Sunday, January 6, 2008

2008 CES: Simply Beautiful

I'm not referring to CES itself when I say "simply beautiful", although Las Vegas is certainly a very bright and lively city. Rather, simplicity and beauty are underlying themes at the show, which is set to officially commence on Monday, January 7.

Today, Sunday, January 6, was deemed "press day" where major manufacturers gathered journalists of all kinds (including the new "blogger" designation, of which I noticed many) to learn about what's coming down the pike in 2008. The day is stressful, it's hot, you stand in line after line with fellow journalists bumping into you, stepping on your feet, and pushing you to get the best seats in the house or the free swag. But it's all worth it to see what's hot for the new year.

Before I get into all the goodies, I want to first address what's been the talk of the streets, so to speak, here at the show. Warner's decision to abandon the HD DVD high-definition DVD format and support Blu-ray exclusively has really put a thorn in HD DVD's side, and many are predicting that there will be an end to the format war earlier than we had anticipated. I must admit that the loss of Warner is quite a hefty blow, but we'll see how things pan out throughout the course of the show and the weeks that follow.

Now, back to press day. The design/lifestyle theme isn't really a "new" one: consumer electronics products have been looking sleek and sexy for ages. But we're seeing a revitalized emphasis in the flat-panel arena, specifically. I already discussed the expected trending toward thin-bezel designs, and new product announcements proved this to be true. Toshiba announced a new 52" model in its Super Narrow Bezel LCD line that's just 0.9" thin, and can fit in the spot typically occupied by a 46" model! Panasonic is taking the "thin" theme to Blu-ray with what it deems the "world's thinnest" Blu-ray disc drive; while Sharp displayed a 65" prototype LCD that is less than 1" thin and weighs 88 lbs. (and with a contrast of 100,000:1 to boot!)

But there are also other, aesthetically-pleasing enhancements being made in the category. Samsung is adding a "touch of colour" to its displays via a seamless cabinet that eliminates screws on the front, and adds, well, a touch of colour to the frame. Meanwhile, Sony is taking aesthetics to a whole new level with the launch of an 11" OLED TV that's actually available for purchase today! They say good things come in small packages, and they're right. Sure, it's a far stretch from a 60" TV in your home theatre, and lifespan issues persist. But with images so superbly gorgeous, you can't help but stare in awe.

Of course although a nice-looking TV is great, it's what's inside that counts, right? We all know about 1080p, 120 Hz refresh rate, and fast response times that are being incorporated into the latest and greatest flat-panels. But every manufacturer also demonstrated a specific focus on inter-connectivity, either involving the Web itself, and/or among various devices. Take Sharp's new AQUOS Net feature, for example, which provides access via an Ethernet port on the TV to a portal with neat items like sports, weather reports, traffic updates, and even entertainment through partnerships with companies like NBC. Just press a button on the remote, and up comes an interactive menu. J.W. Park, President of Samsung Electronics' Digital Media Group demonstrated a new feature that would allow a video captured on its new camcorder to be wirelessly streamed to a TV, along with its new Series 7 LCDs that would include a built-in Ethernet port and a side-mounted USB slot. Panasonic is focusing heavily on the flash memory card format, incorporating one in many new products scheduled for introduction, ranging from new high-def camcorders, to plasma and LCDs, GPS devices, and even an integrated home theatre system (which also includes a Blu-ray player and iPod dock). What's more, the company (which brands its own SD memory cards) will be launching a 32 GB (yes, you read that correctly!) later this month. Although a price point wasn't announced, we can expect it to be somewhat substantial.

Philips' most promising "integration" device is its BTM-630, which can play back CDs, has an iPod dock, SD card slot, USB port, and Bluetooth technology for connecting with a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. It can also serve as a speakerphone for your phone, and even shows the caller information on its screen. When a call comes through, it will automatically pause music, then resume once it's been terminated.

Noteworthy is also Samsung's announcement of its first prototype products using A-VSB mobile TV, an open industry standard for broadcast TV. "It transforms the digital broadcast signal to be able to reach mobile devices,"explained John Godfrey. "Using the over-the-air spectrum, it can deliver things like news, weather, and sports. It turns local TV into mobile platforms."
Snagging the award for the most unusual integrated, connected device of the day, however, is Sony. The Rolly is an egg-shaped device that can play back music from its 2 GB of flash memory or streamed from a Walkman or other MP3 player, a PC, or the new PSP. What's odd about Rolly is that it also dances to that music, rolling and gyrating on the surface with which it sits. "We've created a new way to listen and enjoy music," explained the company's Senior V.P. Rick Clancy. Indeed they have.

That brings us to another theme: simplicity, which was explicitly expressed through taglines like Philips' "Sense and Simplicity" and Samsung's "Life made simple". The focus here is, well, simple. Create products that are easy to use. Sharp takes this philosophy one step further via an Advantage Live tech-support service that would allow the rep (with the customer's permission, of course) access his TV remotely to troubleshoot problems, check settings, etc.

Finally, the last stand-out theme at this show was, by far, environmental initiatives. Arguably the most significant announcement involves the formation of the Electronic Manufacturer's Recycling Management Company, LLC or "MRM", which consists of a partnership among Toshiba, Panasonic, and Sharp. The three companies have joined forces to manage the collection and recycling of electronics within the U.S. The organization has already made arrangements with Hitachi, JVC, Mitsubishi, Philips, Pioneer, Sanyo, and Olevia. Kudos to these guys for taking initiative on helping make the world greener!

So much was announced and discussed today that it would be impossible for me to cover it all here. However, judging from my observations, we can look forward to a lot of simple and beautiful products, enhanced connectivity among all product categories, and an increased focus on helping the environment.

Stay tuned for more information throughout the show.

[Photo: Sony's OLED is just 11" in size, but it packs a lot of punch in picture quality.]

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