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PC Expo: Promises on display

Net PCs, PCs with DVD-ROM, mobile PCs--these systems are sure to be hot demos at next week's PC Expo, but many won't ship till fall, at the earliest.

PC Expo kicks off next week, and Net PCs, PCs with DVD-ROM, and mobile PCs will be the hot topics of conversation.

As reported last week by CNET's NEWS.COM, major PC manufacturers such as Compaq (CPQ), IBM (IBM), Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi, and a host of others will preview their first versions of the NetPC at the show.

The vast majority of manufacturers will not setting delivery dates; rather, they will be raising the curtains on these products, which analysts say are not likely to come out before the third quarter of this year.

Net PCs are "sealed-case" systems that typically will have no floppy disk drive or expansion slots. Promoted by Microsoft, Intel, and Compaq, among others, the systems are supposed to reduce ownership cost for companies that currently use networked PCs. They will purportedly allow IS staff to maintain and update desktops from the center of the corporate network, instead of visiting each PC.

Low cost aside, the real financial impact will come later for buyers in the narrow market for these systems. Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research, says the rollout "is a big deal in the sense that what buyers are getting for a lower price is fairly substantial. From the IS manager's point of view, this is much more significant because these are a much more manageable [computer]."

Meanwhile, there will be plenty of action on the consumer computer technology front. DVD drives, probably the single most compelling "convergence" technology to span consumer electronics and PCs, will also make their biggest showing to date. Among other firsts, DVD drives will allow the playback of high-resolution movies on PCs.

IBM is expected to show off its recently introduced consumer PC with a built-in DVD-ROM system, and Toshiba is also expected to show its recently announced DVD Developer's Platform PC, being sold only to software developers who are creating next-generation DVD-ROM.

Hitachi will be exhibiting both DVD-ROM and DVD-RAM drives. DVD-RAM discs allow users to both record and read data. Standard DVD-ROM technology only permits reading, or playback, of data. Other DVD disc developers are Matsushita, Toshiba, and Sony. A DVD-RAM drive can hold up to 2.4GB of data on a disc, roughly four times the capacity of CD-ROM discs.

Hitachi demonstrated at Spring Comdex a prototype drive that can store up to 5GB by recording data on both sides of a disc; it says it hopes to replace floppy drives and CD-ROM drives with one DVD-RAM drive in future PCs.

A limited number of DVD movie titles are already on shelves. They offer the ability to play movies with subtitles in different languages, add parental ratings controls, or provide control over frame-viewing angles.

DVD-ROM drives will be able to read the current library of CD-ROM programs, and software titles that require large amounts of disc space, such as multimedia encyclopedias, will likely be re-released in the new format by year's end.

Though the new drives offer significant benefits over CD-ROM drives, manufacturers have been slow to incorporate the technology into new systems.

"There are political and technical issues around DVD-ROM that is resulting in a higher cost than people had planned and that's slowing [product introduction] down," says Mercury's McCarron. Content providers have been reluctant to allow manufacturers to use software-based encryption and playback methods which would reduce the costs of DVD-ROM hardware. Their reluctance is based on the fears that content could be easily pirated from a software-based encoding/decoding system, according to McCarron.

McCarron expects more systems with DVD-ROM drives to be introduced in the fall, but doesn't think the technology will have a very big impact on the Christmas selling season.

While DVD-ROM may not light up the cash registers, notebooks will continue to be a big draw in stores and at PC Expo. IBM will show off its new line of ultraportable 560e series notebooks with MMX processors and its new high-end 765 notebook, which packs an extra-large 13-inch screen and a 3GB hard disk drive.

Toshiba will be exhibiting the diminutive Libretto mini-notebook. The Libretto 50CT is the first full-fledged Windows 95 portable PC that weighs less than two pounds. The Libretto has a 75-MHz Pentium processor, an 810MB hard drive, and a small active-matrix color display. The mini-notebook will be shown alongside more conventional models recently introduced by Toshiba, including the new Portege 300CT, an ultraportable notebook PC weighing 3.8 pounds.