Summary: While there weren't any earth-shattering product announcements at Comdex 2003, there were some interesting hardware products to talk about. In his Comdex 2003 wrap-up article, Brandon highlights a water-cooled RADEON 9800 XT card from Sapphire that's just begging to be overclocked, Sharp's upcoming 3D notebook, GeForce FX Go5700 running UT2K4, a silent GeForce FX card from MSI, motherboards, video cards, LCDs, and CRTs. Read all about it right here!
With the arrival of November comes the annual Comdex convention -- 2003 in particular marks the fourth year we've attended this event. Comdex, for the uninitiated, is a technology conference held in Las Vegas. Think E3 but for the IT sector and hardware enthusiasts. In previous years, the exhibitors in attendance consisted of a who's who list in the PC computing world. Comdex was at one time the largest convention in North America.
Things changed after September 11th, 2001 however. The economy was in recession and people were still edgy about traveling. As a result, Comdex 2001 was slow as molasses. Comdex 2002 wasn't any better.
But as slow as Comdex 2001 and Comdex 2002 were, Comdex 2003 was even slower -- at least in 2001 we had Microsoft's Windows XP launch, while in 2002 we had the Tablet PC and NVIDIA's NV30 to talk about. Comdex 2003's biggest announcement (from my perspective) was GeForce FX Go5700, which is an entirely new product, but trails the 5650's stealth arrival by less than three months and won't be available until 2004. Sure, it's news, but its launch was considerably understated in comparison to previous products.
Don't believe me? How about some anecdotal evidence. On Monday, the opening day of the convention, there were a grand total of seven people on my shuttle bus, including the bus driver. Granted, this was around 11AM, but still not a good opening sign. The opening day of Comdex is always the busiest, with the crowd trailing off at an increased amount as the week continues.
On the ride from the airport that morning, the taxicab driver had mentioned that thousands of extra drivers had been added to the rotation for Comdex, expecting a huge crowd. Instead, they found no fares! The typical Vegas taxi line at the airport was nonexistent. The same applied at all the local hotels.
And if you still don't believe, my shuttle ride on Tuesday consisted of 3 people (at 9:30AM) going to the convention center, including the driver (Wednesday’s meetings were at The Venetian so I didn’t take the shuttle that day). In addition, Comdex 2003 was one day shorter than previous conventions and consumed less floor space. As a result, I’m pretty certain Comdex 2003 will go down as one of the lowest attended events in the conference’s history.
On the upside, the freebies were very good this year, although not quite as plentiful. Whereas I actually had to leave my mini wall-mounted basketball and hoop from Gigabyte (and several backpacks) in Vegas last year (I didn’t want to check in all the extra bags at the airport) this year I only had to check in two bags. Perhaps it was because I was the only person from FS to attend this year? If that’s the case, I need to go solo more often!
Therefore, rather than our usual coverage, I figured it would be best if I posted a pictorial retrospective on what I saw and heard. Well, I can’t tell you everything I heard, but that’s another story.
SIDEBAR: I also met with representatives from AOpen and Maxtor, but totally forgot to take notes and take pictures. Not sure what I was smoking at the time on those, doh!
ABIT had its current lineup of desktop motherboards on display at Comdex. This includes its new line of uGuru motherboards, the 865PE-based AI7, the AN7, which is the follow-up to the NF7-S and is based on NVIDIA’s nForce2 Ultra 400 chipset, and finally, for the Athlon 64 crowd, the KV8-MAX3, which is based on VIA’s K8T800 chipset. All of these motherboards are currently shipping so I decided not to take any pictures of those boards. Also on display in the ABIT booth was its DigiDice small form-factor PC chassis and their line of server motherboards, a market they’ve entered just recently.
In addition to the 5950 OTES, ABIT will also be launching the Siluro FX5700 Ultra. This card will be based on NVIDIA’s reference design, right down to the same cooling unit. ABIT just slaps their sticker on the fan, boxes it up, and sells it to the end user. There’s no fancy game bundle included in the packaging, although you do get the obligatory cables and DVD software. At this time, ABIT has no plans to offer an OTES version of the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra.
After years of displaying prototype Athlon 64/Opteron hardware, Comdex 2003 finally showcased final, retail products based on the technology. AMD had a wall of motherboards on display as well as several notebooks and desktop/server/workstation systems.
