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CES 2006

What's shown in Vegas...

LAS VEGAS HAS CHANGED its tune over the last few years. Back during the tail end of the Comdex era, the city seemed intent on cleaning up its image and becoming a tourist attraction for families. The more conservative image matched Comdex's buttoned-down tendencies, but neither would last. Comdex has long since faded into memory, and Vegas's family-friendly marketing has been replaced with "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." PC hardware manufacturers orphaned by Comdex's demise have migrated to the city's Consumer Electronics Show, trading Comdex's conservative business approach for CES's sexy mix of consumer electronics products and gargantuan flat panel TVs.

This year's CES was bigger than ever, and although the show is still dominated by flat screens and MP3 players, just about every major PC hardware manufacturer had it wares on display. Some used the show to launch new products, while others gauged reactions to wild prototypes. Join us as we recap the show and give you the scoop on what Intel, NVIDIA, Asus, Shuttle, and many more had to offer.

The overwhelming theme of last year's CES was Windows Media Center-based home entertainment PCs. Little black set-top boxes where everywhere, sitting on the corners in every booth, pictured on giant banners above the show floor, falling out of casino slot machines. From what I can tell, approximately three people bought them in the year since, as PC-to-TV convergence moved along at its usual glacial pace. Perhaps things will accelerate in 2006 with Intel's help. This year, the black set-top boxes were again ubiquitous at CES, but they all carried little Intel Viiv stickers up front.

Viiv is Intel's "digital home" brand, a computing "platform" intended to do for media center-style PCs what Centrino has done for laptops. Viiv-branded PCs must contain several elements, including an Intel dual-core processor, a 945-series chipset or better, an Intel Ethernet networking solution, and an Intel software stack. The element of the Viiv brand that's not really familiar from Centrino is the software stack, and it's a bit of a puzzle, since Viiv PCs will get their interface and functionality from Windows XP Media Center Edition, currently the only Viiv-compliant operating system. Turns out that the software stack serves a couple of purposes. First, Intel's software includes heavily optimized codecs that should accelerate recording, playback, and conversions of audio and video to different types of compressed formats. Second, Viiv-branded PCs will apparently be capable of identifying themselves to various content providers like EPSN, who will be providing exclusive content to owners of Viiv-branded systems. The software stack may also help enforce digital rights management schemes at the hardware level, but Intel plays a careful game when stepping through the DRM minefield. They say that DRM restrictions will not be added to content that does not come with such restrictions; Viiv PCs will only enforce DRM rules for content that originally carries restrictions.

That's the deal with Viiv, as far as we can tell. We're not 100% sure yet, but we believe it may be possible to build a Viiv-compliant PC at home using the right elements. Intel makes the Viiv software stack available on its website, but says it is "is only intended to be used by OEMs/system integrators or trained support personnel."

I'm trained. Honest!

The chips of the Centrino "Napa" platform

Intel's other big news at CES was the launch of the new Centrino platform, dubbed Napa, and the accompanying introduction of its Core Duo processor, the CPU formerly known as Yonah. Yonah-based laptops dotted the show floor, and we saw a surprising number of very small systems—sub-four-pound jobs with 12" and 13.3" wide screens—based on this new dual-core processor. Obviously, the Core Duo can be shoehorned into some very tight spaces without causing thermal problems or the initial wave of Core Duo laptops would have come in larger form factors. Core Duo processors can also power Viiv systems, and they should make for very good, quiet citizens in the living room with their relatively low heat production. We are working to get our hands on a Core Duo processor for testing, of course, and hope to grab one soon.

A four-pound-ish Napa laptop from Asus

...and another from MSI

The Earth stopped spinning briefly when this number showed up in the Intel booth.

Dell's XPC 600 Renegade

It's Dell's Revolution XPS 600 Renegade gaming PC. This thing comes from the factory with a Pentium 955 Extreme Edition overclocked from 3.46GHz to 4.26GHz. In fact, it was running overclocked right there on Intel real estate at the show:

Yep, it's at 4.26GHz all right

This show unit had "only" two GeForce 7800 GTX 512 graphics cards in SLI, but the version in the NVIDIA booth had the total package with quad SLI. As in four. We'll talk about that shortly.

Dell's new 30-inch panel will make you drool

Before we move on, though, we should mention that the Renegade was hooked up to one of Dell's insanely gorgeous 30" wide-screen LCDs Thirty inches from corner to corner in a wide-aspect display is.. lots, judging by the look of the thing. The native res is 2560x1600, and the response time is 11ms. They're over two grand right now, so it's time to drain the kids' college funds. Whatever it takes.