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CTS 2005: An outsider's take, Pt1

by Bob Crabtree on 13 April 2005, 00:00

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Covering a big show the size of the recent CeBIT extravaganza is a logistical nightmare. But, in one regard, it’s easy – there’s always a shed-load of new products to write about.

The opposite is the case with smaller, local events such as this week’s Computer Trade Show (CTS) at Birmingham’s NEC. A small team, even on crutches, could get around the show in a day – or two if determined to miss nothing - but few if any products make world debuts, even if plenty do get their first UK outings.

On the plus, side, the hack with web-site inches to fill has to look harder (doubly so one with little expertise in the subtleties of general computer retailing), and that can mean keeping an eye open for things that might get passed over at a bigger show – whether useful, interesting or both. Plus, there’s the chance to take in some of the hot stuff you didn’t manage to see at the biggie.

Makers of LCD monitors and laptop PCs issue scary warnings about not using this or that product to clean their screens – leaving me fretting about how to get finger-marks and dust off my pride and joy (stop sniggering at the back!).

So, it’s good to see that Falcon Safety Products is bringing into the UK its “Safe For Laptops” Monitor Wipes range. The made-in-the-USA line-up, sold under the company’s Dust Off brand, includes single-use wipes in individual sachets that can be tucked away ready for action in a laptop’s carry case.

There are also big pull-and-rip tubs to leave at home and designed so that the next wipe out doesn’t dry out by the time it’s needed. Not sexy, but mighty welcome to a worrier who’s not a road warrior.

Sexy, though, does describe the appearance of the TNN Fanless System cases from Zalman, best known for its low-noise and fanless CPU coolers. These big, black, passively-cooled cases have no fans at all – not even in their power-supplies – suiting them for use in digital audio and video workstations, home-theatre and multimedia set-ups and home offices. In fact, anywhere where noise would be an issue important enough to warrant spending £400 upwards to keep it at bay.

A large, flat PSU is mounted inside the case’s hinged side panel, which has a passive radiator on its outside. A companion radiator on the other side of the case dissipates heat from the processor and graphics card - delivered there by dedicated heat-pipes. Passive, of course.

And, no fans – not in the PSU, on the CPU or graphics card or for venting the case itself - means fewer moving parts to go wrong, hence Zalman’s claim that its TNN cases promise stable and dead silent running.

Motherboard, CPU and graphics card need to be carefully chosen but there’s a list of compatible/recommended models on the company’s site. Likewise hard disk drives, and the company offers HDD enclosures designed to lessen the noise and using passive cooling to prevent overheating.

Zalman distributor offers less expensive and less radical solutions, too, including noise-deadening case kits, ultra-quiet PSUs and case fans – there’s a new series of last-longer/stay-quiet sealed models. The long list takes in water-cooled solutions and a wide range of other beat-the-noise goodies, among them HDD enclosures, replacements for the fans on graphics cards and motherboards, self-adhesive anti-noise feet and a whole lot more.

Antec was another company at the show loudly singing the anti-noise tune. Among its latest offerings is a MkII Sonata case, set to be ranged alongside the big-selling original and sharing the same distinctive high-gloss black piano finish.

The Sonata II better accommodates the latest CPUs and graphics cards by using ducting and an updated and beefier (450W rather than 380W) low-noise SmartPower PSU. The Prescott-ready case has an improved front as well, with a bigger air intake. As before there’s one low-noise 120mm fan at the rear (with an option for another at the front), plus nice touches such as a washable air filter and the use of noise-deadening rubber grommets on the four internal 3.5in drive-bays trays.

PCI Case’s striking-looking Prescott-ready Nitro AX Super Cooling tower case is going to cause a stir wherever it’s shown. But at CTS, the company was also displaying a new, petite BTX-compatible companion, the Nitro M-BTX. This shares the AX’s innovative easy-build/easy-upgrade design, including the swing-open/slide-away front cover.

Many of the cases on display at CTS were small form-factor jobs intended to bring the PC into the living room alongside (or instead of) the AV system. Video-editing specialist Pinnacle (currently the subject of a take-over by Avid) was taking a different tack – demm’ing its second-generation network media player, the ShowCenter 200.

This £200 box connects to a TV set or AV system in the living room. Built-in 54G wireless networking or traditional 100Base-T Ethernet allow you to hunker down on the sofa and watch and listen to all the good stuff stored on PCs elsewhere in the house – digital stills, video and music, as well as internet radio. And video, in this case, is said to include HDV at 720p and 480i standards.

Pinnacle was keeping its options open, though, by showing its new USB 2.0 external digital terrestrial TV (DVB-T) tuner solution, the £80 PCTV200e. It’s powered by the USB port and has a built-in aerial using active-antenna technology from Hirschmann. This is said to amplify the signal and filter out spurious noise, to give better reception than products using passive technology.

Other claimed features of the PCTV200e include “advanced personal video recording features” such as time-shifting and one-touch and programmable recording of TV and radio.

Seemingly going one better, AverMedia reckoned that it’s comparable DVB-T showing, the A800, is the highest-quality TV tuner on the market, being the first to offer support for 1080i HD TV.

Trouble is, though HDV shooting and editing have become interesting possibilities with the launch of Sony’s FX1 and Z1 camcorders (and the expected arrival of competitors from Panasonic and JVC), HD broadcasting is still at the babe-in-arms stage in Europe. So, too, is market penetration (and availability) of TV sets compatible with HD. That puts something of a dampener on the appeal of HD-compatible tuners and HDV, too, of course.

Watch out for more CTS news later in the day - and, likely, on Thursday, too.