Probably the biggest attention-getter was the 0.09-micron Opteron setup AMD had on display. This prototype system was delivering high definition content to an Alienware Athlon 64 FX-51 system that was running next to it. The clock speed of the system was not revealed.
Also on display was a pretty snazzy Athlon XP-based Ferrari notebook as well as Athlon 64 laptops from Alienware and VoodooPC.
SIDEBAR: Practically all of the motherboard manufacturers were at the Venetian. They were either on the 3rd floor hospitality suites or in the Marco Polo room downstairs.
ATI’s Comdex presence was very subdued this year. Not only was their booth smaller it was also pretty sparse. And with less people at the show this year, it was a pretty laid-back environment. ATI had a couch sitting in front of a wide-screen TV that was powered by an ALL-IN-WONDER small form-factor system. The highlight of course was ATI’s new EAZYSHARE technology, which will be launching with CATALYST 3.10 later this month.
You can use EAZYSHARE to watch live television or any recordings you’ve made, as well as timeshift. Due to licensing restrictions, the client machines won’t be able to access Gemstar’s GUIDE PLUS+ data, but you can schedule recordings from the client machine. We’ll be doing a dedicated feature on building a home theater PC shortly, which will feature the ALL-IN-WONDER and of course will mention EAZYSHARE in more depth there.
ASUS had its complete lineup of current and upcoming motherboards on display. The big news was ASUS’ RADEON 9100 IGP-based boards, the microATX P4R800-VM and the ATX P4R800-V Deluxe. Since the ATI chipset lacks native Serial ATA, FireWire, and audio, board manufacturers will have to rely on third-party chips for a wide range of functions. Fortunately, ATI didn’t skimp on the North Bridge, as it offers support for Intel’s 800MHz front-side bus, dual-channel DDR333/400, AGP 8X, and Hyper-Threading. And of course, you can’t forget the RADEON 9100 integrated graphics (with dual display support). I just hope ATI redoubles their efforts for their next South Bridge, IXP 250.
ASUS also had a motherboard based on NVIDIA’s upcoming nForce3 250 chipset. nForce3 250 will add native Gigabit Ethernet networking and Serial ATA support to the package, although NVIDIA will continue to omit its Dolby Digital audio.
Other notables I saw included ASUS’ RADEON 9800 XT and RADEON 9600 XT boards, as well as their GeForce FX 5950 Ultra solution, the V9980 Ultra. We have all of these boards in-house, as well as their SiS 655 TX motherboard, the P4S800D-E Deluxe so expect reviews of these products shortly.
SIDEBAR: ASUS also had its notebooks and PDAs on display in its suite at the Venetian.
DFI shared its suite with Coolermaster, who manufactures a line of aluminum cases, which are popular with enthusiasts, as well as a new line of cooling products. Their Jet series of CPU coolers resemble jet engines, but without the excessive noise. DFI’s suite was focused on their existing line of CMOS Reloaded boards, the 875 INFINITY, 865PE INFINITY, LANPARTY PRO 875B and LANPARTY NFII Ultra-B.
The LANPARTY boards in particular are their second-generation boards that are designed to appeal to gamers and hardware enthusiasts, while the INFINITY line focuses on price/performance. You won’t get the added extras with an INFINITY board such as round IDE cables or the FRONTX panel, but you will get a board that offers performance just as good as DFI’s flagship.
DFI is working on a line of Athlon 64 motherboards, but won’t have anything ready until 2004. This isn’t a bad strategy to follow, as Athlon 64 sales won’t outweigh Athlon XP until next year. DFI was one of the biggest surprises in the motherboard industry for 2003. After luring away much of ABIT’s top talent (including the designers of the IC7-MAX3 and some of ABIT’s legendary boards such as the BP6, BE6-II/BF6, and KT7/KG7 lines), I have a feeling DFI’s upcoming products will only get better.
The graphics cards at MSI’s suite stole the show for me. With the launch of the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra and GeForce FX 5700 Ultra, MSI of course had those boards on display, as well as the FX5700. MSI has adopted its Twin-Flow cooling solution from GeForce FX5900-VTD256 and NBOX for use with their GeForce FX 5950 Ultra board, the FX5950 Ultra-VTD256. The “VTD256” in the product’s designation indicates that it will support video input, TV-out, and DVI, with 256MB of memory onboard. MSI has no plans to offer a dual-DVI card, but plans can always change. MSI has always been quick to adapt to the needs of the market, so don’t be surprised if more SKUs are announced at a later date.
