From Vista to Viiv in Vegas

Reporter’s Notebook: LAS VEGAS — NFL playoffs aside, the usual game of pick-the-winner didn’t play in Las Vegas last week.

No single product or announcement dominated the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, aside from Microsoft beating the drum for Windows Vista, days before the operating system’s official retail release. Instead, PC and peripheral vendors’ exhibits were more evolutionary, with technologies hyped in past years — from multimedia home networks to terabyte-class storage — moving from vaporware to polished products.

Of course no one ignored Vista. Microsoft’s ad slogan — “The ‘Wow’ Starts Now” — topped dozens of Vegas taxis. Monitor makers were quick to tout their wares as Vista-certified, while home and office PC sellers vowed to preload Windows Vista Home Premium and Vista Business, respectively. (Bill Gates’ keynote contained a couple of plugs for features restricted to the top-priced Vista Ultimate.)

OQO dubbed its 1-pound Model 02 portable the world’s smallest Vista PC. The 5.6 by 3.3 by 1-inch subnotebook replaces the Model 01’s 1GHz Transmeta CPU with a 1.5GHz VIA C7-M chip, while adding features such as 802.11a/b/g plus Bluetooth plus optional Sprint EV-DO wireless; backlighting for its smartphone-style thumb keyboard; a shock-mounted 60GB hard drive; and HDMI, as well as VGA output for its 5-inch display.

A Win XP Professional configuration with 1GB of memory is $1,849 plus $399 for a DVD±RW docking station.

Speaking of Vista portables, Asus and Fujitsu showed notebook designs that showed off the OS’s Sideshow function — secondary LCD screens on the outside of the case that can show e-mails or appointment-calendar updates even while the laptop is closed in suspend mode.

Toshiba’s Portege R400 ($2,599 and up) is a 3.8-pound, 12.1-inch-screened Tablet PC convertible that puts the Sideshow function, called Active Notifications, on a spiffy LCD marquee on its front edge.

The company boasts that the R400 is also the first portable to offer a wireless port replicator, a desktop monitor-and-peripherals dock with Ultra Wide Band (UWB) technology supporting digital video and automatic hookup when the Portege’s in proximity.

If Active Notifications aren’t impressive enough, Microsoft showed the latest generation of the Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT), which powers gadget geeks’ MSN Direct wristwatches. The Melitta Smart Mill & Brew coffeemaker displays animated weather info and four-day forecasts.

A possible but bulky neighbor on the kitchen counter is HP’s new TouchSmart PC, an AMD Turion 64 X2-powered Media Center PC/TV with a hide-away wireless keyboard and remote control.

Tapping the 19-inch widescreen display lets users watch TV, visit a Web site, or access a family calendar with refrigerator-magnet-style notes, reminders, or shopping lists plus voice recordings. Digital camera buffs can place one of HP’s 4 by 6-inch photo printers behind the TouchSmart so photos emerge beneath the screen.

Here, there, and everywhere

Another HP home appliance is due in the second half of this year. The MediaSmart Server uses the also-announced-at-CES Windows Home Server operating system — based on Windows Server 2003, with a friendly interface resembling Win XP Media Center Edition — to manage content in what Gates described as “homes where you’ve got multiple PCs and Xboxes, where you want to have all your storage available at all times, to all devices.”

Providing snap-in cradles and bays for up to four Serial ATA hard drives, the MediaSmart Server handles the routine job of backing up every PC in a home network while centralizing and streaming audio, video, and other content to PCs, TVs, and other connected platforms. If they’ve left the house without bringing some favorite files, owners can access them via a secured Web browser or even tunnel through the server to run applications remotely via Citrix’s GoToMyPC.

Indeed, sharing content among PCs, TVs, mobile phones and other devices was a ubiquitous theme at the show — even without looking forward to a not-too-distant future when music and video are commonly transmitted as IP streams. (Microsoft says it’ll bring IPTV to the Xbox 360 in time for the 2007 holiday season.)

In March, Sony will ship its Vaio WA1 Wireless Digital Music Streamer, a tabletop clock radio that plays music in several popular formats (ATRAC, WMA, MP3, unprotected AAC, and Internet radio) streamed from a PC. The $350 gadget can also store the contents of an audio CD in memory for computer-free tunes.

Sling Media, whose Slingbox and software client show TV programming on a PC, not only added Palm’s Treo 700 as an eligible receiver but announced SlingCatcher, a “reverse Slingbox” that will relocate the likes of MP3 songs and YouTube videos to the living-room TV.

Netgear’s $349 Digital Entertainer HD will discover or detect movies, TV shows, music, and images on multiple connected PCs and route them to an HDTV set via an HDMI output. Second-generation 42- and 47-inch models of HP’s MediaSmart HDTV sets will add speedy 802.11n to 802.11a/b/g wireless for streaming everything from recorded TV and DivX videos to Rhapsody music and Internet radio.

Next page: HD your way

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High-def hijinks

Reporter’s Notebook: The ability to stream video from the PC that recorded it to other venues might lighten some of the digital-rights-management and copy-protection baggage. The prospect of physically moving video, however, or burning high-definition DVDs of anything other than your own HD camcorder movies, remains murky.

