Last week, I discussed some of the Microsoft-oriented technology I saw at COMDEX 2003, a vastly smaller, but still relevant, trade show compared with previous years. One of the things I liked about COMDEX this year was that the show reoriented itself around IT and business computing, dropping all the unrelated muckety-muck that had clogged past shows with acres of uninspiring and uninteresting booths and exhibits. This year, COMDEX was all about business. So this week, I'd like to discuss some of the non-Microsoft technologies at the show, then present November's Laptop of the Month, the utilitarian IBM ThinkPad R50.

COMDEX 2003: The Non-Microsoft Partisan Perspective
Microsoft's presence at COMDEX was hard to overlook, of course. Its massive booth, set just inside the main Las Vegas Convention Center entryway, dominated the floor--even more so than in other years, given the small size of the show floor and the small number of show attendees. So what happens when you peer past the curtains and past the shiny Microsoft veneer of COMDEX? Quite a bit, actually.

Big Screens, Small Prices
We're still at least a year away from budget-priced high-dpi LCD displays, but several vendors, including ViewSonic and HP, showed off a wide range of powerful new LCD displays, many of which feature productivity-enhancing wide-screen displays. Anyone who spends a lot of time in Microsoft Excel, Adobe Systems' Adobe Photoshop, or any other pixel-heavy application will appreciate wide-screen displays, and some designs--such as those by HP--even offer a rotation capability so that you can view documents in portrait mode. One has to wonder how long before we see a wide-screen Tablet PC--one with a screen that duplicates the size and shape of an 8.5" x 11" piece of paper.

Voice Over IP
IP-based telephony solutions, such as Bluetooth and the paperless office, have been longtime promises that never seem to pan out. But at COMDEX 2003, it became clear that Voice over IP (VoIP) is happening, thanks to the large number of vendors supporting the technology and, hopefully some legislation that will make it more cost-effective. Part of the problem implementing VoIP today is simple infrastructure: We just don't have the tools, bandwidth, and underlying services structure in place to support reliable, wide-scale VoIP rollouts. But that situation is changing, and with the development of VoIP killer applications--applications that combine voice and data--VoIP is poised to revolutionize the communications industry. So will VoIP ever truly replace standard phone-based communications? Sure. The question is when.

Linux
The alternative OS Linux was well represented at COMDEX, with 3 days of conference tracks and the Open Source and Linux Innovation Center. Companies such as O'Reilly & Associates, MySQL, OpenOffice.org, and even the Mozilla Foundation were present, although I didn't see any Linux-specific companies this year, which is curious. The Linux faithful also had ApacheCon 2003, an extremely small sister show held simultaneously to COMDEX 2003 at the Alexis Park Hotel. I didn't have a chance to attend, but I'm told it was an interesting few days of lectures and keynote addresses.

Laptop of the Month: IBM ThinkPad R50
Most tech-savvy people are familiar with IBM's award-winning ThinkPad product line, and more than a few have likely lusted after the company's powerful, thin (but expensive) T series, the flagship of the ThinkPad product line. The ThinkPad T series has been a huge success for IBM and has influenced the design of some of its other products, including the mainstream R series, a member of which I'm reviewing this month. The IBM ThinkPad R50 owes a lot to its more expensive brethren, including compatibility with the T series' rear-mounted batteries, thin 9.5mm optical drives, and port replicators. This compatibility makes it easier for corporate customers to interchange parts between different systems and makes the R series even more valuable. Best of all, the R series is dramatically more affordable than the T series.

IBM introduced the ThinkPad R50 in October; it includes a Pentium M processor (1.5GHz in the review unit), a 14" or 15" screen (the 14" model is 1024 x 768 XGA; the 15" model sports a denser 1400 x 1050 SXGA+ display), Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g wireless for maximum compatibility, and ATI graphics using an ATI Mobility 7500 or 9000 processor with 32MB of dedicated RAM, depending on the model.

Compared with the T series, the R series is a bit thicker and heavier, but it costs much less, starting at just $1300 and topping out in the $2200 range. That's a huge savings over equivalent T series notebooks, and given the T50's reasonable 5.5 pounds (6.4 pounds for the 15" version, I'm told), a more than acceptable compromise. The R series also gets great battery life--about 4.5 hours for the regular battery and almost 7 hours on the extended battery I tested (which was identical to the extended battery I tested earlier this year on the ThinkPad T40).

In daily use, the ThinkPad R50 has been a wonderful road companion, with enough juice to make it on battery power from Boston to the West Coast and enough power to handle the demanding multimedia applications I regularly use. My few complaints are small: I had some problems getting IBM's custom networking front end to work reliably with Wireless-G networks, although I could bypass it and use Windows XP's built-in facilities. And I had occasional glitches coming out of hibernation, forcing me to reboot to get online. Other than those minor complaints, the machine was flawless, with an instantly lovable IBM keyboard, dual-pointing devices, a handy keyboard light, and all the ports you could want.

In short, although the ThinkPad T series might be the machine that gets you "thinking" about buying an IBM, the R series is the model you should buy. As with a luxury car model, the expensive unit will get all the press but the practical R series deserves your attention.