MSI will also be producing an NBOX version of the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra which will continue to ship with Battlefield 1942, Command and Conquer: Generals, and Unreal 2 as well as the nMouse. MSI plans to refresh their NBOX bundle sometime next year.
Also pictured is MSI’s FX5900 SP, which stands for “superior product”. This is a GeForce FX 5900-based core, which ships with 256MB of 2.8ns DDR memory. At 2.8ns, this memory is only good for 350MHz, well below a standard GeForce FX 5900, so this product is a bit of an oxymoron. MSI’s GeForce FX5700 Ultra and FX5700 were also on display, although they haven’t hit retail just yet. MSI, ABIT, and ASUS are all experiencing shortages of these chips. In fact, ASUS has decided not to build a card based on the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra. MSI expects their board to hit retail in the next few weeks.
One interesting product MSI had on display was a GeForce FX 5600 card with silent cooling. This card utilizes heat pipe cooling technology, similar to the Zalman coolers Sapphire uses on its ULTIMATE line, but MSI designed theirs in-house. Unfortunately, this board is limited to the Japanese market; MSI has no plans to bring this card (or any variants of its cooler) to North American shores. I did snap a couple pictures of it and its box however.
MSI also had its second-generation line of MEGA small form-factor PCs, which are based on the nForce2 and 865G chipsets. These products were first demonstrated at QuakeCon. Like ASUS, MSI also had an nForce3 250 motherboard on display as well as a microATX board based on ATI’s RADEON 9100 IGP chipset.
SIDEBAR: I took six pages of Comdex notes.
NEC-Mitsubishi was one of the few companies I met with that actually had a booth on the convention center’s show floor, most companies preferred hotel suites. This harkens back to the days when people actually came to Comdex to see what’s hot at the booths, nowadays, most of the show’s best products are somewhere offsite.
The big announcement at the show was the MultiSync 2080UX+. (Unfortunately, the unit pictured is its predecessor, the 2080UX, Plus models weren’t available for display at the show.) This 20” LCD boasts a 16ms response time at full color, a 400:1 contrast ratio, a brightness rate of 250 cd/m2, and an ultra fine pixel pitch of 255mm. But these impressive stats come at a high cost: $1499, with a $200 mail-in rebate dropping the price to $1299.
For those of you who don’t have $1300 to fork over, but want a jaw-dropping display for gaming, NEC-Mitsubishi’s 2070SB may fit the bill. This 22” CRT aperture grille monitor sports a 0.24mm dot pitch, and supports resolutions up to 2048x1536 at 86 hertz. The “SB” stands for Super Bright, which can increase the intensity of the display to brightness levels as high as an LCD without damaging the monitor’s guns or significantly drawing more power. Two SB modes are available: Picture, and Movie. The various modes can be toggled quickly and easily thanks to the “SB Mode” button on the front of the monitor.
And now for the really good news. The MSRP on this display? $599! The lowest online price I could find for this monitor was $620, so perhaps the new prices won’t go into effect until the end of this year.
With the launch of the GeForce FX Go5700, NVIDIA’s booth was filled with laptop setups that utilize GeForce Go technology. Like its desktop counterpart, GeForce FX 5700, the Go 5700 offers a substantial performance improvement over the 5600. You can see some of our results with ShaderMark and Tomb Raider in our eVGA e-GeForce FX 5700 Ultra review.
GeForce FX Go5700 is pin-compatible with GeForce FX Go5600, so it’s a drop-in replacement for manufacturers. As a result, NVIDIA expects the first laptops to ship early next year. Alienware in particular is expected to have a system ready by the end of January. We played a little UT 2004 on a GeForce FX Go5700 system and noted that performance was very responsive, even at 1280x1024 resolution. Clock speeds top out at 450MHz core/300MHz memory, although it will vary its clock speed depending on usage. NVIDIA has also improved its Smart Dimmer technology, which can be customized on a per application basis; this makes it great for DVD playback.
SIDEBAR: NVIDIA’s suite was at Mandalay Bay this year. Fortunately they were offering limos out there, as the action was on the other side of the strip.
