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Comdex Is Still Gadgetry's Mother Lode

LAS VEGAS -- Even with its reduced size and deflated importance, Comdex is still a week full of red-letter days for the average geek.

Like Christmas, Thanksgiving and a Microsoft launch all rolled together, Comdex lays acre upon acre of technological wizardry before the awed techie. Laptops are lighter at Comdex. Digital cameras are accompanied by their own miniprinters. The mobile phones stand a little thinner and the booming strains of Madonna tunes bump a few decibels louder from the Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) booth than on an average day.

We'll translate the experience for you. We have condensed the wonders of Comdex for the layperson, shedding light on the upcoming holiday season, and the gadgets that will come to fruition later in 2002.

Gimme the works: You've been waiting for almighty convergence for about five years. Finally it's ready to ship to stores. Handspring (HAND) introduced its Treo GSM/GPRS phone and PDA to the Comdex crowd in a marketing flurry. The Treo will come out in the spring with email, short messaging and calling on networks such as Cingular's.

Nokia (NOK) displayed its 9290 color-screened phone and PDA combination device. Weighing in at a half-pound, the 9290 looks a bit like the clunky flip-open PDAs your relatives gave you before Palm became popular. It is built for GSM mobile-phone networks and runs the Nokia-backed Symbian operating system instead of the typical Palm OS or Pocket PC 2002 offering. The 9290 was announced in June with planned availability in the first half of 2002 in the Americas. It gives access to short messages, calendaring and contacts, Internet browsing and email with attachments.

Kyocera's Palm OS-based smart phone, which is available for Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless customers, reminded us that a $399 device -- excluding any rebates from service providers or retail outlets -- that can deal with data in a mature fashion has been out since March. Back to our senses, we remembered that it's not the capability of the device, but the device plus a working next-generation mobile-phone network that will ring in convergence. Stay tuned for a potential end-of-2002 purchase once your wireless service carrier gets its data-loving networks up and running smoothly.

Geek Chic
Convergence and music dominated the Comdex gadget offerings
Product Type Details Pros Cons
Handspring Treo Mobile phone and PDA combo Available in the spring for GSM/GPRS networks Light, full functioned, great design Relies on wireless carriers rolling out higher data speeds
Samsung Yepp MP3 player $89 to $169 Incredibly small, 1.12 ounces without AAA battery 64 MB of memory is easy to eat up with songs
Sony AIBO Digital robot New 220 version available by the end of November Audio capability and better commands Will lose your real best friends if you spend too much time programming a robotic dog
Nokia 9290 Mobile phone and PDA combo Available during the first half of 2002 Color screen, productivity tools Feels big, not Palm OS-based
Sony Clie PEG-T415 PDA Out in late November for $300 Screen is very crisp, super slim form factor Black-and-white screen, pitting this Clie against much cheaper competition

On a different note, NTT DoCoMo detailed its service in Japan to wistful, deprived Comdexians. The company has been running third-generation (3G) wireless service trials with data-heavy services all year, and wowed the U.S. crowd with an experimental videophone. The device will transmit the caller's image along with audio. But the Jetson Age isn't quite here, and the videophone is not yet available.

Practically speaking: Sony (SNE) will have a cheaper Clie out by the end of November, with a black-and-white screen. The PEG 415T is 0.39 inches thick, uses a memory stick the size of a piece of chewing gum and goes for $300. If you want a new PDA, this Christmas Compaq (CPQ) and Hewlett-Packard (HWP) have new devices built to take advantage of Pocket PC 2002, while the Palm crowd has new PDAs with lower prices.

Form factor: MP3 players are the coolest-looking gadgets of the season. Samsung's Yepp players came in three very small styles for 64MB of MP3 playback. You'll probably want more storage, but there's no denying the small pendant model (selling for $169 on Samsung's Web site) and its egg-shaped sister ($89 and $129.99 models) stopped traffic. Sony showed a new minidisc player, the NetMD, capable of transferring 80 minutes of music from a PC to a teensie minidisc player in just three minutes. Minidiscs cost $2 apiece, while players go for $250 and hold five hours of music. Alas, the NetMD won't be available until February.

Cool for the pocket protector set: If you're feeling courageous, we saw three rubberneck-worthy devices on the show floor for gawking. First is Sony's AIBO ERS 220 entertainment robot, first introduced in June 1999 with a new version in Sony stores, the Sony Web site and FAO Schwarz this November. You raise the 3.3-pound robocop-looking pup from newborn stage to adulthood and teach it by petting it for positive reinforcement. It can remember 75 commands with its 32MB of memory and the new version can project and return audio. It wouldn't be Comdex without a cute, inspirational, head-scratching device.

Samsung was showing a prototype for a funky, wearable wireless mouse. The Scurry attaches to a user's fingers via several clip-on lightweight pieces that look like ring jewelry. Using sensors, the Scurry would allow virtual typing, as well as make a bold fashion statement for the person who likes to accessorize with computer devices. Without a price or a ship date, the Scurry looks like an MIT Media Lab prototype. Ericsson (ERICY) and Sony had models of future phones -- think two years to three years from delivery -- on display with wacky futuristic chrome accents and unusual shapes, such as an oval.

Again, glimpses at the future feel a little like cheating, so we'll wait until we see them in stores. Now, back to the show floor.

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