The attentions of the IT hardware industry were once again focused on Taipei this week as vendors unveiled their latest products and showed off advances in computing technology at the Computex exhibition.

Normally held in June, the annual trade show - one of the world's largest exhibitions of computing hardware - was postponed for three and a half months due to the outbreak of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) earlier this year.

AMD's 64bit Athlon 64 processor, unveiled in Europe and the US earlier this week, was the star attraction.

Motherboard makers including MSI, Asus and Gigabyte showed off a range of new boards that support the Athlon 64. Chip vendors such as Via were also displaying their latest chipsets for the new processor.

Metal Guru
Abit's K8MAX3 motherboard, based on Via's 8T800 chipset for the Athlon 64, incorporates a microcontroller called Guru designed to improve system monitoring and make troubleshooting easier. Guru provides hardware monitoring, overclocking management, automatic Bios updates and a troubleshooting feature called Black Box.

Black Box records system operating conditions in the event of a hardware failure. If a problem occurs, users can use Black Box to send their PC's system information to Abit's technical support via email, making it easier for them to diagnose what went wrong, said Abit spokesman Scott Thirlwell. The K8MAX3 motherboard will be available worldwide in mid-October for around US$220 (about £180).

Abit plans to incorporate Guru on all its mainstream motherboards. Additional features will include a Raid management tool designed for gamers. Normally associated with corporate computing applications that demand data backup and quick recovery, Raid will improve gamers' overall system performance by allowing the PC to read from and write to multiple hard disks simultaneously. It will protect against data loss in the event of a hard disk failure, Thirlwell said.

When I'm 64
While Athlon 64 motherboards were seen in abundance at Computex, the new processor is in limited supply and PCs based on the chip aren't expected to appear in large volumes until early next year.

AMD has told PC makers that 100,000 Athlon 64 chips will be available worldwide during the fourth quarter, claimed James Chen, head of Acer's desktop PC products line.

Calling that number "too small," Chen said Acer plans to hold off on the introduction of Athlon 64-based PCs until next year. The company will roll out its first Athlon 64 systems in Europe during the first quarter, The systems will then go on sale worldwide during the second quarter when more Athlon 64 chips are expected to be available, he said.

High Aspire-ations
In addition to Athlon 64 systems, Acer has several other new computers that are scheduled to start shipping in the coming months. The company plans to ship two new notebook models before the end of this year, according to Campbell Kan, chief officer for Acer's notebook products line.

The Aspire 2000 notebook has a 15.4in widescreen TFT LCD display and offers the choice between viewing DVDs under Windows XP or in a Linux-based, instant-on mode that allows users to access the laptop's DVD playback function within 10 seconds, Kan said.

The company will also update its line of Tablet PCs, with the introduction of the TravelMate C300, which has a 14.1in screen that can be rotated and folded flat against the keyboard. This will allow the C300 to be converted from a notebook into a tablet.

On the desktop side, Acer will update its Aspire home PC line with new models - expected to be launched by the middle of next year. Among the features that will be added to the new Aspires, Acer plans to add support for Microsoft's Smart Display technology. This will allow two users to access a single computer from a remote display. The software will also support video streaming to the remote display over 802.11a or 802.11g wireless networks, he said.

Acer plans to sell two versions of the Smart Display, a 12in model and a 17in model, Chen said. While pricing for the Smart Displays has yet to be finalised, the company hopes to sell them for 80 percent of the cost of a second PC and pricing for the 12in model could be as low as $400 (about £320), Chen said.

Potty PCs
Elsewhere at Computex desktop computers in a wide variety of form factors - from widescreen displays to potted plants - were on show.

Mitac took the wraps off its Pentium 4-based E8181D widescreen PC, which resembles a 17in flat-screen TV and can be tilted to the optimum viewing angle. The PC's components are hidden from view and integrated into the rear of the display's base. Pricing for the system has not been determined and Mitac is currently holding talks with vendors that are interested in selling the PC under their own brand, said company spokeswoman Royce Chang. She said the PC will begin shipping in October.

For users who want a Pentium 4-based PC that can be seen and not heard, Hush Technologies unveiled its Hush ATX computer, which uses heatpipes instead of noisy cooling fans to prevent overheating. More closely resembling a high-end stereo component than a computer, the PC features stunningly good looks, with an aluminium case and heat-dissipating fins along its sides. Available at the end of October, the Hush ATX will be offered with a selection of different processors from Intel and AMD.

Intel showed off the lighter side of PC design at its booth, with a number of whimsical Pentium 4-based PC designs. One looks like a potted plant, one is in the shape of a cow and another is designed to look like books set atop a desk.

The potted-plant PC, built by Hsu Yu-Nong, hides the motherboard and other compoents in the plant's pot, with a squeezable lighted berry functioning as the power switch. The book PC, designed by Tsai Syh, resembles books and other desktop items, such as a family photo. A stapler hides the PC's power button and a toy car is activated to let users know that the computer is running.

Finger food
Finally, a couple of tiny components designed for mobile devices and very small computers made their first appearance at Computex. Graphics firm Nvidia took advantage of Computex to unveil its first graphics chip designed for handheld devices and cellular phones.

Approximately the same size as a fingernail, the GoForce 2150 includes a 64bit 2D graphics controller and supports over 70 different display interfaces, including TFT, LCD and Oled screens with a resolution of up to 320x480 pixels. Volume production of the chip will begin during the fourth quarter.

Also making its first appearance this week, Via's Nano-BGA C3 processor is set to begin volume production during the fourth quarter, according to Wen-Chi Chen, the company's chief executive officer. Measuring 15x15mm, the 1GHz Nano-BGA C3 will be the smallest PC processor when it begins shipping at the end of this year. Pricing was not disclosed.