Samsung’s big announcement was the 172X, a 17” LCD boasting a 12ms response time, potentially making it the ultimate gaming LCD display. The 172X also offers a very high 270cd/m2 brightness rate, 500:1 contrast ratio, and .264mm pixel pitch. Maximum resolution is 1280x1024.
For controlling the 172X, Samsung offers its MagicTune software and a new hands-free interface. All screen adjustments, applications, and utilities can be made without touching the LCD’s controls (which are still present). Individual settings and preferences can be saved to the end user’s hard drive, so you can personalize the display settings for each person who uses the PC.
The 172X will begin shipping in the late December/early January time frame and will be priced at $649, although the press release mentions a street price of $599.
In other LCD news, Samsung also announced its 193P, although this 19” monitor doesn’t boast the fast response times needing for gaming and at $900 is a bit more expensive than the 172X.
Finally, Samsung announced three new lines of TFT-TV displays that will encompass their MP monitor line. The 19” SyncMaster 192MP is the flagship, while the 17” SyncMaster 710MP represents the mid-range. Finally, the 15” SyncMaster 510MP is Samsung’s value offering.
These multifunction LCD monitors have integrated TV tuners, making them ideal for those of you in dorms or small apartments who have a limited amount of space. The 192MP can act as an LCD monitor with an analog or digital interface and is HDTV ready. All three models have S-Video and component inputs (with composite only on the 192MP) for attaching the display to a DVD player or VCR and all come with remote control units.
The 510MP and 710MP are currently shipping with list prices of $499 and $699. The 192MP will begin shipping this month and is priced at $899.
ViewSonic had a wide range of displays, projectors, Tablet PCs, and Media Center PCs, but I’ll be honest and admit that I dropped the ball and didn’t get good photos of any of them. Of the LCDs on display, the only flat panel with specs a gamer or hardware enthusiast would appreciate is the VG710, which is offered in silver or black. It’s a 17” monitor with a 450:1 contrast ratio, brightness rate of 250cd/m2, and a 16ms response time. It’s shipping this month with an estimated street price of $529.
Due to a scheduling snafu, I wasn’t able to drop by Shuttle’s suite during the show, but I did get the full rundown from Shuttle’s Cameron Rogers later that day. Shuttle had its XPCs on display front and center. In particular were their SN85G4 for the Athlon 64 platform and the RADEON 9100 IGP-based ST61G4 and ST26K. These are the same small form factor boxes we reported on in Part 2 of our Computex 2003 show report, so head on over there (or Shuttle’s website) for pictures.
3D without the goggles
Back in October Sharp announced its 3D notebook, the Sharp Actius RD3D, the world’s first 3D notebook. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to think about the technology, it certainly sounded cool, but after seeing countless 3D products fail I was skeptical but highly curious. When Sharp contacted me asking if I would be interested in meeting, I was definitely interested.
Therefore, when I sat behind the controls of Sharp’s own Actius RD3D notebook, I was pretty surprised when the images jumped out of the screen, they’d accomplished real 3D!
If you refer back to Sharp’s original PR, the end of the press release mentions “when centered in front of the display, each eye receives the correct visual information for the brain to process” with the emphasis being that you must be in the sweet spot for your eyes to process the “3D” image properly. Tilting your head by just a few inches can take you out of that sweet spot, this is something Sharp is currently working on for the consumer version of the Actius RD3D, which will go by the designation RD3D-R. The current Actius RD3D is intended for CAD and medical imaging applications.
This technology has already taken off in Japan, where over 1.5 million 3D cellphones have been sold. Because you can control the environment on a laptop, Sharp first introduced this technology into notebooks, but next year they plan to unveil standalone 3D monitor displays in addition to the RD3D-R. Besides Sharp, other key partners include Sanyo and Sony.
Sharp had a go-kart racing game in their suite (I can’t remember the game’s name) as well as a few other applications. It was actually a much better technology demonstrator than the programs NVIDIA were running in their suite, although the high frame rates made it easier to lose focus. Twitch games such as Quake 1 and to a lesser extent, Quake 3 would probably be more difficult to get used too, while a flight simulator would be a natural fit for this technology.
