When the New Year dawns, consumer electronics professionals from around the globe begin their annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the International Consumer Electronics Show - the world's largest display of electronic excess. This year the show opened Thursday January 8 and more than 100,000 industry representatives, media and consumers hit the show floor - once more the wolves and the wares are in rare form.
Convergence is the dominant theme
Convergence is the dominant theme, with portable jukeboxes that can display movies as well as play MP3 audio, HD DVR devices that combine to replace your satellite box, VCR, home photo album and CD player, and even one colossally expensive combo big screen TV/photo printer from Epson. But with all the potential for hype, there seems to be an actual shortage of truly new concepts this year, with companies following through with last year's promises before making new ones.
Flat panels worth looking at ...
For the past few years, Samsung and LG have been playing a game of oneupmanship in the large flat panel display market. Last year, LG demonstrated a 52" true 1080p display (that's full HD resolution without any scaling), then Samsung showed a 57" unit. Well, they're at it again, and the customers will be the big winner with the products due out in 2004.
Samsung is bringing its 57" LCD 1080p display to market, and will have a whopping 70" 1080p plasma display to go with it. This is a huge step forward, since these are the first true HD displays available to the consumer. Not to be left behind, LG is showing a 55" LCD but can't quote an actual delivery date.
Samsung also has its cool prototype as well, a show stopping 80" full HD resolution plasma display. Samsung has safely won this round of the flat screen wars, so now we must wait to see if they can actually deliver the product.
Bye Bye VCR...
In a press briefing more befitting Wall Street than the gadget hounds, TiVo president Michael Ramsay pronounced the VCR as officially dead. He also unveiled a new way to "check out" movies from your TiVo onto your PC for editing. The technology requires that you attach a special TiVo security device (that looks like a USB version of the old dongles of yesteryear) to your PC and the demonstration showed how playback works with the dongle plugged in and how it goes blank when it's pulled out.
Amidst claims that it is critically important to keep the video secure for the consumer (something that wouldn't have occurred to me if I had been hit over the head like a lawsuit from the MPAA), TiVo demonstrated creating a recordable DVD with your secured data which was playable on any standard DVD player. Go figure! The dance between media companies and the technology providers they depend upon never ceases to amaze.
Along with this odd display of the future of TiVo they actually announced and demoed their HD-DVR250 product which will ship in February 2004. This dual satellite, dual ATSC digital satellite/digital recorder set top box that works with the DirecTV satellite TV service is actually a very impressive unit and COULD kill the VCR once and for all.
Not to be left out, DirectTV arch-rival Dish Networks is showing the long promised DishPVR 921 and is promising a March 2004 delivery date. This unit as well is quite impressive and offers nearly the same set of features as the competing TiVo unit, which is, of course, why TiVo filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Dish Networks parent company, Echostar, last week.
It all adds up to better TV for everyone regardless of which provider you choose. That is, of course, as long as you don't choose cable over satellite, because then you'll be stuck trying to hook up your neighbour's discarded VCR. If you had your heart set on one of the flat panels mentioned above, either DVR would be able to save and record the HD content you'd need to keep it happy, BUT unfortunately for now Australia will be left out of the fun since the DirectTiVo and the DishPVR921 are both US-only products.
Gizmo's, Gadgets and Oddities...
I've got to say that I've created an odd problem for myself. I'd like to extol the virtues of the wonderful new DSC-T1 camera that's just been released by Sony, but can't actually show a picture of it, since it's the camera I've been using for show coverage. Fortunately the folks at Let's go Digital have an excellent "first look" article. All I can add is that I like it too - so much I've bought one.
I did get the chance to get my hands on another new camera from Sony, the DSC-F828. While the DSC-T1 is a tiny device that begs you to carry it in your pocket, the DSC-F828 asks you to reaffirm your commitment to digital photography. The F828 sits somewhere between a point-and-click digital and a full blown digital SLR in size, but is intended to make it easy for you to take pictures like a pro.
