Comdex: Net PCs, appliances take centre stage

At the Comdex trade show here, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), IBM and a raft of other hardware makers will take the wraps off an array of novel, low-cost PCs and appliances designed to give users fast and easy access to the Internet.

The new products, which include a colourful, oval-shaped PC design from AMD and a dedicated e-mail appliance from Hong Kong's VTech Holdings, are part of a growing trend by hardware makers to offer low-cost PCs and appliances in a variety of form factors, all of which have the Internet as their central focus.

"We're in the 'PC plus' era, where the PC begins to take on a wealth of different forms," Tim Bajarin, president and CEO of IT consulting firm Creative Strategies, said at a press briefing here yesterday where he offered a sneak peak at products that will be unveiled at the show.

AMD will today unveil the EasyNow PC platform, a $US499 computer for consumers that runs Windows software and uses AMD's K6-2 and K6-3 processors. The computer will be available in six bright colour schemes, including a purple and green model displayed here last night.

The model on show here contained a 450MHz K6-2 processor, a telephone port, three USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports for attaching peripherals, and an Ethernet port for setting up home networks and accessing broadband services, Bajarin said.

Like most of the Internet appliances on show here, EasyNow shuns standard desktop features like the floppy disk drive and prides itself on its compact size.

EasyNow will be manufactured by several firms including Biostar MicroTech International of Taiwan, and sold by retailers including the UK's Dixon's Group, which will sell its own branded versions of the device. Future versions will use AMD's higher-end Athlon processor for more performance-hungry consumers, according to information provided by AMD.

IBM, meanwhile, will launch the iStation, a sleek, black computer that resembles a small notebook computer stood on its end, and can be paired with a matching, flat-panel monitor. The computer will be powered by National Semiconductor's integrated Geode processor and will be priced at under $US700 including a keyboard but no monitor, Bajarin said.

Texas-based NetPliance will announce shipping plans for the EyeOpener, an Internet appliance expected to retail for $US199, plus $21.95 for a package of Internet access services, Bajarin said. The EyeOpener consists of a keyboard and a flat-panel display with a large base that houses most of the system's electronic components.

VTech's MailStation, meanwhile, is a dedicated e-mail machine expected to retail for $US99 along with a monthly services package, which will cost extra. The MailStation comprises a keyboard with a small viewing screen mounted behind it, and also uses a processor from National Semiconductor and VTech's own operating software.

RSC of Sweden, meanwhile, will be one of several vendors at the show unveiling wireless Web-tablet devices based on a reference design called WebPad that was unveiled here last year by Cyrix, a former National Semiconductor subsidiary. RSC plans to ship its Web-tablet device later this year priced at between $US100 and $500 depending on the services model that the user chooses, Bajarin said.

The new products tie in with the theme of this week's show: Beyond the PC. Last week Compaq and Hewlett-Packard announced plans to ship their own low-cost Internet PCs aimed at business customers, called the iPaq and the e-PC, respectively.

Also, yesterday during his keynote speech opening the show here, Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates announced a new class of Internet PCs called the Web Companion, which connect users directly to Microsoft's MSN Internet service.