BY ARTHUR LEYENBERGER
i just returned from the Spring COMDEX in Chicago. I won't provide a detailed show report because that task is being ably handled elsewhere in this issue by Frank Cohen. But I do want to share a few thoughts on what is considered to be the pre-eminent computer show.
First, the initials COMDEX refer to COMputer Dealers Exposition. The show is held twice a year, in Atlanta in the spring and in Las Vegas in the fall. This year, the Atlanta convention hall was being remodeled so the show was temporarily moved to the McCormick Center in Chicago, where the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is held every June.
The contrasts couldn't be greater. Whereas CES draws about 100,000 people, COMDEX attendance was estimated to be roughly 60,000 (by the promoters) but it seemed like less. In addition, CES is usually an exciting event, with large and small manufacturers rubbing elbows with large and small distributors, who rub shoulders with large and small retailers, etc.
The rubbing takes place both at the show and at parties, press conferences and the like. You would think with all of that rubbing going on, the static electricity would blow out half the electronics products being exhibited. But it doesn't.
Electricity was the element that was lacking at COMDEX. It has become a place where three-piece-suit manufacturer types show off me-too type products to an uninspired audience. There were a couple of hot products, but, overall, aisles and aisles of PC clones have a tendency to put me to sleep.
The most excitement, aside from a couple of new Atari products, came from the fiasco of having a show within a show. You see, MACdex (get it, Macintosh Dealers Exposition) was supposed to be a hot item within the show, but a dozen or so booths does not a show make. Even Apple stayed away, apparently having better things to do with their time and money. There were more MAC products being demonstrated throughout the main show than at the MACDex exhibit.
The MACdex non-event only goes to show that the Interface Group (COMDEX's organizers) is thinking greed. They charged an extra $10 for the privilege of visiting MACdex, but the extra fee was dropped after the first day due to lack of interest. A dull COMDEX just proves that the industry is maturing, I guess, which is a good sign.
Atari is back
Speaking of good signs, Atari had a rather large booth located at the front of north hall. Ironically, IBM (heh-heh) had a (dare I even call it a booth) palace about five times the size right behind Atari. As usual, Atari fell under the shadow of the corporate standard-bearer.
Anyway, Atari had two products under glass (actually Plexiglas). One was Stacy, the ST laptop, and the other was a handheld PC called Portfolio. According to Atari, both of these products will start shipping (in the U.S.) in June.
Stacy, which has apparently now been renamed the Transportable, was seen last November at the Fall COMDEX. However, it appeared then in two incarnations: a foam mockup of the final design and an extra-large working prototype with circuit boards, handmade interface cables and a separate LCD screen.
The working display model, a pre-production unit, was handsome with a sort of European-flavor design. Specs showed that it weighs 15.2 pounds, has a 640-by 400-pixel supertwist LCD screen (probably with backlighting), all of the ports of a regular ST or Mega ST, one megabyte of memory and a single 3½-inch floppy-disk drive (double sided). Battery powered, the Transportable can also accept another disk drive or hard disk.
Atari was kind enough to let me "play" with it for a couple of minutes. The keyboard was surprisingly good, similar to that on a Mega ST. Also, the built-in trakball seemed odd at first but I'm sure I could get used to it. There is a mouse port so you could use a normal ST mouse if you were unable to adapt to the trakball. All in all, the $1,500 Atari Transportable was quite impressive. Let's hope Atari can bring it out this summer and it is successful.
The other major hit both at the Atari booth and at COMDEX in general was the hand-held MS-DOS computer. Called the Portfolio, this under-$400 computer contains DOS 2.11 in ROM, 128K of RAM (expandable to 640K), an 8-line by 40-character display and a 63-key QWERTY keyboard. Since the Portfolio uses an 80C88 processor, it is really an IBM clone.
The unit is about the size of a videotape and weighs under a pound. Two standard AA batteries power the Portfolio for up to 48 hours of continuous use. It can also accept either ROM cards for software or RAM cards for data storage. In addition, an interface jack is provided for exchanging data directly with a PC.
A text-editing program and an address/phone list ROM card are provided with the Portfolio. Not only does this product look good, but it appears to be functional as well. I was able to use the Portfolio for about three minutes (it was closely guarded during the entire show) and came away delighted at its design and overall feel. Although I doubt if I could type an entire article using the diminutive keyboard, it had a good feel and with practice could be used for short notes or memos.
Nineteen-eighty-nine could well be the year of Atari in the United States. After years of neglect, the American market will see more availability of STs, which means Atari has a reason to start advertising again. Advertising means more sales and that means more ST software. Although some major software players have left the Atari market for greener pastures, there is a good number of excellent ST programs currently available. More machines in the U.S. market can only help that situation.
