro Devices, the focus is likely on the company's recent decision to name its Athlon XP processors based on performance ratings rather than chip speeds, McCarron says. Expect AMD to discuss mobile chip developments publicly, while its top-secret talk will likely center on the upcoming Sledgehammer, a 64-bit chip that will compete with Intel's Itanium.

For its part, troubled upstart Transmeta is probably showing off the new Fujitsu LifeBook P Series notebook with its Crusoe 5800 chip, says Giga's Enderle. While the company has faced significant problems getting that processor to market, the LifeBook P has a good buzz, he says. To further divert attention from the 5800 delay, Transmeta will probably talk up its upcoming Crusoe 6000 chip, says Mercury's McCarron. However, you won't find Dell, IBM, and Gateway on the Comdex show floor. Large PC makers, fearing they will be overlooked at the noisy event, have decided to nix Comdex. Instead, they are meeting privately in quiet hotel suites with media, analysts, technology partners, and buyers.

Other trends

Several vendors still seek the perfect convergence of cell phone and personal digital assistant. Handspring is showing its recently announced Treo--a Palm OS-based handheld and GSM phone. Also showing: PC-Ephone's second-generation device, which is a Windows CE-based PDA with CDMA and Bluetooth 2.0 support, an external dialpad, and a full 640-by-480 VGA color display-- for $999.

Two new standards are on display at this year's show, each sporting technology to speed up devices you connect to your PC.

More than 20 companies are showcasing their USB 2.0 wares at the USB 2.0 Pavilion, says Jason Ziller, Intel's technology initiatives manager and chairman of the USB Implementers Forum. External storage devices, scanners, and video cameras are among the devices that take advantage of the transfer speed of 480 megabits per second, he says.

While the standard's official launch is further out, supporters of Serial ATA are also on hand at Comdex 2001, says Ziller, who also chairs the Serial ATA Working Group. The group expects products supporting the hard drive standard to appear in 2002, but several vendors will demonstrate prototype systems and drives at Comdex. The new standard increases the transfer speed to 150 mbps, and uses a much smaller cable than today's ribbon cables, he says.

Wireless networks also continue to attract considerable attention as next-generation standards duke it out. Intel and several other vendors are launching the first 802.11a products, which promise up to 54 mbps compared to today's popular 802.11b lines, which perform at 11 mbps. Unfortunately, the two flavors of 802.11 are completely incompatible since 802.11a, also known as Wi-Fi5, operates in the 5GHz band and 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, transmits over the 2.4GHz band. Proxim, meanwhile, is showing the first HomeRF 2.0 products, which promise up to 10 mbps throughput (compared to 1.6 mbps for the first-generation HomeRF products).

In general, though, expectations are low for Comdex 2001 as the US economy continues to crawl and the PC industry remains in a rut. Many vendors are choosing to sit it out all together. A spokesman for the show's sponsor, Key3Media Events, suggests general attendance could be less than 150,000, with exhibitor numbers down as well. Last year's attendance was estimated at 200,000.

McCarron of Mercury Research, who will be attending his 15th Comdex, looks forward to some positive aspects of a less-crowded show floor, however. "This is going to be the most civil Comdex ever," he says.

This story was compiled by Anne B. McDonald from reports by Yardena Arar, Tom Mainelli, Melissa J. Perenson, and Tom Spring of PCWorld.com and James Niccolai of IDG News Service.

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