But that hasn’t stopped the addition of HDTV tuners to the NTSC analog gear of Media Center PCs — although shoppers will need to look closely, with some tuners and systems limited to over-the-air, instead of satellite and cable HD, programming.

AMD revived the ATI TV Wonder brand for what it calls the first DTV receiver for Windows Vista Media Center, a CableLabs-certified digital cable tuner promised to arrive at the end of this month in a variety of desktops and notebooks. An OEM instead of retail product, the TV Wonder lets users watch live or record HD broadcasts to add to a programming library or stream to an Xbox 360, if content providers permit it.

AMD also promoted its Live counterpart to Intel’s Viiv label for home-entertainment PCs, displaying both Athlon 64 X2-based home cinema and Turion 64 X2-powered notebook reference designs, as well as working with HP on the latter’s MediaSmart Server.

Sony calls its Vaio TP1 living-room PC a spherical (actually, a stubby cylindrical) variation on the Media Center theme; the WiFi-equipped, Core 2 Duo-powered PC will ship in March with a 300GB hard disk and wireless keyboard and mouse for $1,600.

A more powerful, stereo-receiver-lookalike Vaio XL3 ($3,300) features a Blu-ray disc burner and liquid cooling for near-silent operation, as well as CableCard support to serve as an HD digital video recorder.

Speaking of Blu-ray, the war between that 25GB/50GB disc format and its 15GB/30GB rival HD-DVD saw the same expressions of vendor frustration as CES 2006 — for example, Acer’s announcement of one notebook PC with an HD-DVD reader and another with a Blu-ray drive.

One potential solution came from Warner Brothers, which hopes the entertainment industry will adopt its Total Hi Def disc — a combo platter with HD-DVD on one side and Blu-ray on the other.

LG Electronics went further, unveiling two products expected to reach retailers next month under the Super Multi Blue brand. The BH-100 is a dual-format HD DVD/Blu-ray home-theater player, while the GGW-H10N is a PC drive capable of recording Blu-ray as well as reading both Blu-ray and HD DVD media. Each will cost approximately $1,200.

Toshiba also promised a version of its 17-inch-screened Qosmio Media Center laptop with an HD-DVD burner, as well as the current model G35-AV660’s playback capability.

And if you think the 10.3-pound Qosmio is something, HP subsidiary VoodooPC’s Envy HW:201 gaming notebook flaunted a 20-inch display and available Nvidia SLI graphics with dual 512MB GeForce Go 7950 cards. Outfitted with AMD’s Turion 64 X2 TL-60, 4GB of DDR-2, and twin 160GB hard drives, the luggable is $7,734. It’s also a colossal 17 pounds.

High-speed hardware

The Envy wasn’t the only hardcore gaming PC at the show, with VoodooPC, Dell subsidiary Alienware, and Dell itself displaying quad-core, overclocked monster desktops.

CoolIT Systems showed off its MTEC liquid-cooling technology, which combines a dual-thermal-plate heatsink with multiple ceramic heat pumps to keep overclocked CPUs and component-packed PC cases from getting heat stroke, in both Dell’s XPS 710 H2C Edition and Shuttle’s SDXi small-form-factor gaming systems.

Microsoft also got in on the gaming action, following its first team-up with fast-twitch specialist Razer USA — last summer’s Rabu first-person-shooter mouse — with the Reclusa gaming keyboard.

Slated to ship this spring for $70, the Reclusa features ambient blue backlighting, ultra-low-latency key response, two 360-degree jog dials, six programmable hot keys, and gold-plated USB ports.

As an alternative to hot-rod processors, another performance-boosting technology appeared simultaneously in two coat-pocket portables: New versions of Samsung’s Q1P UMPC (Ultra-Mobile PC) and Sony’s Vaio UX Micro PC feature 32MB Flash drives instead of conventional hard disks.

The solid-state storage means faster bootup and program and data access, plus lower-power consumption to boost battery life. The 1.3-pound Samsung is $1,999 with a 1GHz Pentium M ULV processor and 7-inch, 800 by 480-pixel touch screen, while the 1.2-pound Vaio UX is $2,500 with 1.2GHz Core Solo U1400 power and a 4.5-inch, 1,024 by 600 display.

Finally, robots may not yet be fixtures in every home, but they’re perennial crowd-pleasers at CES.

At one extreme, Honda showed a new version of its famed ASIMO humanoid robot capable of not only walking and climbing stairs but running at up to four miles per hour, pushing a cart, and accepting or handing off an object such as a tray.

At the other extreme, iRobot — makers of the floor-roaming Roomba vacuum cleaner as well as remote-controlled explorers and bomb handlers aiding our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — introduced a Roomba variant designed for students and aspiring robotics engineers.

The $130 iRobot Create is a programmable, mobile platform with sensor and actuator interfaces to give innovators a head start on new applications. A popular sample was a robot that can find a refrigerator, open the door, grab a beverage can, and return to its starting location.

Eric Grevstad is executive editor of the Personal Technology channel of JupiterWeb.

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