2013 Consumer Electronics Show Highlights


For the 18th year in a row, I made my annual trek to the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (January 8-11, 2013) along with about 150,000 of my closest friends, including some 10,000 members of the press. Looking for and hoping to capture a glimpse of the latest and greatest gadgets that might be adorning our living rooms, home offices and businesses, we crammed ourselves into crowded booths, aisles and press conferences.

As I’ve said in past articles on the show, attending every year is probably overkill due to the incremental improvements in the “wares” paraded by vendors and announced by large companies, with little in the way of life-changing technology. But as an electronics geek, it’s an addiction that I must feed every year. They say that the first step in addressing an addiction is to first admit you have a problem; so I guess I’m somewhat on my way to rehabilitation.

Regular attendees and readers know that the show is notable for the absence of perhaps one of today’s most influential consumer electronics and technology companies: Apple. The company has never exhibited at CES (and probably never will).  Surprisingly, for the first time in almost two decades, Microsoft, typically there with a huge presence at CES, was also absent, except for a meeting room tucked away in the corners of the show’s exhibit halls.  Gone also was the traditional opening keynote address by Bill Gates and, more recently, Steve Ballmer. I couldn’t help but think that this is another way that Microsoft is trying to imitate Apple–with a lack of presence.

Instead, the opening keynote was handled by Qualcomm’s CEO Dr. Paul Jacobs (with a “cameo” appearance by Steve Ballmer to tout Windows 8 and Windows mobile phones) amid a bizarre sequence of skits about the younger mobile generation.

The show’s recent emphasis continues to be on smart-phones, sharper and smarter flat screen TV’s and more tablet based PC’s and devices based on Google’s Android platform, though Google itself was a no-show as well.  The number of companies willing to make their living by accessorizing all those smart-phones and tablets seemed to make a new high this year.

I found a few noteworthy technologies at the show, though admittedly, I’m somewhat stretching “noteworthy” for some of the things that I’m choosing to write about.  While companies display their prototypes and future production models on the show floor, there’s no guarantee that they’ll make it into your mobile life, office or living room anytime in 2013, if ever. I’ll skip the also-ran tablets and smartphones and focus on the new and distinguishing features and enhancements over prior years.

TV’s Once Again Dominate the Show

As usual, CES 2013 was littered with the latest and greatest high-definition TV’s (HDTV) of varying sizes, features, thinness and smartness.

Organic light emitting diode screens (OLED) seem to be gaining some traction and may finally make their way into consumers’ living rooms. With a brighter and more colorful picture using a fraction of the energy consumption of traditional HDTV’s, OLED TV’s may finally be plentiful and affordable enough in 2013.

The race for the smartest TV’s with features such as voice recognition technology, were abundant as manufacturers seem to be in a race to beat Apple at its own game, their rumored iTV that seems to be in the works. Apple seems to be struggling in getting content providers to bend to their will, much as they did with music providers in their launch of the iTunes music store several years ago. Should the Apple iTV concept come to fruition, I expect that it will provide consumers with an unmatched user experience.

While the TV’s are getting smarter, thinner and even bendable, it’s not clear how much consumers are going to be willing to pay for these extra features. Manufacturers have seemingly resolved themselves to the fact that many watch TV while multi-tasking on their laptops or tablet PC’s.  So companies are starting to build in features that allow their TV’s to be wirelessly controlled, allow collaboration/interaction, and to help fetch content from the internet.

Interestingly, while most HDTV’s available today have the ability to connect to the internet, only about 15% of them are actually connected according to the NPD group, a market research company.

3D HDTV Part Deux

One feature seemingly de-emphasized this year at CES were the 3D-TV’s that so many companies have been touting for a few years now, probably owing to the poor adoption by consumers due literally to the headaches caused by the glasses required to be worn and the dearth of creative 3D available content that truly takes advantage of the medium.

Vizio, the well-known low-priced flat-screen manufacturer, debuted their line of no-glasses 3D TV’s at the show with prototypes that seemed to address the shortcomings of prior no-glasses 3D TV’s. Namely, you no longer have to sit in a certain position to be able to view the 3D picture; Vizio gives you 9 spots to sit where the image doesn’t go blurry or fuzzy. Both Toshiba and Sony have shown these types of TV’s in prior years, but they have yet to make it into production. While the Vizio TV suffers from a less sharp image than most high-definition TV’s and doesn’t have eye-popping 3D, it’s a considerable improvement over prior technologies.

I believe that 3D-TV remains a gimmick to get folks to upgrade and replace their existing HDTV’s. Even with the Vizio improvements, I say “save your money and invest it in a good HDTV available today.”

4K Ultra-High Definition TV

If you’re sitting on a spare $10,000-$20,000, you may be a candidate to buy one of the ultra-high definition TV’s that will begin hitting the stores in the spring. Described as 4K HDTV, the technology is intended to help scale high definition to larger sized TV’s and eliminate the visible resolution lines and enhance the sharpness as TV screens grow to 84-120 inches. All of the major TV manufacturers (Sony, Panasonic, LG, Samsung and others) were showing and expecting to release 4K HDTV’s in 2013.

4K refers to the four times resolution compared with the 1K of resolution in today’s HDTV’s (1080p). The pixels are packed 4X tighter to enhance the image. While producing a sharper image, I found the enhancement to be noticeable in a side by side comparison with a regular HDTV.  In regular viewing, I doubt that the viewer would notice much of a difference, certainly not enough to justify the huge premium these sets currently command.

