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Peripherals abound in Las Vegas

November 11, 1998
Web posted at: 9:45 AM EDT

by Nancy Weil

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

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

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USB is all the rage

Given the plethora of peripherals, it's no surprise that USB is expected to capture a lot of attention, despite predictions just a few months back that the new 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.

USB is a cross-platform standard devised by PC vendors and industry leaders such as Intel and Microsoft, 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 $35 to $50 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.

Even faster connections on the horizon

Although it's relatively new to the peripherals scene, it has been clear that something beyond USB 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 per second. The 1394 Trade Association, composed of representatives from various companies, will hold forth at Comdex. In addition, 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. That Monday event is slated from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Special Events Pavilion. If the lights of Las Vegas grow dim around that time, Comdex visitors will know why.

A multitude of modems

Speaking of connectivity, modems, some of them also USB-compliant, will be abundant. 3Com and Lucent Technologies will be showing off 56-kbps modems, which were a big trend story out of last year's Comdex.

But there will also be a lot of talk about cable modems--and Motorola 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 analog dialup route.

Home networking market taking shape

Because PC lovers increasingly find they need 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, 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. 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 is liable to receive a lot of vendor attention, with Compaq Computer's Storage Products Division and Artecon among those ready to chat with visitors about the wonders of storage.

Faster, better printers, displays, input devices

Visitors 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. Prospective buyers will find $999 15-inch displays from a number of vendors. 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 predict that many buyers will hold off. "They will wait for one more iteration, which will be in that $500 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 big buzzes at Comdex, but retail offerings won't kick into gear until early next year.

DVD still not quite there

Maybe by spring 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 Disc or Digital Versatile Disc (depending on the vendor pitch) products, as well as the competing Rewritable CD spate of offerings.

Although there is likely to be a push for DVD in a business applications, it remains true that most disc 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.

Nancy Weil is a Boston correspondent for the IDG News Service.

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