MS at CES: Laptops that look like purses, tabletop computing, Zune media players

By Chad Sapieha, Special to CBCNews.ca

LAS VEGAS - Strolling into Microsoft's enormous exhibit at the Consumer Electronics Show is always a little disconcerting, mostly because much of what's on display isn't Microsoft's stuff, but rather that of its partners.

The "Spotlight" area, for example, was simply a showcase for the chic-est computers around, like, say, the Ego Signature, which looks like a crocodile skin purse complete with strap.

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Or the Haier Notebook VM, a laptop with a screen that pops up on a stem, creating the illusion that the display is leaning forward and looking at the user.

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Microsoft's partners dominated the video games area as well, with software like Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, a graphically lavish online role-playing game being released in a few months for Windows PCs, but designed and published by non-Microsoft companies (Funcom and Eidos).

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The idea, of course, is to show people how industry partners are using Microsoft's products. In the case of the sexy notebooks, they all run Windows Vista, and in the case of PC games, they're all running on Microsoft's Games for Windows platform and employing Microsoft technologies like DirectX 10, a suite of multimedia tools used in games.

Still, I usually leave feeling like I don't really know what Microsoft itself was trying to sell me. This year was a little different, though, in that there were actually two pieces of Microsoft-made hardware making a stir.

The first was Surface, Microsoft's ballyhooed tabletop computing solution that has people manipulating virtual objects by using their fingers to slide the images around on a coffee-table sized screen. I had a chance to try it myself, and it is an undeniably fun and futuristic piece of technology.

That said, its practical applications for Surface within the home seem limited at best. Indeed, Microsoft stated that its initial launch will be commercial only, in retail stores, restaurants, and hotels. Plus, installation of this complex piece of gear in the home would surely give rise to logistical problems, and its current $5,000 to $10,000 price tag is far from accessible for the average consumer.

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The other distinctly Microsoft piece of hardware was, of course, the Zune multimedia player. Not much new to tell you about here, save the fact that Microsoft announced on Sunday that it will be coming to Canada (the first non-U.S. market for the device) in the spring, with Zune Marketplace to follow shortly thereafter.

(The author is a Toronto-based freelance writer)