PC Expo: Where have all the desktops gone?

Many PC makers are featuring consumer goods, not desktops at this year's PC Expo. Here's the scoop on new digital audio products from HP and Compaq.

COMMENTARY--While much has been made of the fact that after all this time, PC Expo has been rechristened PC Expo/TechXNY, we didn't really expect this year's show to be all that different from previous ones.

After all, every year tech pundits (ourselves included) decry the end of the PC era, so why should this year be any different?

As it turns out, this year's PC Expo is very different. For starters, the show is half the size of Expos of the past. Gone are most of the smaller companies that once filled the downstairs exhibition space, and those that are still around are relegated to a ghetto at the back of the main hall.

But it's not just the little guys who are missing. Dell Computer decided to sit this show out. Heck, they didn't even bother to get a hotel suite in town where they could show off their wares to journalists and analysts--what many companies do when they don't want to spend a fortune on floor space. And the companies that did show up didn't bring many PCs.

But what we found particularly interesting is that even big PC players such as HP and Compaq were showing off devices that would have been more at home at the Consumer Electronics Show than PC Expo. Here are some noteworthy examples.

Most people think of HP as the company that makes servers, systems, and laser printers for business. But at Expo, HP was aiming for a whole different environment: your living room. Granted, HP is not entirely new to the home market--it does big business with its inkjet printers and CD-R/RW drives. But the company has upped the ante with its Digital Entertainment Center, which combines the features of an Internet radio, MP3 jukebox, and 8X/4X/32X CD burner.

HP's digital entertainment center connects to the Internet via either home networking or a dial-up connection. It works with your existing ISP, uses an HP portal to stream Internet radio stations, and links to CDDB for information on artist, title, and track. It also includes a 40GB hard drive, which is sufficient for about 750 CDs, according to HP. Currently, the product is limited to playing RealAudio and MP3 (no WMA support), but it can be upgraded online. The Digital Entertainment Center includes all of the standard connections for audio (RCA, digital optical, and coaxial) and video (composite, VGA, and S-Video), and works best when mated with a television or computer monitor. HP says it should be available around the holidays for less than US$1,000.

One of the first major PC makers to venture into other consumer categories (with the iPaq PA-1 portable MP3 player), Compaq announced a whole series of digital audio devices at PC Expo. The PA-2 Personal Audio Player (US$249 before a US$50 rebate), an update to Compaq's portable MP3 player, includes one 64MB MultiMedia card (instead of the two 32MB cards) and should offer better battery life.

In addition, Compaq has rolled out three entirely new audio products. The iPaq PCD-1 Personal CD Player is a US$199 portable MP3 CD player with a wireless remote, built-in FM tuner, and navigation that allows you to search tracks by title, artist, or genre. The second CD player, the iPaq PM-1 MP3 CD Player, is designed for the smaller 8cm MP3 CDs--the same ones used in the Sony Mavica MVC-CD1000 and players such as the Easybuy 2000 MPZip and the forthcoming Philips EXP 401. Also US$199, this player is significantly smaller than full-size CD players, but the media can store only about one third the amount of digital audio.

Finally, the Compaq iPaq Music Center, a competitor to the HP Digital Entertainment Center, can also store MP3s ripped using its built-in CD player and play and stream Internet radio and digital audio files from your PC. The component relies on HPNA 2.0 (no Ethernet jack, though you could use a USB adapter), has a 20GB hard drive. Though it lacks the CD-R/RW drive found in HP's offering, Compaq's model should be a couple of hundred bucks cheaper.

Sony, by contrast, is known for consumer electronics first and personal computers second. In keeping with that reputation, Sony is showing a range of new products at Expo, including two new handhelds, the US$400 CLIE PEG-N610C (similar to the PEG-N710C except without digital audio) and US$200 monochrome CLIE PEG-S320; a 4.1-megapixel digital camera, the US$800 Cyber-shot DSC-S85 camera; a new Internet appliance; and accessories such as PC speakers and headphones.

The few companies actually announcing or demonstrating new PCs are sticking mainly with notebooks. Acer, Compaq, Fujitsu PC, HP, Sony, and Toshiba are all showing new notebooks--many of which are based upon new technologies that AMD, Intel, and Transmeta are unveiling that promise both more power and longer battery life.

Don't get us wrong. We're not complaining about all these cool new products. Just don't expect to see much in the way of desktops anywhere near the show floor this week.