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Taiwan show reflects iMac influence

A host of head-turning and penny-pinching designs, some of which take their cues from Apple's iMac, are all the rage at the Computex show in Taiwan.

TAIPEI, Taiwan--A host of head-turning and penny-pinching designs, some of which take their cues from Apple's iMac, are all the rage at the Computex show here.

"Web pads," wall computers, phones with Internet screens, Pentium TV set-top boxes, a bevy of ultraslim notebooks, and colorful monitors are all being showcased by Taiwanese original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs at the trade show.

The Taiwanese companies displaying products excel at building products for computer companies worldwide including Compaq, IBM, Fujitsu, and Toshiba, so the unique designs could start appearing on store shelves soon.

Bcom Electronics, Allwell Technology, Mitac and others all displayed stripped-down TV set-top boxes. The devices allow for Internet viewing and e-commerce. Projected prices for the devices are around $299, and many are expected to come out in July. Interestingly, a number of these machines use last-generation PC processors from National Semiconductor, AMD, and Intel. The aging, though economical, 233-MHz Pentium MMX was used in three devices.

Of all of the major U.S. manufacturers, IBM seemed to be the most interested in these products. "HP probably, but later," said one source.

Designers are careful to differentiate these set-top boxes from computers. Allwell's Allnet box, for instance, does not contain a floppy disk drive. "Customers see a floppy and they think, 'what do I do with that?'" said Vivian Weng, sales assistant manager at Allwell.

Similar to set-tops, Kiwi Microsystems has created a "Web-pad infotainment" computer. Shaped like a small pizza box, the top of the unit consists of a screen. On the side are spaces for disk drives, or a DVD-ROM drive. The system is being targeted as an entertainment device as well as a home server, said Lucas Lin, sales department manager for the company. Touch screen capabilities are included.

Willowy and wireless
Laptops, meanwhile, will continue to get skinnier. A number of companies displayed magnesium-cased notebooks which measured less than an inch in thickness. Though thin notebooks are offered today from IBM and Toshiba, they lack the features of slightly thicker models which can integrate a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. Later, however, even these ultrathin notebooks may be able to accomodate these drives with the emergence of ultraslim CD-ROM drives, which are expected early next year, said some.

IBM and Compaq have expressed interest in these designs, said Chris Wang, sales and marketing at Airgo. Airgo is also willing to manufacture these devices in a variety of colors.

Another innovation from some companies lay in the incorporation of wireless phone capabilities. DTK Computer, along with a few other manufacturers, showed off prototypes of notebooks that can handle wireless phone transmissions. Some of these notebooks could appear by the third or fourth quarter, said Steve Chuan at DTK. The system contains a 15-inch screen.

On the other end of the weight spectrum, Crete Systems will release a new line of ruggedized notebooks that are resistant to water and dust. While mostly used in military applications, the systems do find their way into the corporate world. One company bought one for an executive who spilled coffee on his laptop all the time. "He went through two laptops in one year," said Jimmy Lan, product marketing engineer.

The iMac influence
Color appeared to be winning out over funky design innovation, representing the influence that Apple Computer's iMac has cast over the industry.

Since last September, Intel has been showing reference designs for PCs that resemble Mayan pyramids or vases. None of these types of computers were spotted in a tour of the PC section of the trade show floor. Intel, nonetheless, has said in the past that Taiwanese companies are working on such designs, and that they could begin to arrive in the back-to-school time frame this year.

Color, however, was everywhere. Bridge Information is coming out with a series of 17-inch monitors for PCs in "Amethyst-Purple," "Sapphire-Blue," "Emer-Green," "Ruby-Red," and orange this July. The company has a contract to ship these to a German company in July, said Willy Wei, sales director.

Color will come to other devices as well. Fondasonic International is marketing a series of iCute color face places for tower computers. There are six colors in all. Also present at the show was Artec, which makes iMac stylized scanners, and Foxconn, which brings a splash of color to four-port hubs.