Comdex ’98 Report

I am sure that we are all going to soon have Comdex overload (if we don’t already), however at the risk of contributing to this problem I would like to provide my own perspective on this ‘Mother of all North American Computer Shows’.

The Show!

For the past several years I have attended Comdex with the idea that I will be coming out of it with insight into what to expect in the coming year that I would not have been able to gain elsewhere. As I drive into Las Vegas, I have visions of speaking with numerous manufacturers regarding trends and technology, and that I will be awed and amazed by the wonderous new products they have to offer.

Unfortunately, once I arrive and see the crowds and confusion I realize that I am in for another week of stress, hype and frustration. While the exhibit halls do not officially open until 10:00am, numerous attendees are already waiting at 8:00 trying to get in to be the ‘first’ to see what is on display. This year, hundreds of people were wearing exhibitor badge holders even though their badges identified them as ‘Comdex Guests’. The security guards were working overtime trying to prevent attendees from entering the exhibits early, and many who were turned away resorted to angry comments and gestures.

Once inside the exhibits, crazed users crowd around the booths where T-shirts and other items are thrown out for those who will yell, gesture or perform on cue. Many booths are manned by eager, but fairly clueless sales people who offer brochures, canned speeches and useless information. At one motherboard manufacturer’s booth the salesperson carefully explained to me the difference between AT and ATX ‘formats’, which I felt compelled to let him complete because it was obvious he needed the practice.

Much of my time was spent searching for information regarding the trends in motherboards, memory and chipsets. In many cases there was very little to be gained as neither engineers or product managers were available to discuss future marketing and product plans. There were, however, a few notable exceptions to this, and the information gained from these manufacturers appears to be sufficient to make some fairly interesting observations regarding the hardware industry for the next year. Also of interest were the number of network PCs, USB devices and Linux solutions. I would venture a guess that 1999 may be the year of Linux.

The Products!

With the exception of two motherboard manufacturers, virtually every one had demo boards for the Socket 370 Celerons. Most of these included on-board video and or audio. While some manufacturers believe that the Celeron may take the wind out of AMDs sails, the motherboards shown would not appear to support that conclusion, from my viewpoint. More and more people are doing their own upgrades, and even building their own machines. While the vast majority of users still purchase their systems from the large OEMs, these are not the products that were on display from these motherboard manufacturers. The largest growing segement of the market appears to be the hardcore gamers, and these users will usually avoid integrated sound and video on their motherboards. Many of those who are looking to upgrade just for a family PC will generally look to the gamers for recommendations, and I just can’t see gamers recommending many of the Socket 370 boards, unless they turn out to be exceptional performers and very inexpensive.

AMD is readying the K6-2 400, and will soon debut the K6-3. These products should drive the Super Socket 7 market to new heights, and with VIA recently including support for VCM in their MVP3 chipset, this may end up being the gamer’s platform of choice for the next 6 months. With performance at least as good as the Intel equivalent, 256k full speed cache (on the K6-3), 3dNow! support and the possibility of low-latency Virtual Channel Memory, it seems that AMD and VIA may well be in the driver’s seat for the first half of ’99.

Virtually all of the large memory manufacturers are on board to provide DRDRAM by mid-’99, however most motherboard manufacturers believe that the high costs associated with this memory will prevent it from being used on anything but servers for at least two years. The current favorites for desktop memory solutions are PC100 SDRAM, DDR SDRAM and ESDRAM, perhaps with VCM technology thrown in for additional performance. Though it seems inevitable that eventually DRDRAM will be the memory standard for all platforms (if Intel and Rambus have their way), there still seems to be a chance for a better performing and lower cost solution for non-server systems in the long run.

What was particularly interesting was that almost every manufacturer believed that AMD would struggle to maintain their market share, and thought it likely that Intel would regain their total dominance by mid-year, however to a company all of them said that they secretly hoping AMD can succeed. I guess it’s not just Americans that root for the underdog ;-).

Many of the motherboard manufacturers also seem to be getting into the network PC market (also called ‘thin-client’ computing). These Net PCs included a hard drive, graphics adapter, CDROM, network card and up to 128MB of memory for under $400! While definitely not useful for gaming, home computing or small businesses they are extremely attractive for large businesses running primarily server based applications. Expect to see these products get some serious attention over the next year.

USB devices and IEEE1394 controllers were very prevalent. Manufacturers appear to be pushing USB fairly heavily this year, though there does not appear to be any compelling reason for most consumers to move in this direction still. I, for one, am not yet convinced that USB will be truly successful unless something other than keyboards, mice and speakers are offered, or the entire PC design is changed such that only USB and IEEE1394 devices will be accepted. While very few IEEE1394 devices were shown, there were numerous controller chips and controller cards on display. To me, this is one of the more exciting technologies to come along in awhile, though the cost is currently too prohibitive for the average consumer.

Linux was everywhere at Comdex (well, it was very prominent at least). Numerous companies offered Linux services and solutions and seemed to have a lot of interested visitors. As stated previously, 1999 may well be the year of Linux unless Microsoft can get NT 5 out quickly and without major problems. With Intel and others investing into Red Hat, Caldera and the like, Linux appears to finally have gained acceptance. It seems likely that next year hardware reviewers will need to include Linux compatibility and benchmark information in addition to those provided for Windows and 3D games.

The Conclusions

After all is said and done, Comdex is probably not worth the cost for most attendees, however most don’t seem to care (perhaps the bill is being footed by someone else?). The products and glitz may be appealing and interesting, however there is typically nothing really new being displayed, and no technology secrets are revealed. On the other hand, if you like to party, this is definitely one of the events to attend!

While a lot has been said about the K7 and the Socket 370 Celeron processors in recent days, the next few months should see the continued popularity of Super Socket 7 and Slot 1 (including Celeron) platforms. VIA appears to be working very hard to maintain their lead on the Socket 7 platform, however they may have problems with the Slot 1/Socket 370 platforms unless they can get the licensing issues worked out. Though the Socket 370 Celeron processors will be cheap and fast, the motherboards will probably only appeal to system integrators and users looking for truly low-cost systems without regard to gaming performance – though this really remains to be seen (it is possible that these motherboards could surprise the heck out of me).

Network PCs will probably gain a lot of attention, but USB devices will likely still be sitting on the shelves for most vendors. On the other hand, Linux knowledgable vendors may find that they can make inroads into the market by providing support and information about Linux hardware issues.

All in all, the next 6 months look to be a repeat of the last 6 months with only a few exceptions. Those vendors and manufacturers who are focusing primarily upon the Slot 1/Celeron solutions (mostly for overclocking purposes), may find their market dwindling as the faster AMD processors make their appearance. It also has been rumored that Intel may try to somehow limit the FSB speeds available on the Celeron processors, which will further erode the market share on this platform. Celeron solutions may dominate the sub-$1000 PC market, but I cannot see these selling as upgrades to existing machines or as game machines.

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