More importantly, Atari's new Transportable and Portfolio signify Atari's potential at leading the industry with innovative products. The laptop is inexpensive (as laptops go) and should appeal to many people, including the burgeoning musician market. The Portfolio has the promise of appealing to everybody, especially the huge installed base of PC users.
For the last year or so, Atari has claimed that 1989 will see their re-emergence in the American market. Products like these will definitely help and make it exciting once again to be an ST user. I congratulate Atari on their return to these shores and wish them the best of luck. I know we all do.
The Hewlett-Packard Deskjet Printer has been available for just over a year and is a remarkable product. It offers the power of a laser printer at the price of a high-end dot-matrix printer. It uses inkjet technology that Hewlett-Packard pioneered a few years ago with their Thinkjet printer.
The Deskjet is a much more improved product than its predecessor, which required specially coated paper, was slow and had output that wasn't as good as the best of the then currently available dot-matrix printers. Using liquid ink much like a printing press, the Deskjet sprays the ink onto the paper through a grid of tiny holes in a horizontally moving printer head while the paper moves past it.
Unlike conventional dot-matrix impact printers, only one pass of the print head is necessary per line. Darker or bold characters are created by spraying more ink onto the page. Light characters and fine lines are made with less ink.
The Deskjet can support up to 300 dpi (dots per inch) text and graphics output just like a good laser printer. In fact, the output is virtually indistinguishable from laser-printed output. With text, the printer will print either in draft or letter-quality modes at a speed of 120 and 240 characters per second, respectively. Graphics output is, of course, much slower.
Although the Deskjet has received more than its share of major accolades, there are still a few areas for improvement. First, the replaceable ink cartridges don't seem to last as long as HP claims they will. HP's claim that "your mileage may differ depending upon how you drive" is true; printing a lot of graphics and bold text will deplete the ink supply more quickly. Still, even normal text consumes more ink than you would normally expect.
Another problem is the ink itself. Because the ink requires several seconds to dry, the paper-handling mechanism does not drop one printed page on top of another. Instead, as each new page is printed, the previous page is lowered onto the stack of output and the new one is held separately.
A more serious problem involves chemistry. Once the ink has dried on the page, moisture will smear it. I get nervous using the Deskjet to print mailing labels for this very reason. If the Postal Service is true to their word about delivering mail in inclement weather (Neither rain, nor snow. . .), letters addressed with the Deskjet may never arrive.
Like everything else, you get what you pay for. The Deskjet print quality is laser-class, its speed is not. This is due to the differences in printing technology between the two printers. Since the Deskjet prints in real-time, each and every page requires the same amount of time and is limited to some extent to the speed that the computer can process the output. A laser printer buffers the output in its own memory so that multiple copies can be printed as fast as the mechanical mechanism will allow.
Aside from the differences between a laser and Deskjet printers, the Deskjet speed is respectable but not blazingly fast for this price of printer. The problem stems from the mechanical mechanism of the printer. A lot activity has to happen before the print head even starts to print a page.
To understand this better, you need to know that rated printer speeds are measured simply by how fast a line of text can be printed. Throughput is rarely mentioned by printer manufacturers because it must take into account paper handling, mechanical movement of the print head and the like. As a result the Deskjet is a much slower printer than the specifications indicate.
Hewlett-Packard has addressed some but not all of these problems with the introduction of the Deskjet Plus. The new version of the printer has all of the features of the Deskjet with the addition of a few more. Printing speed is still rated the same (120 and 240 characters per second for laser and draft quality printing) but throughput is said to be two to five times faster. This increase is due to a faster microprocessor, paper pick-up mechanism and motor, which moves the paper through the printer in half the time of the original.
You also get more fonts for your money. The Deskjet Plus now contains six portrait and four landscape fonts built-in. Landscape printing is now possible without the optional font cartridge. Larger fonts are also included, the largest being 30 points. The Deskjet Plus is now also capable of printing on legal size paper.
The Deskjet Plus has a list price of $995. The original Deskjet has been reduced in price to $795. Hewlett-Packard also reduced the prices by 30% on font cartridges and memory modules (for downloaded fonts) for the printer. Both the original Deskjet and the new Deskjet Plus should be given careful consideration if you are in the market for a new printer.
Arthur Leyenberger is a computer analyst and freelance writer living in beautiful New Jersey. He can be reached on CompuServe at 71266,46 or on DELPHI as ARTL.