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CES Products Electrify Vegas and Gadget Hounds

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held Jan. 8-11, 2004, in Las Vegas was huge, glitzy and overwhelming, as it should be. Whereas many of the products were more-of-the-same-slightly-better, some gadgets and trends stood out.

One clear trend is that DVR (digital video recorders) sets for home entertainment centers will soon be a standard item, allowing consumers to record TV programs on DVDs instead of todays ubiquitous VCR tapes. DVDs have the advantage that they take up less space and allow quick skipping to specific programs; the hard drives included in many of these sets offer both nonlinear recording and easy integration with TiVo-type personal video recorder (PVR) features. Typical of the new genre is the Toshiba RD-SX32, which has an 80GB hard drive and a high-speed DVD recorder. What makes the difference this year is price entries such as Gateways Ar-230 DVD+RW recorder at $299 are bringing DVRs into the mainstream. Note that both DVD-R/W and DVD+R/W formats are still around, so you may want to buy a +/- dual format unit to be on the safe side.

Gateway was not the only computer maker that decided to enter the home entertainment market. Dell is now offering a full range of entertainment products, including TVs and DVD players. And Epson is making printers with wide-screen TV monitors attached. HP is also born again as a CE (consumer electronics) maker, with 30 and 42-inch plasma flat panel TVs, an entertainment hub that serves as a distribution point for home audio/video media, and a deal with Apple to produce an HP-branded digital music player based on Apples iPod.

Another trend is that LCD monitors are getting larger and cheaper, making them an attractive option for people with limited space such as a university dorm room to use as both a computer monitor and television set; many new LCD monitors have both TV tuners and computer inputs built into them. LCD televisions were once relatively small, but there were dozens of sets in the 30- and 40-inch range at the show, topped by a 55-inch model from Zenith/LG, showing how popular this monitor format has become for television viewing.

The other technology that could be seen everywhere was DLP, the Texas Instruments form of the micromirror chip, which was offered in a wide range of both front and rear-projection televisions. Toshiba, which had offered its own rival LCOS-based technology last year, caved in on that technology because of production difficulties, and now also offers a full range of DLP products, including HD sets based on TIs new HD+ DLP chip, which replaced last years Mustang as the champion in the 1260x720 range for HD 720p/1080i (and 16x9 native resolution) displays.

Digital cameras are selling better than ever, with a large number of 3-megapixel models in the $200-$400 range. Advances include better zoom ranges (4-12x instead of the traditional 3x) and more pixels, with several 6-megapixel models such as Canons hot-selling digital Rebel showing what will soon be considered the minimum acceptable resolution the market will tolerate. The biggest improvement is in response time, both for startup and for picture-to-picture times several previous digital cameras (including some Sony models) had several seconds of delay between taking one picture and being ready for the next.

Digital camcorder sales are also brisk. Whats new is a lineup of very compact cameras the size of a deck of cards, such as the Panasonic SV-AV100 and the Sanyo/Fisher FVD-C1. These cameras achieve their tiny sizes by using removable Flash memory cards instead of DV tape for video storage (the Sanyo is also a 3.2 megapixel still camera). Although still limited in how long they can shoot (a 512MB card may allow only 15 minutes recording time, for instance), these cameras will clearly come to the forefront with the availability of higher-capacity Flash memory cards.

SanDisk (www.sandisk.com), for instance, rolled out its new 1- and 2-gigabyte SD (Secure Digital) and Memory Stick storage cards, a development that will revolutionize not only vidcams and digital cameras, but a whole range of consumer products, including PDAs, cell phones, printers and game sets, which will orient towards better picture and display qualities now that gigabyte storage is available in a SanDisk chip the size of a postage stamp. Flash memory grew 90% in sales volume last year. The SD, CF (Compact Flash) and Sonys Memory Stick remain popular flash card formats, while the MMC (MultiMediaCard) format seems to be falling behind, and the SmartMedia is essentially dead. Two new formats, miniSD and Memory Stick Duo, have been developed as reduced-size versions of these cards for the growing cell phone market, especially for cell phones with built-in cameras exceeding one-megapixel resolution (already available in Japan).

A real paradigm-shifter at the show was the DVR-250 HD satellite receiver from DIRECTV (www.directv.com), which can receive and record high-definition content, with four HD TV tuners (two for satellite and two for terrestrial), a 250-gigabyte hard drive and TiVo PVR features. What makes this set revolutionary is that it is the first real product (other than some very expensive digital tape recorders) that allows consumers to tape HD programs off the air and then replay them later to friends to show off their widescreen HD monitors and surround-sound speakers. Up till now high-def content could only be watched live, with no way to record it for later viewing. The ability to record HD by consumers will mean both a growing demand for more HD content (which will affect broadcasters and post-production houses) and increased sales of widescreens and surround-sound systems (to show off said content to envious neighbors).

DIRECTV (recently bought by Rupert Murdoch) is offering the DVR-250 for $999; the 250GB drive records about 30 hours of HD or 150 hours of standard programming. The growing acceptance of PVRs such as this will have another major effect because they give viewers the ability to easily skip over advertising in television programming, the networks will have to look for new ways to insert ads. Look for more banner ads superimposed on the screen, as well as increased use of product placement within the show itself both live and (because live footage with a product in it could wind up on the cutting room floor) as 3D computer animation added after a show is in the can.

Audio played a large part at the CES, with a myriad of new music players, including MP3 players included in PDAs, phones and almost anything that moves. One cool product shown is the LINK from Skullcandy (www.skullcandy.com), which is a low-cost connection between the two life-support systems for many young consumers the cell phone and the MP3 player. You need never miss an important call when head-banging again the LINK allows the cell phone to ring through on your stereo headphones, so you can answer the call and then return to the music. Since Skullcandy is located in Park City, it caters to snowboarders, who prefer not to have headphones covering their ears, lest they miss the screams of possible collision targets. Fear not Skullcandy has a new backpack with great speakers built into the shoulder straps, so you can get high-quality stereo on the slopes.

Another cool product is the IQue from Garmin (www.garmin.com), which combines a GPS navigation system (with voice) and an MP3 player into a PDA with a Palm OS, a definite must for the traveler. If you want to videotape while traveling, you might consider a Model 100 from Deja View (www.mydejaview.com), which consists of a tiny camera that can be attached onto your sunglasses and a cell phone-sized remote unit that clips onto your belt and records video clips, all for under $400.

There was also a full day of seminars for the Next Generation Internet (www.usipv6.com), which started with a quote from a Microsoft head of R&D, The most important thing we learned is that in the future everything over $25 other than food will be connected to the Internet. A live demonstration showed one application -- how home lights and webcams (each with its own Internet address) could be turned on to check security while away. Hitachi showed how small a sensor/IP package could be a complete unit with memory, RF communications, a 3-year battery and its own Internet address, yet far smaller than a human thumbnail. In the near future every home will have hundreds of such Next Gen Internet chips in the car, in cell phones and game consoles, and in every kitchen appliance.

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