At the Digital Focus technology trade show in Midtown Manhattan last month, Fuji was showing off its ever-tinier digital cameras, and folks from Staples were handing out staplers (really good ones).
But the most buzz surrounded the PC home entertainment centers: streamlined systems from Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and ZT Group that integrate TV, movies, music, slide shows and Web surfing.
"PCs want to get into the living room," says Tom Samiljan, technical director of Cargo magazine. "To do that, they need to look more like furniture."
What Samiljan calls "convergence" between computing and entertainment is demonstrated by a system such as H-P's, with its wide range of audio-visual jacks and extra drives that make connecting to other components in the home easy.
"I call them PCs in home-theater clothing," Samiljan says, because the PCs look more like DVD players than desktops, and mice are discreetly set into wireless keyboards. If media PCs are not ubiquitous now, he believes, they soon will be, because more "people feel a need for computing power in home entertainment."
Highlights of H-P's z540 and z545-b digital entertainment centers include the ability to access TV, music, digital photos and home videos; pause, replay and record regular TV, cable, digital cable and satellite TV; capture episodes of favorite shows; and burn CDs and DVDs.
The system comes with Reuters interactive TV, giving users access to unedited sound footage used by news editors around the world. The iPod-compatible setup, including a 42-inch monitor, costs about $6,700.
For the holidays, Gateway will introduce a multimedia PC with a wireless keyboard, DVD, CD and 15-inch LCD monitor at a "very affordable" price, says company spokesman Rick Schwartz. The 3250X MC with TV/FM tuner and 15-inch LCD will be $899. The 7200S MC with TV/FM tuner and 17-inch LCD will be $1,399.
Though Gateway likes to show off the product by using the newest and biggest in LCDs, the PC will work with any TV. It also comes with the ability to record radio shows, as TiVo does with TV.
Photo fans can view a slide show to go with music by downloading personal photos from a digital camera or choosing from a picture gallery already loaded. Of the pre-loaded beach scene in Bali, Schwartz says, "You can even zoom in on a palm tree."
It comes with a universal remote to cue every element of the system.
Movies made manageable
Some companies are rushing in with technologies to fill the gaps in multimedia entertainment. Video files, for example, are so time-consuming to download and transfer, most people would rather not bother.
But DivX Networks offers compression software for videos (similar to how music files are compressed for use in an MP3), so movies can be downloaded in less than an hour, instead of the usual six, and burned onto CDs in 10 minutes. The technology works for home movies, too.
Philips, Samsung and 59 other companies are building DVD players and other equipment that can read the compressed files. Look for the DivX seal of approval.
Something that works
Trying to decide among competing media PCs, each laden with pages of specs and jargon, can be difficult. Jordan Shen, business development manager for ZT Group, says it's important that consumers not ignore the nuisances of bulk, noise and heat that often come with media PCs.
"Nothing can compare to our system because it's slim, less than 2 inches, and because of the advances we've made acoustically and thermally," Shen says. Not only does the new ZT Group model, ZT Pro Z6537, powered by an Intel Pentium 4 processor, have 1 gigabyte of memory and a 2-GB hard drive, but it is quieter. It will be available in stores such as CompUSA for the holidays for $1,300 to $1,500.
Lawrence Thorne, a self-styled "technologist" who runs a digital media company out of his Manhattan home, has a dual-monitor multimedia system he set up using components from Dell and Sony.
"Everything matches up. It doesn't look like a Frankenstein machine," he says. "But having two monitors does give me more 'real estate.' "
Work mixes with play as Thorne checks e-mail and watches a DVD for work while he's "ripping" — that is, taking songs off a CD and putting them on his MP3 player. He uses his PDA, a PEG-NR70 Sony Clié, like an iPod.
Thorne also recommends the Nvidia video card, a GeForce FX 5200 series, but notes, "Nvidia has a new 6800 series that blows the 5200 away."
He says the 6800 series, with its 256-bit graphics core, is popular with game addicts, though he says, "They're a bit overkill, more industrial than many home PC gamers need."
Thorne uses the card to produce animation for an environmentally responsible kids cartoon called Invasion of the Exploding Chickens, and not, he says, "to defend the universe against the monsters in Doom and Quake 3."
Wireless networks at home
Reuben Martinez's family doesn't bother to consult printed television guides to see what shows are on. They use their wireless laptops to look up TV programs, local movie times, recipes, "basically everything," says Martinez, who is the technology director at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Miami.
Martinez is surprised by how simple and inexpensive Wi-Fi networks have become since he set up his three years ago.
"It's basically plug and play. When people call me up and ask me how to rig it, I say, 'Is there a teenager in the house?' Because they're so savvy."
Martinez recommends a Linksys wireless router.
Jennifer Hawkins, president of a Manhattan public relations company, bought the Linksys system for about $180, including the wireless card.
"Being on maternity leave can be a bit of a challenge," she says. "It was important for me to stay connected with the office via e-mail and have access to the computer files while at home with my new daughter."
Hawkins liked the speed of the new system and that there are "no hideous cords" to clutter her small apartment.
More than 80% of home Wi-Fi networks are not secure, says Jeff Abramowitz, senior director at Wi-Fi chipmaker Broadcom. That's in part because they used to be hard to set up, causing users to unintentionally leave their networks open to hackers. Newer Wi-Fi products are simpler — and thus easier to secure.
Fred Felman, a spokesman for Zone Labs, which makes wireless security software products, says Windows PCs are inherently unsafe.
"Most people configure their wireless networks in an insecure fashion. People can easily hack in and attack your PC, then your machine can be used to distribute spam or to forward pornography, and you'd never know.
Once I left my PC on in a hotel, and there were 60 discrete attempts to hack into it. Another time, I was in an Internet cafe in Palo Alto, Calif., and saw eight other unprotected PCs. I showed a journalist how you can look at vacation pictures of strangers."
Zone Labs' introductory Zone Alarm can be downloaded free. The Zone Alarm Pro costs $49 the first year (renewal is about 50% of the purchase price), while the top-of-the-line Zone Alarm Security Suite comes with a $69 initiation fee.
Some consumers are more concerned about their PCs crashing and losing their files forever than about someone hacking into photos of their Maui honeymoon. For them, the M-250 Mirra Personal Server might be the answer.
Available in three storage capacities (80 GB, 120 GB and 250 GB), this product automatically backs up digital photos, music and other documents for a single PC or a small network of PCs. You don't have to worry about manually saving files or burning CDs.
The 80-GB model ($399 at Best Buy, CompUSA and Amazon) can store up to 100,000 photos, 25,000 songs or 40 million pages of text.