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Fall '98 COMDEX Good News for DVD, LCD, Future Fans

by Jim Bray 

Who would have thought it? The humans of the ancient world were right: the world is flat!

As was made obvious by the fall 1998 Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, the world's becoming flat thanks to oodles of new flat screen monitors and a new crop of flat speakers. The world is also becoming more networked, less wired, and computers are leaping off the desktop and onto the TV top.

Flat monitorEvery manufacturer worth its salt displayed flat monitors, ranging in size from about 13 to 21 inches, and Viewsonic has broken the $1000US barrier with one of its models. Flat screens take up far less desk space than a conventional CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor, but until recently it has been expensive and the image you get has been unsatisfying.

Not any more, judging by the wide range of really nice looking screens on display at Comdex. And the price of the big, plasma monitors continues to plunge. A year or so ago, companies like Fujitsu and Sharp were offering 42 inch plasma screens that sold for about $40,000US, but they're now tipping the money scale at scarcely over ten grand US. Now this is still an arm and a leg, but it's dropping so fast I anticipate you'll be able to afford one of these 3 inch or so thick monitors for your home theatre or corporate presentation within the next two years or so. 

And the convergence of PC and Home Theatre continues, speeding up as it goes.

This convergence has really been going on since the compact disc brought computer technology to consumer audio, but now it's reaching the point where computer technology is everywhere: you can surf the web from your TV, watch movies in Dolby Digital surround sound on your computer - or on your wall-mounted flat plasma TV/computer monitor. And just as surely as microchips appeared in your TV and audio/video receiver, traditional audio and video manufacturers like Cambridge Soundworks and Pioneer are jumping with both feet into the computer speakers and monitor (respectively) markets.

It's a matter of sales survival. This is only going to continue and even accelerate. And that's good. The more quality choices a person has the better it is.

"Convergence" is really a lot more than a buzzword - not only are audio, video, computers, telephony, etc. - becoming one, but they’re making each other smarter and better, too. And that's also good.

At last year’s Comdex in Las Vegas, convergence was alive and well, but it was still all about computers. But this year it was all about convergence, from the big flat screen TV/monitors that one minute would be displaying your spreadsheet and the next would be running a DVD copy of Godzilla to video cameras that couple with your Internet phone to make the "Picture Phones" we were promised for years but which never really materialized.

It wasn't all convergence, though. There was also a lot of todo about storage devices, from the "Superdisk" which wants to replace your 1.44 meg floppy drive with an indentically sized disk that can cram 120 meg on it (while still reading and writing to those hundreds of floppies you have laying around the home or office), to gigabyte portable storage drives from Iomega and others. And perhaps foreseeing the day in which homes have as many PC's as they do TV's, a handful of companies offered home/SOHO networking solutions designed to let you share resources between your plethora of PC's.

Home NetworkingActionTec, for example, showed off a 1Mbps PCI that uses your home's phone lines to transmit the data from computer to computer. The company says you don't need any special networking knowledge - just PC's and telephone jacks. There were also wireless home networks on display.

DVD was everywhere at Comdex, and there are even some hints of upcoming DVD-ROM titles (mostly of the electronic book type of creature). There were lots of DVD ROM drives in evidence, too, from just about every manufacturer, and since these are backward compatible with your CD-ROMs it makes sense to buy a DVD ROM drive instead of a new CD-ROM drive.

And a really exciting new technology being pushed again this year was something they chose to call DVD RAM, which means recordable DVD's you can use to store horrendous amounts of data. Who knows, they could make your crash-prone hard drive obsolete in a few years, the Performance vs. Price Gods willing. 

WebTV is now facing competition in the TV-top Web browser battle. Canadian company WebSurfer introduced its version of the technology, offering similar features to WebTV, but for less money - and while WebTV ties you in to the WebTV service, WebSurfer claims to give you the flexibility to use any ISP you desire.

Winbest also showed off its Dreamer 2000 "Family PC," a TV-set top PC/wireless keyboard/remote control. This AMD 300MHz K6-powered beast plugs into either a computer monitor or a TV, and offers 32 meg of RAM, 3D sound and graphics, and a DVD ROM drive with Dolby Digital output. Far more than just an Internet box, the Family PC threatens to offer the best of both worlds - for $1199US.

Sound is now making its presence felt in the computer industry in more ways than just booming multimedia speakers. From the number of companies offering voice recognition stuff (and better quality stuff than before - it actually appears to work quite well), it's clear the industry thinks we're all going to be talking to our computers soon instead of pointing and clicking and typing. There's everything from E-mail programs and PIM's to word processors and language translators/tutors.

Which makes me wonder about the cacophony if everyone in his office cubicle is prattling away at their PC's instead of the relatively quiet "tap, tap, tap" of fingers on a keyboard or clicks of a mouse. Someone needs to invent the old "Cone of Silence" machine like Maxwell Smart used to use. And if you do, I want shares...

Gallant Flat SpeakersGallant and NXT showed off a series of flat speakers that, like their monitor counterparts, can be desk or wall-mounted. Gallant's Audiostorm MT7 f/x are ultra flat panels available in a six piece Dolby Pro Logic or Dolby Digital configuration complete with subwoofer.

And Creative Labs had a terrific display of their outstanding new Sound Blaster Live, a demo that showed the wonderful quality and flexibility of this "Lexus of sound cards." We were treated to electric guitar and violin as reproduced through the SB Live, as well as the array of effects and sounds it can come up with on its own.

Creative even showed a portable MP3 "walkman" it's developing that lets audiophiles take these high fidelity audio files on the road with them.

And new Office Suites were being touted as well. Microsoft had a big booth showing off new features coming in Office 2000, while Corel had a smaller presentation to introduce its WordPerfect Office 2000 suite. Corel is emphasizing compatibility, ease of use, and power rather than a bunch of fancy new features you might not need, in all the suite's Version 9 products - and it's also adding a real competitor to MS FrontPage with Trellix web authoring and presentation software that'll be included in the suite.

AlbaComp's Personal MonitorCorel is also unleashing a Linux version of WordPerfect, to give aficionados of the popular operating sysem a powerful suite to use.

But how about those who don't need the powerhouse features of Word, WordPerfect, Excel, Quattro Pro et al? Well, MiniSoft is bringing out Office 99, a kind of stripped down office suite that includes Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Database, and Draw program. Pricing isn't available yet, but get this: the whole suite only requires a 486/66 PC, 16 Meg of RAM and a mere 20 Meg of hard drive space once installed. Sounds like a terrific idea!

The most bizzare item this year? To me it was AlbaComp's Personal Monitor (right:), a 36 gram heavy doohickey that attaches to a pair of glasses. It's a tiny, 180,000 pixel computer monitor that lets you wander around the home/office while viewing your monitor at the same time. So you can now work and run into things at the same time!

Comdex was an excellent example of where we stand today: on the threshold of an entertaining, efficient (well, as efficient as computers can be, which isn't always as efficient as we'd like!), and interesting reality in which the universe is truly at your fingertips. This is hardly a leap of vision; it has been building for years, but it's fascinating to see just how quickly and overwhelmingly the various communications and information technologies - including the Internet - are coalescing into the nervous system of our global society.

It should be an interesting ride.

For more new product information - check out our "What's New?" page, which features product announcements and press releases from major manufacturers.


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