In the 1970s, Japanese consumer-electronics manufacturers launched a full-scale invasion of the American market. By the middle of the 1980s, their dominance of the world market was nearly complete. Could the same thing happen with personal computers?
Not likely. For one thing, domestic computer makers, such as Compaq Computer and IBM, are acutely sensitive to the threat and are not about to let anyone walk off with their lunch, as television manufacturers did. But the latest salvo from Japan, led by Toshiba and Sony, with Hitachi and Fujitsu following close behind, seems likely to alter computers as we know them. Innovations from companies with home-electronics pedigrees are likely to force every company to come up with home computers that are simpler, more versatile, and more appliance-like.
The new Toshiba Infinia desktops represent the leading edge of the new Japanese invasion. Toshiba (800 334-3445) has extensive experience in both consumer electronics and laptops, and the Infinia clearly is a computer whose mother was a laptop and whose father was a television set.
Two features--besides its sleek black design--set the Infinia apart. The InTouch multimedia control panel, which attaches to the monitor, includes a big round knob that lets you control speaker volume without clicking on icons or moving on-screen sliders. On both the control panel and the minitower case, you'll find little silver buttons engraved with a moon. Laptop users will recognize these as "sleep" buttons. Press one, and the computer and monitor shut down. Press it again and the system instantly springs to life without rebooting.
A little thing like the sleep button yields a surprising gain in usability. Most folks don't want to leave their computers on all the time; on the other hand, they get irritated by having to wait several minutes for them to boot up. Windows 95 makes the sleep mode possible, but manufacturers are just now starting to take advantage of it.
In performance and basic specifications, the Infinias are typical high-end Windows machines. Model 7130 comes with a 133 megahertz Pentium, 16 megabytes of RAM, and a 1.5 gigabyte hard drive, for $1,699. The top-of-the-line 7200, which I tested, features a 200 Mhz Pentium, 32 MB of RAM, and a 3-gigabyte disk, for $2,799. Although the matching monitors are priced separately, most buyers will probably want them--$449 for a 15-inch model, $749 for the 17-incher, both with speakers and microphone. By comparison, a similarly equipped Gateway 2000 200-Mhz family PC goes for around $3,000 with a 17-inch monitor.
While they carry premium prices, the Infinias offer some special features that push them over the line between computers and home-entertainment gear. A TV/FM radio card, standard on the 7200 and a $199 option on the 7100 models, lets you watch television or listen to the radio while you work. A TV card is hardly a new idea--Apple Computer has offered them for some time--but the integration into the system and ease of use sets the Toshiba apart.
Unlike the tinny speakers that are built into many monitors, the speaker-subwoofer combination in the 17-inch Toshiba gives full-throated stereo. The SRS sound system from Midisoft delivers an astonishing illusion of depth and great stereo separation from speakers that are only about 18 inches apart. And the deluxe version of the InTouch panel, which is standard on the 7200 and a $169 option on other models, lets you control the CD player and built-in answering machine while using your computer for other things. These functions are duplicated on a handheld remote.
THE ENTERTAINER. The control panel is interesting in itself. It is the first device to use the new Universal Serial Bus, a simple, standardized way to connect gizmos to a computer. By next year, a broad range of accessories--from keyboards and printers to mice and joysticks--will come in USB models that can be daisy-chained together and plugged into a common port on your computer (BW--Apr. 22)
One big advantage of USB is that it will free up scarce computing resources now claimed by peripherals. But the industry hasn't yet come up with these USB-oriented accessories, leaving the Infinia severely resource-starved. Despite trying every trick I knew, I was unable to get a network card to work in it without disabling some other feature.
Not many people will buy Infinias with networks in mind. This is a machine that has a yen to entertain as well as work, and it will be a whole lot more at home in the family room than in the office.