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What's cool at Comdex

November 19, 1998
Web posted at: 12:55 PM ET

by James M. Connolly

(IDG) -- LAS VEGAS -- Fall Comdex is about noise and flash. It's a hardware show that draws more than 200,000 people here every year.

On the show floor, that Comdex noise and color extend beyond the bright lights, carnival barker-like booth hosts and loud music -- they're at the heart of the products on the show floor.

The technologies that made folks stop and look appealed to the senses -- brilliant flat-screen displays, noisy, chattering speech technology, welcoming images produced by HDTV monitors and the slight heft of handhelds that have evolved to the point where you can pick them up and say, "Oooh!''

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Here's a sampling of some technologies that caught my eyes and ears this week on a two-day trudge through the Las Vegas Convention Center:

Desktop LCD displays. They offer brilliant pictures and are often demoed with photos of brightly colored tropical birds. They also feature small footprints -- about 3 inches deep -- and are supported by adjustable arms that let you view the screen at angles you just can't get on traditional CRT displays. At least a dozen vendors showed off such LCDs, and two trends emerged.

First, you get sharper, wider displays, reaching 18.1 inches. Second, prices are drifting down. Of course, you still can pay more than $3,000 for the latest 18.1-in. display, but you can more easily buy in to the 13-in. range at $600 to $800. Prices are likely to drop by up to 50% for lower-end products in 1999, according to some vendors.

The big question, though, is why you need one. As one vendor confided, "They look good," but he also conceded that a $250 CRT is a better bet, pricewise, for most office workers. That may change as prices continue to slide down.

Wide-screen displays and HDTV. After a decade of industry talk about the wonders of high-definition television, Comdex was a coming-out party for HDTV. The really neat big-screen stuff could be seen in the plasma displays that ranged from 42 to 50 inches wide, and only a few inches thick. They represent a corporate buy -- best for applications like boardroom presentations or trade show booths -- because they run $10,000 and up.

Handhelds and portables. Palm computers -- in particular the 3Com Corp. Palm III and the Philips Electronics Nino 300 -- drew lots of attention. Neither is new, but it was interesting to see the growing number of vendors announcing support for those little platforms, with offerings such as synchronization applications.

Measuring less than an inch thick, subnotebooks -- most of which were introduced well before Comdex -- also stopped traffic. Sony Electronics Inc.'s Vaio was notable for its magnesium alloy case, which makes it feel tough even if the keyboard was designed for child-size hands. The Mitsubishi Electronics America Inc.'s Amity CN packs a similarly tight keyboard.

If you move up slightly in size to Toshiba's Portege and the Gateway 3100, you get something closer to a standard keyboard and notebook configuration at slightly more than an inch in thickness. You'll also pay more when you get into the Gateway/Toshiba subnotebook class, at about $2,000, compared with $400 to $500 for the palmtops.

Security products. A variety of access-control devices were on display. These give you network access based on things like keyboard touch and user signatures. I took a quick look at Net Nanny Software International Inc.'s BioPassword, which was designed to limit or allow network access based on a user's typing style. A user still needs a password, but BioPassword goes a step further, remembering how the legitimate user first typed in that password by looking at factors such as the time the user holds down a key and the time between keystrokes. Not available until early 1999 and not yet priced, BioPassword looks neat, but it's too early to tell how it would do in daily work.

Speech technology. Vendors offering speech recognition and text-to-speech technology have been making progress in the past year at integrating core technology with general-purpose applications such as Microsoft Corp.'s Office and Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect. Most noticeable at Comdex was Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products' L&H RealSpeak, available as a software developers' kit in mid-1999 and so far unpriced. RealSpeak converts text to computer-generated voice output. It's part of the latest generation of products that help blind users hear, rather than see, what is on a computer screen. And it can be used for telephone-based customer service applications, because it translates raw data, such as bank account balances, into more human-like voices, moving beyond the robot-like voices of earlier products.

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