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COMDEX '95 and multimedia in '96.

Las Vegas, which I visited recently to attend Fall COMDEX, claims to have become a family destination. I had my doubts as I waded through the sleazy complimentary magazines scattered on the sidewalks. But I have never doubted that Las Vegas was the perfect host for this computer show, which it has been for the past 17 years.

The show has been getting bigger and better every year. This time, it attracted 210,000 visitors and over 2,000 exhibitors. Multimedia was even more at the heart of the show than it was in 1994, as it came not only from CD-ROMs but from the hundreds of World Wide Web sites.

As usual, a visit to COMDEX makes it easy to predict what computers and information technology applications the next 12 months will bring into our homes and offices. Here I only give a condensed report of what the multimedia landscape is likely to look like, but in later columns this year I will discuss particular issues more closely.

Multimedia to Go

The most impressive trend to me was the coming of age of affordable, genuine multimedia notebook computers. IBM undoubtedly had the show stopper with its incredible Thinkpad 76OCD, featuring a 90 MHz Pentium, 8 megabytes (surprisingly low) of RAM, a 12-inch active-matrix screen capable of 16 million colors at 640X480 mode, or 65,000 colors at 800X600 mode, a 1.2-gigabyte hard disk, a quadruple-speed drive, and an MPEG-2 chip for video playback. All this in a sleek design. It's no surprise that this horsepower allows stunning broadcast-quality video. At the $10,000 price (including shipping and handling!), however, it will not be the mainstream multimedia laptop in 1996. Nonetheless, it was as impressive as Batman's car.

But there were also numerous notebooks capable of very decent multimedia performance for $3,500 to $4,500. Among the big guns, Texas Instruments leads the way in price/performance with its entry-level Extensa 550CD multimedia notebook. For just under $3,000, it has a 75 MHz Pentium processor, 8 megabytes of RAM, 1 megabyte of video RAM, 10.4-inch dual-scan display (256 colors at 640X480), PCI bus architecture, 16-bit sound card, microphone and speakers, 524-megabyte hard drive, and double-speed CD-ROM. Many lesser-known manufacturers (AMS, Sager, Patriot) have this typical entry-level multimedia configuration at even lower prices. Some notebooks with similar capabilities - such as the Vectra 4000 from NEC and the Gateway Solo V75 - seemed to be overpriced and are likely to be reduced by early this year.

I saw many mouth-watering midrange multimedia notebooks (Toshiba Satellite Pro 410, NEC Versa 4000, Gateway Solo) for about $4,000 to $5,000, sporting 90-or 100-MHz Pentiums, 8 to 16 megabytes of RAM, 540- to 720-megabyte hard disks, active matrix or dual-scan screens, and quadruple-speed built-in CD-ROMs. Toshiba announced at the show the price of the Tecra 700 Series, which will represent the high end of the multimedia notebook market this year. The Tecra 700CT has a 120-MHz Pentium, 16 megabytes of RAM, a 1-gigabyte hard drive, 11.3-inch active matrix display capable of 65,000 colors at 800X600 resolution, 16-bit audio, and a quadruple-speed CD-ROM drive. At a price of $6,000, it certainly will not be an impulse buy. Gateway announced a similar notebook at the same price, and others will follow suit.

Desktop Multimedia Prowess

On the desktops we shall see 100- to 120-MHz Pentiums, with 16 megabytes of RAM, 15- to 17-inch monitors (with 65,000 colors at 800X600), quadruple-speed drives, 1.2-gigabyte hard drives capable of full-screen, full-motion video (through MPEG-1 chips on the mother-board), and hi-fi audio quality (through DSP - Digital Signal Processor - chips instead of sound boards) for about $2,300 to $3,000. IBM sets the tone for the mainstream multimedia desktop with its Aptiva series. Although its case design is nondescript at best, what is inside the box is impressive and sufficient for good multimedia playback. You will not see new models featuring Intel 486 processors and double-speed drives, as these will become passe this year and will be sold only at close-outs.

Audio Harmony and Cacophony

Recorded audio performance cannot be much improved beyond CD-quality, but the synthetic music renderings certainly will get better, because in almost all the new audio cards you'll find wave-table synthesis support for MIDI playback. Audio installation will be much easier because the majority of new multimedia systems will not need to know any more about them then they do about math coprocessors. While sound boards will still be sold (for the sake of those who want to upgrade their existing systems), it will be a much easier task to install the new plug-and-play sound boards if you are using Windows 95 and let the hardware wizard take over the "seating" arrangement as a maitre d'.

Enchanced CDs will probably be a disappointment. I have played with half a dozen titles, and (as I will detail in my February column) most of them were unimpressive and overpriced. Some of my reasons, of course, may be subjective. It is, however, an objective fact that the much-heralded Enhanced CD, particularly the CD Plus (Blue Book) format, will have a very rocky start. As if it had not caused enough cacophony and confusion, why are there three different enhanced CD formats (Track Zero, Track One and CD Plus)? The latter format will not run on any of the NEC, Toshiba, and Sanyo drives manufactured before August 1995. This represents at least hundreds of thousands of drives and a pretty large number of angry customers who will ditch their Sony CD Plus discs and be utterly skeptical about the Enhanced CD concept (see my sidebar, "CD Plus Turns Out to Be CD Minus" on page 34).

