Digital Discs Dominate Electronics Show

Posted: May 30, 1996

Digital video discs, web-browsing television sets, direct-broadcast satellite systems and a computer that doubles as a home automation control center vied for attention at the Consumer Electronics Show in Orlando, Fla., last weekend.

DVD HAS DEFINITE VIDEO DEMAND: The biggest crowds at CES hovered around the Toshiba, Thomson (RCA/GE/ProScan), Panasonic, Pioneer and Samsung booths, where manufacturers were showing off the advantages of DVD - a CD look-alike digital video disc with superb picture and sound quality and special features vastly improved over the VHS tapes we're accustomed to using for viewing movies.

Thomson's Joe Clayton called DVD ``the home run product'' that the consumer electronics industry ``desperately needs'' to restore profitability.

Pioneer showcased two DVD players that also handle 12-inch analog laser videodiscs, making it easier for laser fans to make the transition to the new technology, said Pioneer's Mike Fidler.

Suggesting that DVD will come in both ``better'' and ``best'' formats, Toshiba and Samsung showcased step-up DVD players which can feed cleaner RGB or component type video signals to high-end video projectors and computer monitor screens. (The disc players also have conventional video and S-video output jacks.)

Assuming the motion picture and computer industries can iron out their differences on copyright protection schemes for this new family of products, the first DVD players could be on dealers' shelves in September, priced at $500 and up.

Compaq Computers' vice president for emerging technologies Laurie Frick said her company hopes to offer at least one Presario PC with a super-density DVD-ROM drive by year's end.

(Both DVD and DVD-ROM systems play movies and will be backwards compatible - also playing conventional audio CDs and CD-ROMs, respectively.)

PC/TV NEWS: As the leading PC and TV manufacturers, Compaq and Thomson also made big news with their plans to jointly develop a new generation of computer-driven interactive home entertainment products. A prototype system showcased a 35-inch resolution color monitor on a storage pedestal base. Inside was a stack of multi-function, computer-controlled components that could juggle DVD, hard disc storage, Internet access, gaming and other options.

The two titans hope to develop a standard for interfacing such convergence products, so consumers will be able to mix and match components from a bunch of different makers, though at least one major competitor (Sony) seems inclined to go its own way.

Zenith introduced two integrated ``NetVision'' TVs with Internet browsing built in - a 27-inch model that will be available at year's end for $999, and a 35-inch model (price and availability to be announced) to be sold under Zenith's new high-end brand, Inteq. The sets use a unique technology developed by Silicon Valley software developer Diba, that sharpens up 'net text for display on a standard TV screen.

You'll access favorite sites with a trackball built into the TV's wireless remote control and an on-screen soft keyboard, or by plugging in a conventional PC style keyboard. While somewhat compatible with Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer web browsers, Diba's translations shuffle the graphics and text elements, ostensibly for easier viewing across the room.

Also debuting on the Inteq TV line: an advanced version of the Starsight on-screen program guide, adding news headlines, business reports, entertainment updates, sports scores and weather for an additional monthly fee. Look for the enhanced Starsight service at year's end.

Curtis Mathes, a regional TV brand which has recently fallen on hard times, came back from the missing with a $399 'net-browsing box that can be attached to any TV set. While light on memory, the UniView product has enough power to display the text elements of Web sites and allow you to communicate with E-mail.

SERVING UP SMALL DISHES: EchoStar, a new small dish direct-broadcast satellite competitor to the (3 million strong) DSS and Primestar systems, is now up and running and signing on 1,000 new subscribers a day, company executive Chris Keller claimed at the show. At the moment, this $699 list 18-inch dish system is available only from the TVRO (TV-receive only) satellite TV retailers which have long sold large dish (C-Band) EchoStar gear. But their ranks are about to swelled with East Coast merchants Nobody Beats the Wiz and Tops Appliance City. Girding up for this new competition, the most basic RCA branded DSS system may soon be available for as little as $349, half the price at which it was introduced two years ago, said a company source.

TURN ON THE HOT TUB: A large portion of the CES-Digital Destination show was devoted to home automation equipment - devices you can set up to close the curtains and dim the lights when you turn on a video projector, or call you from your mountain cabin when the heating system goes out. Adding new credibility to the field was the introduction of IBM's Home Director, a home automation option that will be available with the next generation of Aptiva PCs coming in August.

HD software takes advantage of the fact that Aptivas can be quickly awakened from a slumber mode by a phone call. IBM will sell the Home Director as a device for giving the home a lived-in look to improve security, and ``as a convenience product to simplify life,'' said IBM's John Kennedy.

Triggering inexpensive X-10 control modules which simply plug into AC outlets, the PC program can operate up to 256 devices in a home.

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