CES has it all - head-mounted virtual displays, disposable cell phones and a cool smoke detector designed to help small children escape a burning house (instead of scaring them with a loud noise) rounded out our first day on the show floor of CES.
The Epson LivingStation
We managed to get a picture of the Epson Livingstation 57" rear projection/photo printer. With an MSRP of US$3999 it's my pick for the "most ridiculous expensive thing at CES". Apparently I'm nearly the only member of the press that thinks this thing is a bad idea - C-Net, the New York Times, and a few other heavyweights are reporting on it as a serious product. I just can't seem to look at the thing without asking which slot the toast comes out? Time will tell. Place your bets ladies and gentlemen!!!!
More news from Sony...
In addition to the new digital cameras we wrote about yesterday, Sony is releasing a few interesting products and a new service this week. Let's start with the service, basically the "Connect" service is a late attempt to try to cash in on the digital music distribution market that Apple broke open with the iTunes music store. By our count there's currently competition from Apple, Dell, Walmart, Microsoft, RealNetworks, and Napster in this space, so most consumer that have interest in downloading music to portable players have probably settled with an existing service and Sony is going to have a hard time convincing them to switch.
As the only company in the market that actually owns a music label you'd think that they would have a competitive advantage, but their music industry ties actually hurt them and the company has decided to distribute music in their proprietary ATRACS format, which will only work with Sony hardware, and which puts protection of the media industry's intellectual property as a priority over "fair use" for the consumer.
Something tells us that they won't be wonderfully successful with this venture, but only time will tell if the magic Sony brand will shine here or whether this will become yet another business school case study on how not to do things.
While we're on the subject of proprietary Sony technology, we should take a look at their new HiMD mini-disk format that expands the MD format to a full 1GB of space.
Sony's making a big stink about the new disks and the products that use them, but in reality the market never really accepted MD products to begin with, and this bump up in size is about 2 years too late to actually save the format. IMHO, this one is definitely destined for the business school textbooks, right next to the chapter on Betamax.
Sony Double Layer DVD Burner
While they were making big announcement mentioned above, they also were quietly previewing a very significant breakthrough in DVD recording. Sony's newest prototype DVD burner doesn't even have a model number yet, but looks like it will be a huge winner by adding double layer capability to an already impressive ability to record in every DVD and CD format under the sun.
Since double layer playback is a DVD feature that's been part of the standard since DVDs were invented, and Sony has increased the storage capacity in a way that is compatible with all the existing DVD players out there, consumers will be able to start authoring huge epics without worries about backward compatibility. Good work Sony, this is one breakthrough we really like!
Intel decides to get serious about home entertainment...
President Paul Otellini noted in his keynote presentation that over 350 million digital devices will be sold into the home this year. "The lines between the two industries (computers and consumer electronics) are blurring ... consumers are demanding change inside their homes", he said. Intel announced a non-product called the EPC (or Entertainment PC) which looks amazingly like a TiVo box, or maybe a Microsoft Media center PC without the keyboard. They won't actually manufacture the device, but have licensed the design to several manufactures that will release products by mid year.
They're not stopping there though, as they're also working on getting their chips into digital cameras and video players by 2005. Basically, they're trying to make sure that they don't get left out of an important segment of the future digital economy.
They've even announced a new $200M USD venture fund that's to focus on funding new companies to make home entertainment gear that use lots of Intel parts, although we'd guess that they'd be okay with new ideas that would drive the need to upgrade your PC as well. This is all good news for consumers who should be seeing all sorts of CPU-intensive gadgets showing up from all sides, and as long as Intel has a say in things they'll all be networked together using some old and new standards, including the new DTCP/IP (Digital Transmission Content Protection over Internet Protocol) which is sure to confuse a few people with its acronym as it is so similar to the standard TCP/IP that underlies the internet, but is really a new copy protection mechanism for copyrighted media.