Ultra HDTV will suffer from the same chicken or egg dilemma that 3D TV’s currently face: namely, a dearth of content. With Ultra HDTV, the content must be re-mastered or shot with a new generation of Ultra HD video cameras that capture that additional detail.  Until the prices come down, these will be TV’s for the very wealthy or to be used in commercial marketing or engineering applications where image quality is paramount and money is no object.

Mobile & Wireless Storage Solutions

Although perhaps not as exciting as new TV technologies, a few storage solutions to address shortcomings in existing portable ones, were introduced at CES

Seagate introduced their compact Wireless Plus mobile wireless storage expander/media streamer for mobile devices. Introduced a couple of years ago as the Seagate Satellite, it’s now a 1 TB battery operated storage device that also doubles as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot to share an internet connection with up to eight devices and stream media to all of them. Battery life is claimed to be up to 10 hours and works with iOS and Android devices as well as Samsung Smart TV’s.

LaCie introduced their 4TB “blade-runner” style portable storage solution that ups the ante for the amount of portable storage available. The USB 3.0 device will be produced in limited quantities and has a unique design.

If you have USB thumb drive size envy and you’re proud of the 128 GB currently available between your fingers, the latest Kingston USB 512 GB and 1 TB drives with fast USB 3.0 interfaces might leave you wanting.  Dubbed the DataTraveler HyperX Predator, it usurps the available capacity in solid state drives in most of today’s laptops and should be available in the first quarter of 2013.  With HD video and databases consuming ever-increasing space, you won’t have to wonder what you might do with 1 TB of portable storage (besides potentially losing it).  What you’ll have to wonder about, however, is whether you can afford the expected massively high price.

According to Kingston’s web site, the 512 GB version will set you back about $1,300, much more than a decently sized laptop computer with similar storage. But then again, with this much storage, you can load Windows 8 (Windows-To-Go), all of your applications and your data and boot up any other computer with this drive while leaving your own laptop at home.

To address speed issues with traditional portable backup drives (which use spinning disks), Buffalo Technology has added 1 GB of DDR3 memory to its latest external drive, the DriveStation DDR. With a USB 3.0 connection and at least 1 TB of disk capacity, it’s a fast way of adding low-cost, high-speed storage to a PC or a small server. Speeds are comparable with solid state drives, although there’s a caveat that you’ll need to complete all cached writes before shutting the drive down. This can take about seven seconds, so you may want to connect the drive to a universal power supply in order to protect essential data in the event of a power outage. Prices for the DriveStation DDR are US$119 for 1TB, $149 for 2TB, $189 for 3TB.

Windows 8 and Android based Hybrid Laptops/Tablets/Smart Displays

While Windows 8 and Android based tablets and laptops were abundant at CES 2013, Lenovo rolled out several new touch devices. The 27-inch Ideacentre Horizon Table PC was a popular item with its lie-flat, multi-user collaborative touch interface (ideal for gaming, business and education), though at 27 inches, it’s not exactly a mobile device.

Lenovo’s hybrid tablet/ultrabook ThinkPad Helix was another show stealer. Described by Lenovo as a “rip and flip” device, the Helix is an 11.6 inch tablet PC with a keyboard dock. It mixes pen and touch input, and has separate batteries in the screen and keyboard, giving it up to 10 hours of battery life according to Lenovo. It’s powered by a fast Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, and the lightweight pen is small and comfortable while the touchscreen means that you can mix and match pen and finger input in tablet mode.  Lenovo has designed the Helix to fit into the keyboard dock either conventionally or facing outwards, so you can use the dock as a stand while presenting or watching a video. It’s nice to see ThinkPad innovation continuing at Lenovo.

On the mobile front, Google’s Android operating system (OS) is now showing up on devices both larger and smaller than the standard smartphone and tablets that they were initially designed for. Android now seems to be the embedded OS of choice for a variety of devices. Not only do equipment manufacturers get an open OS with plenty of hardware support like they once got from Linux, but they also get thousands of apps ready to run. I’m beginning to appreciate how Android can massively leapfrog Apple’s iOS in terms of widespread adoption in mainstream and everyday devices.

Beyond the standard thin clients that can run a remote virtual desktop, a new “Smart Display” can also run full Android and web apps with touch enabled. This opens up the entire ecosystem of mobile applications in addition to virtual desktops.  Viewsonic is already shipping a 22” consumer version and it also had a 24″ prototype on display based on an Nvidia Tegra 3 dual-core mobile for business use.

Viewsonic also demonstrated a 65” touch-screen display with an embedded CPU running Android. I anticipate that large touchscreens will soon replace both whiteboards and video projectors used in corporate environments and board rooms. To preserve existing corporate investments in LCD’s, a company named Sengital DigiTouch demonstrated an installable touch panel to overlay on the LCD, effectively converting it into an Android tablet.

Dell/Wyse announced project Ophelia, a full Dual core Android system on a USB stick that fits in your pocket, plugs into any MHL-enabled (mobile high-definition link) display or TV and runs any Android app, web or remote windows app/desktop via Citrix XenDesktop. You can use Wi-Fi for connection and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and work from anywhere.

In addition, there were numerous devices at the show with names like TV Stick and MiniPC that offered the capability to plug into any standard HDMI video port (you also need a USB cable and port to power them). These devices are currently targeted at turning any TV into a Smart or Google TV.

Conclusion

Of the many technologies shown at CES 2013, these are some that caught my eye and interest, and of which I thought they might interest readers.

Whenever I think of skipping the next CES and give it a couple of years to allow the new products to evolve further, I quickly come to my senses and quit at step one of my rehabilitation.  The next CES awaits me on January 7, 2014.  Yes, I do need help.

As usual I welcome your questions and feedback.

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