COMDEX - Comdex Fall 2003: Picks and pans

SAN FRANCISCO (11/20/2003) - The big-budget, high-profile Comdex trade shows of the 1990s are clearly no more. This year's show was a much smaller, deliberately scaled-down affair. How much smaller? Consider this: No traffic cops were needed at the main intersection in front of the convention center. Or this: Parking was easily available in the convention center's main lot--for only US$5.

Still, our editors hit the show floor this week, making their way through the extra-narrow aisles (we hear the organizers designed them that way to give the illusion of a crowd). The show was more business-focused than in the past, but plenty of consumer goodies could still be found. Here's a sampling of what PC World's editors have to say about Comdex 2003.

Does Size Really Matter?

Same Time Next Year? When I told friends I was headed to my 13th consecutive Fall Comdex, some were startled to hear the show still exists; one insisted it had been held last week in Atlanta. The show did go on, of course: Attendance was dramatically off from Comdex's glory days, but exhibitors seemed happy with conventioneers, and the panels were well attended. Still, many openly wonder if this is the last Comdex, even though Bill Gates has already agreed to keynote next year's event. --Harry McCracken

There's a Show Here Somewhere: Rumor has it that fewer than 40,000 people registered for Comdex. Still, few vendors complained, many simply meeting in hotel suites and other venues away from the Las Vegas Convention Center. It seems that many Comdex dropouts attended only for the freebies (which also were relatively low profile), so this year's attendees were more likely to buy products. --Yardena Arar

Sign of the Times? In the old days, high-tech behemoths like Hewlett-Packard and Sony occupied Comdex's prime real estate. This year, space right inside the main entrance was devoted to demonstrations of an electronic dartboard game from China; an Armenian technology booth was mere steps away. --Harry McCracken

Crosstown Competition: As if Comdex didn't have enough problems, it had a rival show to contend with: The Mandalay Bay-hosted cdXpo, another business computing event--despite having a name that sounds like it has something to do with music or adult entertainment. Mobile signs promoting it cruised the convention-center area, but apparently few attendees made the trek. --Harry McCracken

Easy on the Eyes

Hot Rod: In its suite, Acer showed the Ferrari 3000, a notebook designed by Ferrari that has a Mobile AMD Athlon XP-M processor 2500+ under the hood. This power system has four coats of Ferrari red paint and comes with a matching red mouse. The notebook, which has been selling like a hot rod in other countries, will ship in the United States in a few weeks for $1899. --Rebecca Freed

Big Screens, Smaller Prices: Now that LCDs are becoming commonplace, they're starting to get bigger. HP, NEC-Mitsubishi, Samsung, and ViewSonic all unveiled models in the 19-inch-plus range, and some of those debuted at under $900. Not so long ago, that price was unheard-of for such a large screen. --Yardena Arar

Hey, Good Lookin': Samsung's new 17-inch SyncMaster 172X LCD boasts a 12-millisecond response time, faster than any LCD we've tested. The 172X even looks fast, with its thin silver bezel: 0.5 inch at the top and bottom, and 0.4 inch on the sides. Its estimated street price is $649. --Eric Butterfield

Cool Gear

Hit the Road: Microsoft showed its .NET Connected Car outside the convention center. Drivers can issue verbal commands to make telephone calls, hear e-mail messages read, plot their route via GPS, and even play music. The prototype is mounted in the dashboard. No details on a final product release, but it is expected to cost between $300 and $500. --Ramon G. McLeod

That's Entertainment: ATI's new Multimedia Center 8.8 promises to supply streaming video throughout a networked home. It lets you use PCs you already own as TV sets. For example, a bedroom PC can do double duty as an entertainment appliance, playing shows recorded on another PC that's hooked up to your cable or antenna. The PC with the TV hookup needs an ATI All-in-Wonder board (ATI's TV tuner-equipped line), and the remote PC requires an ATI Radeon graphics card, but the software to make it happen is free. --Yardena Arar

Feel the Beat: Zalman USA Theatre Six claims its headphones produce real 5.1 surround sound--mimicking a true multichannel speaker system. No, you won't get the same kind of bass that comes from a system with a subwoofer, but the $70 headphones do produce impressive results. They connect to a PC with a sound card that has front, rear, and center outputs. Coming soon: an amplifier that lets the headphones work with DVD players, home theater receivers, and game consoles. --Ramon G. McLeod

Back to Business

Rev It Up: Iomega's new product wins the storage device we really, really want award. The Rev, shipping in March, is an internal or external USB drive with a removable 35GB disk. Backing up's a blast, as you can boot from the external REV drive. The external drive will cost $499; the internal drive should be cheaper. --Steve Bass and Harry McCracken

Goodbye, UPS Man? Don't waste time and money mailing important documents. Authentidate, from the U.S. Postal Service, affixes a digital signature block and a time stamp to Microsoft Word XP or 2003 documents. The service, installed via a free Word plug-in, confirms your identity through a series of questions. You can then e-mail the document to your business partner. You might never see the man in the brown shorts again. --Edward N. Albro

Lost Cause: Recovering important data from damaged discs isn't hopeless. CD/DVD Diagnostic from Arrowkey, now in version 2.1, recovers information from scratched or corrupted discs in all the common CD and DVD formats. The $50 software runs on Windows, but also recovers Mac and Linux files, as well as video burned on new DVD recorders that connect directly to TV sets. --Eric Butterfield