So doesn't it seem like there's a lot of CYA going on?
One recurring theme we've seen this year at CES is that companies are laying it on pretty thick related to digital copyright protection. Basically there are a bunch of technologies designed to keep consumers from misusing the content that they've actually paid for. In an ideal world there wouldn't be any need for this, since none of us actually download illegal mp3s and we'd never illegally copy a DVD movie.
But the two dominant industry associations for music and video, the RIAA and MPAA, don't actually trust their customers (us) so they've got teams of lawyers standing by to sue any manufacturer that builds a product has "potential" for abuse, even if there's no evidence that abuse has ever happened. The RIAA has even lashed out at it's own customers (again us) and sued individuals that have used file swapping with the hope that they'll scare the rest of us into not sharing in the future.
So basically the way things look to me is this:1. The record and movie industries are nervous in general because the whole idea of digital distribution is not something they understand, and they don't want to change the way they earn their money.
2. Nervous executives call the nervous lawyers at the RIAA and MPAA and ask them to stop everyone that even says that they have a better way to listen to music or watch movies than CDs or DVDs.
3. Nervous business executives get letters from the nervous RIAA and MPAA guys telling them they better not even think of making anything product that would make them even more nervous.
4. Nervous business executives decide to add all sorts of copyright protection that makes their products less usable and not as good, but at least lets them make something that won't get them sued by the nervous lawyers.
5. We as consumers get fed a lot of propaganda about how copyright protection is actually good for us. So in the end, we consumers get caught up in a fight with the music and movie industries over who actually gets to control distribution of media. It's not going to be a pretty fight, but it will definitely be interesting to watch. As a physicist would say, we're witnessing an irresistible force (the internet) meeting an immovable object (the media industry).
My money is on the internet winning, but it's still anyone's game. The only thing we know for sure is that there will be a lot of people spending a lot of time telling you how copyright protection is good for you. I'm thinking that it might be a good idea to invest in some earmuffs.
Thomson gets big screens right
Of all the companies showing new large screen products the one that stands out with a solid entry that really offers value-for-money is Thomson. While others have been focusing on producing thin direct view TVs based upon LCD or plasma technology, Thomson has managed to produce an extremely thin rear projection DLP TV that looks great, but is much cheaper than a similar sized plasma unit.
There's a lot of confusion in the large screen market due to the various technologies and the acronym alphabet soup which gets splashed around. The DLP (Digital Light Processing) technology used by Thomson to produce its 50", 61", and 70" televisions is supplied exclusively by Texas Instruments and uses tiny mirrors to reflect light through a colour filter and onto the screen.
The alternative is to shine light through an LCD shutter onto the screen, or to use red, green, and blue CRT projectors to get the same result. The CRT "gun" solution is currently the incumbent rear projection technology that's being replaced, primarily due to imperatives of slimmer design, increased image quality and simpler setup which favours the newer DLP and LCD units. When comparing LCD and DLP solutions it's important to keep in mind that LCDs come from many providers, but EVERY DLP chip on the planet comes from Texas Instruments.
When TI first got into the projection chip business they made a strategic choice to never ship a chip with a defect, so DLPs have the reputation of never having any bad pixels. LCD manufacturers a have differing guidelines for acceptable defects, and 1 or 2 "dead" pixels isn't uncommon for an LCD rear projection device. It isn't that TI's DLP technology is magically impervious to defects, it's just that TI throws out the ones with defects instead of shipping them to customers.
Regardless, Thomson (and their customers) benefit from the quality controls instituted by TI and consumers can look forward to perfect displays with no dead pixel problems. If you don't want to pony up the big bucks for a new plasma display, these new DLP rear projection units offer a high quality half way step that gets you most of the benefits while saving you a LOT of money. List price for the largest version is US$9,999 while you'll pay over US$20,000 for a 60+" plasma TV.