Sharp and NVIDIA are working closely to convert titles to 3D. Already they have notable titles such as Quake 2, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3, and James Bond 007: Nightfire, ported, with the Need for Speed and Tiger Woods Golf franchises signed up. They’re actively working on adding more titles to that list, and eventually end users will be able to rate the quality of the conversions at www.sharp3d.com, so you can avoid the titles that aren’t converted well. Other consumer applications include photography (Sharp has developed its own photo viewing software, Smart Stereo Photo Editor) and of course, movies.
You can control the level of immersion via the driver control panel, so if you really want the images to pop out of the screen they can. You can also toggle between 2D and 3D at the touch of a button.
The Actius RD3D ships with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of DDR SDRAM, a 15” XGA monitor, 60GB hard drive, DVD/-R/-RW/RAM &CD-R/RW drive, 10/100 Ethernet, and 56K modem. The system weighs 10.2 pounds and retails for $2,999.
SIDEBAR: You can read up on the 3D display technology Sharp is using here.
Sapphire rounds out the list of companies I met with at Comdex 2003. I actually met with them right after my ATI meeting on Monday. First, Sapphire wanted to discuss its new packaging strategy: light retail versus retail.
The light retail cards are those you traditionally see online as “bulk” or “OEM white box” units. Sapphire wanted to dress up the white box so to speak, but at the same time minimize shipping costs by going with a very diminutive box. Normally, the light retail cards won’t ship with any software, but since the ATI/Valve deal is based on a per chip basis, even Sapphire’s light retail cards will come with a redeemable voucher for Half-Life 2.
The hope is that Sapphire will be able to pass on the reduced shipping costs to the consumer without confusion. Full retail cards will cost about 5-8% more than light retail.
Sapphire launched four new ULTIMATE cards at the show. Two of the cards are based on ATI’s latest ALL-IN-WONDERs, the AIW 9800 PRO and AIW 9600 PRO. But since ATI has exclusive distribution rights to the ALL-IN-WONDER line in North America, those of us in the USA and Canada will never see them. The other two cards are the RADEON 9800 XT ULTIMATE Edition and the RADEON 9600 XT ULTIMATE. Of course, by now you should know that the ULTIMATE Editions fuse a Sapphire graphics card with a silent heat pipe cooling solution from Zalman, making them ideal for those of you looking to build the quietest PC possible.
As a precaution, Sapphire bundles an external Zalman 1500RPM fan with the RADEON 9800 XT ULTIMATE. Sapphire included the fan because they found that the 9800 XT ULTIMATE’s temperatures were a little higher than what they wanted. Fortunately the fan is quiet (Sapphire claims sub-20 decibels) and thanks to thumbscrews, doesn’t require any tools for installation.
Besides the new cooler, the ULTIMATE boards ship with a copy of Tomb Raider, and typically go for about $50 more than a standard Sapphire ATLANTIS board.
For those of you who don’t have a lot of money to spend, but want a RADEON 9600 XT with a little more juice, Sapphire will offer the 9600 XT Fireblade edition. This board will ship with 650MHz DDR SDRAM modules.
At the top of the heap, Sapphire is working with Koolance on a RADEON 9800 XT card with water-cooling. We were given a sneak peek of this exciting card at the show:
We weren’t given any specific clock speeds, prices, or dates on when this card will be available, or even if it will be released. Sapphire merely showed it to us because they know how much we like drooling over cool hardware. If Sapphire does announce something, we’ll be sure to let you know.
Sapphire also had two new RADEON 9100 IGP boards that aren’t listed on their website on display at Comdex 2003, the ATX AA29, and the micro-ATX AA39. Sapphire will be adding controllers from Realtek, VIA, and Silicon Image for audio, FireWire, networking, and Serial ATA. With ATI’s IXP 150 used for the South Bridge rather than IXP 200 because the Realtek LAN is cheaper than the IXP 200’s 3Com. Sapphire expects the AA29 to sell for $85, while the AA39 should hover around $70-$75. If Sapphire is able to deliver at that price point, they could be a very viable solution for the value market.
SIDEBAR: Sapphire sold over 400,000 units last month (excluding OEM deals).
That’s a wrap
Without a doubt, Comdex 2003 was the most unspectacular Comdex I’ve ever been to. I was honestly expecting that the show would rebound this year now that it had new ownership and the economy has been turning around. In addition, I was getting e-mails and calls left and right as early as September asking me to schedule a meeting.
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