COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Declining Comdex

Attendees can still find some interesting products -- if they know where to look

Comdex, held this past week in Las Vegas, was a shadow of its former self. Comdex had been the PC industry's venue for showcasing new products.

Attendance was barely 35,000, compared to 200,000 in recent years. A number of companies that did come to Las Vegas displayed their products privately to the press, analysts and large customers in hotel suites and at two media events called ShowStoppers and DigitalFocus, while others just made announcements.

Here are some of the highlights:

SightSpeed (www.sightspeed.com) of Berkeley, Calif., showed its new software product, for holding a video conversation between two people using a broadband connection. I used Logitech's (Nasdaq: LOGI, www.logitech.com) QuickCam for Notebooks Pro ($99), one of the best notebook cameras. Connected over my cable modem I was able to see full motion with no jerkiness and a clear image. I also tried it using the new Verizon (NYSE: VZ) EVDO high-speed PC card. While it was useable, it was not as good as the cable modem.

SightSpeed uses an instant messenger-like interface that allows you to initiate or accept invitations to talk. While Microsoft Messenger comes with free video conferencing, its video is just a frame or two per second at best and just barely usable. SightSpeed offers a 7-day free trial and an ongoing free subscription for 100 minutes per month up to 10 min in a day. Unlimited use is $30 per month.

Iomega (NYSE: IOM, www.iomega.com) of San Diego introduced new storage products, the most unique being its REV system that uses removable 35GB cartridges about 3 inches square. It's designed for backing up data, primarily replacing tape drives. Iomega is working with manufacturers to build the REV into their products, as well. The $400 drive and $50 cartridges will be available in March 2004.

Hard drives are a growing category, as they are the easiest way to make backups of important files, especially for use with the newer computers equipped with the speedier USB 2.0 ports. New hard drives were introduced from Iomega, Maxtor (NYSE: MXO, www.maxtor.com), Apricron (www.apricorn.com) and CMS Products (www.cmsproducts.com). While the drives are similar, the major differences are capacity and software used. Some drives allow you to boot your computer from the external hard drive if your primary drive fails. Prices start at about $200 depending on capacity. Maxtor, one of the market leaders, offers a one-touch backup, which I have been using. The one-touch feature is software, triggered by a button on the drive, with minimal options. The underlying software is complex and seems more suited for experts than consumers.

Apricorn of Poway just introduced its new backup hard drive, the EZ Bus DT. I've used their software for their excellent EZ-Writer DVD backup drive and it is very intuitive and easy to use. Apricorn, a 20-year-old company that has pioneered storage solutions, also provides walk-in assistance for those with storage problems. IBM (NYSE: IBM) also resells some of their products.

Iomega also showed a new line of backup drives. While I haven't tried their new versions, their backup software has been good.

Sony (NYSE: SNE) introduced a new credit card-sized camera, the Cyber-shot DSC-T1, about half an inch thick, clad in stainless steel. It has a 5-megapixel sensor, a 3x optical zoom lens fully contained within the body and a large 2.5-inch LCD viewfinder display on the back. It will be available in January and priced at $549. While pricey, it appears to be the most fully featured ultra small camera yet.

Franklin Covey (NYSE: FC, www.franklincovey.com), known for its paper planners, introduced new versions of PlanPlus for Outlook 2003 and TabletPlanner. PlanPlus ($79) provides more screen views, a planning view and some of the goal setting capabilities of its paper organizers. TabletPlanner ($170), designed for tablet computers, replicates many of the paper planner features on the tablet, adds new features that take advantage of the tablet's handwriting capabilities and integrates with Outlook 2003. It has been one the most popular add-ins for the Microsoft tablet computers.

STOPzilla (www.stopzilla.com) software eliminates pop-ups, particularly those generated by spyware software that installs in your computer when you download weather and time add-ins, music sharing and other "free" programs. These programs create some of the most egregious pop-up ads because they are generated from within your computer in response to your computing activities and are difficult to get rid of. For example, if you are making online reservations at Expedia, a pop-up ad from Orbitz may appear.

IBM (www.thinkpad.com) displayed its new T41 ThinkPad, a desktop replacement computer. It features an "Active Protection System" that detects harsh movements, like a sudden bump or drop, and shuts down the hard drive to avoid damage. It comes in a variety of versions from $1,700 to $3,100 depending on the configuration. I've used IBM notebooks for 10 years and have found them to be dependable, rugged, with good service and support. Unlike most of the other brands whose models have little family resemblance across their lines, all IBM models have a commonality of looks, features and controls, and have the best keyboards on any notebook.

PC Pinpoint of Denver offers a single PC support site (www.pcpinpoint.com) that promises to fix hardware and software computer problems or you don't pay. The site provides diagnostic software for your computer, self-help tutorials and online support. It's subscription-based, costing $14.95 for a week's trial or $49.95 per year with no limit to the number of calls. While I have not had a chance to try it, tech reviewer Ron Rosberg, tried it when his Internet Explorer would not access the Internet. A call to Pinpoint solved his problem within 12 minutes.

The product that excited me the most is a new small notebook computer weighing just over 3 pounds that just may be the best traveling computer yet. Stay tuned for a full review in next week's column.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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