Digital delights dominate CES

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) brings home the exciting reality of "convergence," the big buzzword of a few years back that refers to the coming together of computing, communications, the Internet, broadcasting and entertainment.

During my last visit to Las Vegas, for the Comdex/Fall show, I was struck by the changing mix of exhibitors, with an influx of new companies and technologies, and the absence of some notable computer industry stalwarts. I heard a number of people comment that Comdex was feeling more like the CES. Being at the CES for the first time, I can report that this show is a whole lot more fun and more interesting than Comdex has been in years - or, possibly, ever.

Some of these products and technologies are powerful and far-reaching, while others use technology in some weird and wacky ways.

Storage

I didn't think that anyone could or would possibly try to create yet another format of removable storage to compete with the bewildering array of current memory devices: compact flash, smart media, multimedia card (also the virtually indistinguishable secure digital card), Imation Corp.'s SuperDisk, Iomega Corp.'s Zip and Clik! (which was just renamed PocketZip), Qdrive, and IBM Corp.'s Microdrive.

But one of the first things I saw was a brand-new optical disk format that's about the size of a quarter - smaller than the 40MB PocketZip - but holds 250MB or 500MB. Called DataPlay, it's from Oakdale, Minn.-based Imation (www.imation.com), which was showing prototypes of drives, though real products won't appear until at least September. The disks will cost about US$10 each. I hope Imation has better luck with this than it did with its 120MB SuperDisk, whose drive would also read and write to standard 1.44MB floppies. That was, in theory, a great idea, but it never went very far in the marketplace. DataPlay was awarded the CES Best of Show award for a Lifestyle product.

I saw several new readers for the flash memory cards used by digital cameras, personal digital assistants (PDA) and music players. The neatest of the bunch was the Zio! from Microtech International Inc. (www.microtechint.com) in North Brandford, Conn.

Most of these flash readers are significantly bigger than the media they read, with a Universal Serial Bus (USB) cable coming out the back. The Zio! reduces the size of the reader to the bare minimum needed to contain the connector, and it eliminates the cable entirely -the whole reader just plugs into the USB port. It's a clever idea, though it won't work too well on laptops (like the Dell Latitude I'm writing this report on) whose USB ports are oriented vertically instead of horizontally. Still, most newer machines opt for the horizontal format.

Neat Stuff From the Fringes

I found the greatest number of interesting and innovative products on the perimeter of the show floor - those booths near or facing the outside walls, where traffic is lower, booths are smaller and rents are cheaper.

Controlled power: A Danish-American company, Zensys USA Inc. (www.zen-sys.com) in San Francisco, was showing a wireless system for controlling home appliances and lights. It's a far cry from the old powerline X-10 systems and looks quite promising.

A sensor plugs into the wall, and you plug a lamp or appliance into the sensor. The programmable remote-control unit is horizontal in layout, with an LCD screen. Unfortunately, Zensys doesn't currently have a product designed for the type of plugs we use in the U.S., though it's looking for partners. I hope the company succeeds; I'd like to get a few of these units for my own home.

Just in case: AccuCase LLC (www.accucase.com) in Temecula, Calif., was showing an extensive line of carrying cases for PDAs, cameras, CD players, binoculars, sunglasses, cell phones, Global Positioning System receivers, knives and more.

They look like the sort of black "ballistic" nylon cases you see everywhere, but they're not nearly as soft as they look. Instead, the nylon is bonded to a firm closed-cell foam, with the end result being very good protection for the item inside. The only downside is that if your camera or cell phone doesn't quite fit into one of their cases, there's no forcing it to fit. Still, these are well-made cases and, if they fit your gear, highly recommended. Retail prices run from $16 to $32.

Now you really see it: An odd-looking little device shown by Taiwan-based Nikko-Energy Technology Corp. (www.ni.energy.com) turned out to be a self-contained magnifying camera, the Micro-Eye MS-228. Just attach it to a TV monitor and set it on top of whatever you want to inspect. It has two magnifications - 40X and 140X - and it's very sharp. No U.S. distribution or pricing is currently available.

Dick Tracy, your wristwatch is ready: Timepieces are an interesting part of the CES, and their functionality gets ever greater. Middlebury, Conn.-based Timex Corp. was showing its Internet Messenger watch, developed in conjunction with Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc. and Jackson, Miss.-based SkyTel Communications Inc. It's a full-fledged pager, plus you can send e-mail messages or Web content to the watch. It's significantly smaller than its predecessor, the Beepwear pager watch. There's a vibrating alert signal, and the watch automatically sets the correct time from SkyTel.

Tokyo-based Casio Computer Co. was showing a wristwatch with a built-in digital camera (though it takes - and displays - only monochrome pictures 120 by 120 pixels in size), and PC-Unite, which can download your schedule, contacts and to-do list from Microsoft Outlook.

The two clocks I liked best are radically different. One is a playful wall clock whose pendulum is a glowing plastic Slinky. The other is a talking clock that looks like an Islamic mosque; it chants the azan, or Muslim call to prayer, for 3 1/2 minutes, five times each day. It also announces the hours and has a 105-year calendar.

See your CDs: I keep most of my software library of CD-ROM disks in two binderlike cases made by Case Logic Inc. in Longmont, Colo., each capable of holding 256 disks in transparent plastic sleeves, eight per leaf. For 2001, Case Logic has redesigned these cases so they lie flatter, making retrieval easier, and it has upped the capacity to 264. The company also has smaller ones, by the way.

Faster links: With the increasing acceptance of the IEEE 1394 standard for a fast serial connector (better known by the name used by Apple Computer Inc., FireWire), how do you retrofit your desktop computer for this new connection? Belkin Components in Compton, Calif., has a very interesting answer to that: a combo FireWire/USB card that fits into any desktop PCI slot.

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