What gave me some peace of mind amid this cacophony was listening to the series of sound clips from Network Music in the most elegant and comfortable booth of the show. We have heard and seen a lot of CD-ROMs with audio clips, but this series exudes professionalism and quality. There are five volumes (business/office, high tech, pop culture, etc.), each with 30 music samples in 30- and 60-second, short-tag and loop versions of perfectly recorded music at 11 and 22 KHz, and 100 sound effects that you may edit (for perfectly timed fade-in and fade-out) and convert to different sampling rates, frequency, and even to compressed format to include in your multimedia presentation. There are certainly cheaper alternatives, but you get what you pay for. Along with stock film and video footage, this type of mediaware will be significant this year.

Digital Video Delight

Delightful digital video will finally arrive this year in a convenient and affordable way. The key to that will be MPEG compression/decompression. MPEG-1 playback chips on the motherboards or on the video accelerator cards will be widespread and will provide full-screen, full-motion video at least at videotape quality. MPEG-2 decoder chips (for broadcast-quality video) will be limited to the high-end market because of the price. However, MPEG-1 movies (320X240 resolution and 24 frames/second) will be played back also without hardware decoders. I have heard claims that MPEG clips played with software-only decoders will produce decent video on 33-MHz Intel 486 processors, but my own experience clearly suggests that a 75-MHz Pentium and double-speed drive are required as a minimum. As this will be the entry-level multimedia machine, I believe that many of the multimedia titles will have MPEG videos by mid- 1996.

CompCore impressed me the most with its MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 hardware products and particularly with the video quality of the SoftPEG software-only decompressor. Ibere have already been many contenders for hardware MPEG solutions, but this fairly young company managed to license its technology to such industry heavyweights as NEC, Packard Bell, Hitachi, Cirrus Logic, and ATI. It is akin to starting with a few Grand Slam trophies while still unseeded.

Horizon Technology is another promising provider of software-only MPEG playback technology with its TrueMotion-S. The company also has a multimedia authoring package (Open! Info Manager) that facilitates the making of multimedia presentations that include motion video. Sirius' Motion Pixels technology was yet another impressive demonstration of software-only playback of highly compressed video files, though not MPEG files. Beyond playback quality, the crucial issues for developers will be the licensing arrangement and the performance at the compression stage. We shall see a lot of CD-ROMs on a lot of Pentium Pcs with much better video than in 1995.

It is too early to predict what will happen this year with the proposed Zoomed Video Port (ZV Port) standard, which would allow transfer of full-motion, full-screen video with minimal CPU utilization, through a new PC Card (the card earlier known as PCMCIA). It sounds amazing but I'll believe it (and report about it) when I see it.

What May Not Fly in 1996

There were a couple of announcements of products that may not be available in volume in 1996 or that may not have a sizable market. Intel's Pentium Pro is unlikely to have wide appeal. That's die new name for the processor that has been mentioned until now as the P6. It is a bad name. Not because I would prefer "Sextium," but because users will be confused, especially as both the Pentium and Pentium Pro line will have a 150- and 166-MHz product. It also gives the impression that the Pentium itself is not for the pros. At that high speed, it certainly is.

The PowerPC has been depicted for nearly two years as the Promised Land for those who want to use both Mac and DOS/Windows products on the same computer, and it was characterized as a perfect cooperation among Apple, IBM, and Motorola. While Apple has indeed come out with PowerPC-based systems, IBM had no desktop computer featuring this processor, and you could not run IBM applications on the Macs equipped with PowerPC chip. At COMDEX there was again a pavilion dedicated to PowerPC, and it wasn't only birds chirping the new magic word CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform). But I doubt that we shall see any such desktop computers this year that will run both Mac and IBM applications without third-party emulation software.

Of course the big question for multimedia users is whether high density or super-density ROMs of several gigabytes capacity will steamroll the 680-megabyte CD-ROMs of today. I saw the impressive prototypes; I saw the joint communique from the formerly waning Sony/Philips and Toshiba/Time-Warner teams (and their own brochures), but I'd bet my computer that the super-density drives will not be shipping in 1996.

In the meantime, we were able to witness at COMDEX how good old CD-ROM technology keeps improving. As this is an issue not only for multimedia but also for non-multimedia CD-ROM applications (and because I'm running out of space), I'll discuss CD-ROM drive developments in this month's CD-ROM Commentaries column (page 26).

Las Vegas may have gotten cleaner than it was in the 70s as depicted by Scorsese in his current movie, Casino. While it still is unlikely to hit the Boy Scouts' list of recommended places to visit, it is the perfect place for COMDEX, and especially for the show's multimedia exhibits. Sometimes I had to pause and remember whether I was in a casino on the Strip or in the Multimedia Pavilion. Not a bad dilemma.

Peter Jacso is associate professor of library and information studies at the University of Hawaii. He writes for this and other professional magazines, speaks at professional conferences, and regularly offers a CD-ROM workshop. His e-mail address is
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Title Annotation:Multimedia Today
Author:Jacso, Peter
Publication:Information Today
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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