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CES 2006 Picks and Pans

Last week I attended the 2006 Consumer Electronic Show (CES), which since the demise of Comdex has become the largest and most important trade show in the nation - not only for electronics, but for all technology. This year's show saw record attendance, which added to the energy and overall excitement of the event, but also jammed hotels, city streets and aisles on the show floor.

Overall Show Theme - Video dominated the show. Booths had entire walls covered with plasma screens -- from 7-inch minis to 70-inch giants. Some booths placed screens vertically on stands, and had them playing high definition videos on a stage, which fooled your eyes and made you think it was a live performance. There were cars with video players built into every headrest, and some were mounted to the underside of the hood, which would flip up and create a drive-in movie experience. There were even tiny stick-of-gum-sized video players with screens no bigger than your thumbnail.

To play video on all these screens you need delivery and storage systems, of which there was plenty. There were in-home systems, which store video and make it accessible from every room (DigitalDeck, TeraTelly, Aeon-Digital), systems to download content from online sources (Akimbo, DaveTV, KiSS), and clever systems that make your TV able to access any PC or (coming soon) phone (Slingbox).

Phone + MP3 player - Sony-Ericsson showed their line-up of Walkman Phones. The big drawback for phones that double as MP3 players is that the user interface is designed to make calls, not play music, so it's always awkward. Sony is addressing this by having a button that, when clicked, changes the entire screen to operate like a portable music player. This makes it easy to toggle
between phone and music functions.
Linspire Mini

Move over Apple, it's Linspire Mini! The Linspire Mini was shown off during CES at a press event for tech reporters. At an expected price point of $400, it's 20% cheaper than the Mac Mini and other Mini versions running Windows XP Home. With a full office suite, Internet browser, email, IM, video and media players, and a tiny 6.5" x 6.5" size, it's a steal. Did I mention it runs Linspire? Yeah!

Sony's ebook Reader
Most impressive device - Sony's ebook Reader. With an estimated street price of $299-$399, this technical marvel may be the device to kickstart the digital book world. It's about the size of a piece of paper folded in half, and it's half an inch thick with a cover that opens like a book. This device had stunning clarity - as good as a real piece of paper. It uses revolutionary e-ink, which requires no power to display. This means the only power it uses is to refresh the page, so one charge lasts 7,500 page turns! You connect the ebook Reader to the PC to load digital books; each book is about 1MB, so it can hold 80 books with its built-in memory. Let's hope this is an open device so people can add any digital publications they wish onto it. Amazingly, Sony botched the page turning buttons by putting them in the wrong spot and making them tiny metal nubs, but hopefully they'll get that right with when the production versions ship in Q2. They should also ditch the built-in mono only MP3 player, which kills the battery life, and stick to making it a spectacular digital book reader.

VOIP (Voice Over IP) hardware galore - Net phone calls will become increasingly practical without a PC thanks to a large number of devices designed to make net calls. Samsung was showing Wi-Fi and WiBro VOIP phones. Wistron had a WiFi flip phone. AUVI Technology was showing a snazzy WiFi speaker-phone with built-in web cam. Leadtek had a new VOIP adapter that supports video conferences. Linksys had a WiFi handset called the WIP330. And Dlink demoed a small office IP-PBX phone system. Best of all, every one of these devices supports the open standard SIP, which means they'll all be able to make and receive calls with the Gizmo Project network.

WiFi MP3 Players - I was most anticipating several WiFi-based MP3 players. Being able to load new music without a PC (or even better, completely automatically) seems like the next logical step in the evolution of the MP3 player. I first stopped by the MusicGremlin booth, and I was horribly disappointed. The device itself seems solid - nice interface and feature set. However, it requires you to purchase a $15 per-month subscription system to load any music wirelessly. Even then you can't wirelessly download free music from the web - or even from your own personal locker. I don't see why anyone would buy this over an iPod, since you have to pay $200 per year just to use it.

I did find a promising WiFi MP3 player from Soniqcast. This device lets you access music wirelessly from a wide range of sources without having to pay $15 per month. They even make available a SDK (software development kit) so new services can be plugged into the device. They have a unit under the brand name Aireo that should be in stores soon, which warrants consideration.

New terminology at CES
PMP - Portable Media Player
Dect - A cordless phone protocol popular in Europe but just recently approved for the U.S. This would compete with 2.4- and 5.8-ghz phones now in the market.
WiBro - Wireless Broadband system being deployed in Korea. It is like a supercharged WiFi. It has a range of 1-5 km versus the 150 feet or so for typical WiFi. Watch for similar service in the U.S. under the WiMax name.

-- Michael
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