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Published: Saturday, 1/21/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Vegas, baby: Electronics Show gambles on consumers’ thirst for more gadgets

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If you just peek into the huge International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, you might think that it’s mostly a deafening showcase for tablets, thin TV screens, superthin laptops, and Android phones.

But if you really take the time to look — if you walk all 15 miles of exhibit halls — you’ll discover that, in fact, you were right. CES really is primarily a deafening showcase for tablets, thin TV screens, superthin laptops, and Android phones.

The show isn’t open to the public; believe it or not, the 150,000 attendees are all press and industry buyers. For them, CES is an incredible, exhausting glimpse at the tech that will be flying off holiday shelves a year or two from now — or rotting on store shelves in humiliation.

Now, despite that wisecrack about the sameness of the offerings, there really were some great ideas on display among the 3,100 booths. To save you a foot-throbbing hike of your own, here’s one man’s CES 2012 notebook.

Televisions

All right, let’s get this out of the way. There were a lot of flat-panel screens. In rows. In columns. In banks reaching up four stories. There were high-definition screens, 3-D screens, and gigantic screens. (71 inches! 80 inches! 84 inches!)

LG and Samsung displayed prototype 55-inch OLED screens that were so thin, you could shave with them. (OLED is a breathtakingly clear, crisp, colorful, expensive kind of screen — and the largest one until now has been an 11-inch model from Sony.)

Now that everyone in the country has finished buying flat-panel HDTV sets, the industry is gearing up once again to make them all obsolete. What could be sharper than 1080p HD? Why, four times as many pixels, of course. That’s the idea behind the so-called 4K television, like the prototype from LG.

And if you understand that much, you’ll enjoy the even greater silliness of Sharp’s 8K prototype. (What’s so silly? Even if you bought one of these screens, you’d have nothing to watch. Nobody broadcasts or sells movies in 4K or 8K resolution.)

And 3-D sets were everywhere; clearly, the industry still hasn’t noticed that nobody wants to put on special $50 glasses to watch TV. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the emphasis on the “convergence TV,” a vague concept of TV-plus-Internet that’s been promoted at every CES since the Civil War and still produces only yawns.

In other efforts at differentiation, Sony and Toshiba demonstrated prototype 3-D sets that don’t require glasses. Samsung displayed a set that eliminates the age-old fight for the remote control: It lets two warring family factions watch different shows on the same TV simultaneously. (Each member wears special glasses with built-in earbuds. Anyone not wearing glasses sees a double-vision mishmash and hears nothing.)

Samsung also demonstrated TV sets that recognize their owners’ faces and take voice commands. Sharp offered Freestyle TV sets: thin, battery-powered, cordless screens in various sizes that you can carry anywhere (assuming you’re strong enough to carry a 60-inch TV). Now when thieves rob your house, they don’t even have to unplug anything.

Tablets

As usual, Apple didn’t attend CES (and Microsoft announced that this show would be its last). But Apple’s influence was everywhere: in the forests of iPhone and iPod cases, for example, and in the iPad clones running Google’s Android software. There were so many, you probably could have paved the Las Vegas strip with them four times over.

The tablet makers’ 2012 efforts, clearly, will be trying to stand out from all the other tablets. Some will compete on price: Asus and Nvidia will offer $250 Android tablets, Leader will sell one for $180 and ViewSonic plans a $170 model. Fujitsu and Pantech demonstrated waterproof tablets. Panasonic previewed a ToughPad ruggedized model that you can drop four feet onto concrete, freeze, bake, and use in the shower without a care in the world.

Remember One Laptop Per Child, the company that tried to build a $100 laptop for children in poor countries? They’re back with a tablet now: a thick, rugged, waterproof green model.

But the most heavily advertised tablet, if that’s the right word for it, was the Samsung Galaxy Note. It’s like an Android phone whose blueprint measurements were off by factor of 10. It’s huge. It’s like holding a VHS cassette in your hand, and looks just as silly when you’re holding it up to your ear.

Still, it’s thin and beautiful, and that 5.3-inch screen comes in very handy when you’re trying to read books, examine maps, surf the Web, or frame a photo. There’s even a stylus that you can use to scribble or highlight things; just don’t sit down when it’s in your back pocket.

Smart-phone control

Another huge theme this year was “use your phone to control everything.” For example, the Tagg from Qualcomm attaches to your dog’s collar and alerts you if it roves out of your yard. Home security products from Trane let you unlock your house for guests, control the temperature or program your lights — all by remote control, using your phone.
Escort Live (an accessory for Escort radar detectors) not only detects police speed traps, it also broadcasts their times and locations to other Escort Live owners. They (the traps, not the owners) show up on a map on the phone’s screen, thereby creating a speed-trap social network. The police can’t be thrilled.

Casio’s new G-Shock GB6900 wristwatch communicates with your phone using a new, low-power wireless technology called Bluetooth 4.0; brilliant possibilities ensue. Your watch can vibrate when you get a call, text, or email and show the person’s name, even if your phone is in your purse or briefcase. The G-Shock can help you find a phone lost in your sofa by making it chirp loudly. It can also beep at you if you leave the phone behind in, say, a restaurant. Only two obscure phones work with this watch so far — but when more phones become compatible, watch out.

There were a million gorgeous new Android phones and Windows phones, many of them 4G (meaning faster Internet in big cities). But there was also SpareOne, whose cell phone takes a single AA battery that lasts years in your glove compartment.

Ultrabooks

Ultrabook is Intel’s name for “MacBook Air knockoff,” and CES was crawling with them. These are superthin, superlight aluminum laptops with Apple-style keys that poke through holes in the deck (and no DVD drive or removable battery). Samsung’s Series 5 and Series 8, Lenovo’s IdeaPads and Hewlett-Packard’s Envy Spectre were among the drool-worthiest.

Weird and wonderful

For $20, RCA will sell you a wall plate that plugs into a standard two-jack power outlet — and changes it into a one-outlet, two-USB-jack plate for ease of charging your gadgets. For $3,000, you can buy a Swiss Army knife that, along with the usual knives and scissors, includes a tiny 1-terabyte flash drive.

LG’s top-of-the-line refrigerator includes the Blast Chiller, a special rocking chamber that cools a can of beer or soda in five minutes. The PowerBag is a line of backpacks, rolling luggage and messenger bags that charge up your gadgets as you haul them, thanks to a built-in battery and prerouted USB and Apple charging connectors.

Microsoft revealed that its popular Kinect, which plugs into an Xbox and lets you play games just by moving your arms and legs in front of the TV, will now be available for Windows computers. That’s right: Now you’ll be able to dance around spastically in front of your PC too.

The economy might not be great right now, but in the CES bubble, everything is shiny, new, and exciting. If the electronics makers of the world have any say in the matter, what happened in Vegas last week won’t stay in Vegas.



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