Comdex-Goers Go Mobile and Party On

Cut the Cord: Electrovaya claims its new, lightweight Tablet PC has a battery life of nine hours. If so, that's a remarkable amount of unplugged time for the $2299 Scribbler Tablet PC SC 2000, which weighs only 3.1 pounds and has a 12.1-inch display. --Ramon G. McLeod

When Is a Tablet Not a Tablet? Microsoft's Tablet PC premiered at Comdex 2002; a year later, it doesn't seem to have revolutionized mobile computing as we know it. Maybe that's why tablet vendors seemed to be pushing new models as traditional notebooks with tablet capability as an added feature. For instance, Gateway's new model resembles an existing Gateway laptop, but its screen can be rotated for pen input. The extra cost is a not-too-intimidating $150. --Harry McCracken

Best-Kept Secret: AT&T announced the nationwide launch of its next-generation wireless EDGE network, a move that caught many wireless industry followers (including this one) completely by surprise. EDGE technology promises data speeds at 100 to 130 kilobits per second, compared to GPRS' 40 to 60 kbps. --Yardena Arar

Time (and Tune) Savers

Hard Drive Help: Want multiple hard drives in a RAID arrangement? You're no longer forced to choose between speed and data protection. Netcell's new RAID controller cards bring speed and a safety net to the masses. A $150 three-disk arrangement stripes data across two disks, while the third disk contains a formula that summarizes the data on both disks. If either of the first two disks fails, the third can step in without losing data or speed. --Edward N. Albro

Best Resurrection: Is it just us, or does it seem strange that Google can search trillions of Web pages in less than a second but Windows takes minutes on end to search our puny hard drives? Consider X1, formerly Magellan: The DOS hard drive search, cum-viewer, cum-file manager from the 1990s has been reborn and priced at just $99. In addition to images, videos, and PDFs, the Windows-based X1 views e-mail from Outlook, Outlook Express, Lotus Notes, and Eudora. we'll never waste time with Windows search again. --Steve Bass and Edward N. Albro

Easy on the Ears: Octiv's Volume Logic plug-in for ITunes solves one problem of amassing a digital music collection: Some MP3s are too loud, while others are too quiet. This $20 plug-in evens out the volume of your songs as they play. A public beta is available for Mac OS X only; a Windows beta is expected at year end. --Eric Butterfield

That's Entertainment

How Geeks Party: At one late-night soiree off the Strip, revelers filled a beer mug by pouring brew through a specially rigged LapLink cable. You can't do that with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. --Harry McCracken

Who Needs Caffeine? Comdex attendees in search of a high-tech pick-me-up found it at the Oxygen Bar. For as little as $1 a whiff you could choose from more than a dozen or so scents of 85 percent-pure oxygen, ranging from Hottie (cinnamon) to Raspberry Rush. It gives new meaning to the term "natural high." --Yardena Arar

Bring Back the Pirates: The venerable pirate show at Treasure Island is no more. Instead of a swashbuckling display complete with life-size galleons, canon fire, and pirates jumping into a fake ocean fronting Las Vegas Boulevard, we now have the "Sirens of TI." The new show features scantily clad showgirls who strut their stuff to the ear-splitting sounds of canned pop music. What a waste: Babes are a dime a dozen in Las Vegas, but conflict on the high seas is scarce in the Nevada desert. --Yardena Arar

What We Aren't Bringing Home

Most Impractical: On display at the Majestron booth was a knobby, flying-saucer-shaped, USB-powered personal massager. Sure, it could ease the crick in your neck on a long flight, but the person sitting next to you would probably request a seat change. --Rebecca Freed

Mooouuuuse Input: I've heard of stretch limos, but this is something else: Benq's off-site suite featured a "concept mouse" with an extendible shell that adjusts to different lengths. No word on whether the company plans to market such a product. --Harry McCracken

Is That Really Necessary? VICU's v360 Degree camera, as you might have guessed by its name, captures 360-degree images. You can stick it in your fish tank and keep track of your pets as they swim around the bend. How's that for a way to spend $1500 to $4500? --Steve Bass

Now That's a Party: Do you long for the days of party-line phones? Messenger Call Box, a hardware/software package from BAFO Technologies, does the trick. Due out early next year, the technology lets you route voice chats on all major IM clients to and from conventional wired and wireless phones. You can also let a friend across the country call someone in your area code for free. The catch? The call is routed through your local phone line, so pick up the phone and you'll hear their conversation. You've got to be a really good friend to put up with that. --Edward N. Albro

Product That Most Resembles a Bread Maker: Trying to ignore your overflowing in-box? The 912, a robot from White Box Robotics, won't let you get away with that--it will follow you into the kitchen and nag until you pay attention. The $1500 prototype robot is a fully functioning PC with an MP3 player, monitor, and wireless keyboard. It includes sunglasses that double as a monitor while also giving you that suave Men in Black look. --Steve Bass

See You in January?

Making Other Plans: Weirdly, the most-discussed trade show at Comdex may not have been Comdex. Everywhere, vendors who opted out of an official presence at this show are talking up their ambitious plans for the Consumer Electronics Show, back in Las Vegas in January. It's small wonder that CES is now the country's largest trade show, even as Comdex dwindles into irrelevance. --Harry McCracken

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