LAS VEGAS — The 2009 Consumer Electronics Show that wrapped up on Sunday offered its usual glimpse at what may be the next stage of evolution for products in a number of areas, despite it being a bit more low-key than previous years.
Officials estimated the show’s attendance at about 130,000 — about 10,000 fewer people than last year. But the cab drivers I spoke with said that that business was off by between 20 percent and 30 percent. The aisles were certainly a lot less crowded and hotel rooms — which typically cost $300 or more per night — could be booked at the last minute for under $100.
Even the parties were affected by austerity. Compared to previous years, it was harder to find really good sushi or really large shrimp at the receptions.
And speaking of size, this is the first year in a while that we didn’t see TV companies bragging about whose was bigger. Last year, Panasonic showed off a 150-inch plasma TV, up nearly 50 percent from the 103 inch set it showed off the year before. This year, TV makers were more likely to boast about thinness and energy efficiency than about how large they could make their screens.
Panasonic traded big for thin with a prototype plasma TV that was an incredible 1/3-inch thick. That’s so thin, you can practically shave with it.
Samsung and LG showed off LED-backlit TVs. In addition to higher contrast ratios and blacker blacks, LEDs are more energy efficient than the cold cathode fluorescent lamps typically used in LCD displays.
LG showed off its LHX line of 24.8mm TVs that are both super-thin and lack the cluster of cables that TV owners have to deal with to get a signal to their set. Instead of having to connect to the TV set, cables are plugged into an external box that wirelessly transmits signals to the TV. As a result, the only wire coming from the TV is an electrical cord.
But even that electrical cord may someday become obsolete. Two companies at CES — Powermat and Fulton Innovation showed off wireless charging systems that use near-field inductive coupling to transfer power from a mat or a wireless docking station to a device.
Fulton showed off a blender that gets its power from an “eCoupled countertop” rather than an electrical cord. The same technology could be used for a completely wireless TV attached to an “eCoupled” wall.
The biggest news in TVs came from Samsung, Sony, LG, Toshiba, Panasonic and others who showed off Internet-connected sets in partnership with some big names from the online realm.
While there is nothing new about being able to connect a TV to the Internet, new sets from these companies connect without any type of set-top box, like the Apple TV, Roku Netflix device or game console like the PS/3 or Xbox 360. Instead, the Ethernet connector or Wi-Fi adapter is built-into the TV chassis.
[cob:Special_Report]Panasonic announced Internet-connected TVs that will stream video from Amazon.com. Toshiba, Samsung and LG are among the TV-makers working with Yahoo, which is providing an interface for these devices as well as links to content from Netflix and other providers. Yahoo is also providing widgets that bring news, weather, stock reports and other information directly to the TV set.
At a CES panel, Patrick Barry, vice president for connected TV at Yahoo, said that his company would be working to encourage third-party developers to create additional widgets.
While these TVs show a great deal of promise, I do have two concerns. One is the fact that the content is not entirely open. Despite Yahoo’s promise to work with lots of developers, it’s not a completely open system, like the Web. I’m not saying that TVs ought to necessarily have Web browsers — though I see no harm in the option if consumers want one — but I am worried that Yahoo and others will ultimately be gatekeepers with at least some control over content.
The other thing that worries me is the notion of building rapidly changing technology into a device that people tend to keep for several years. Unlike PCs, people tend to keep TVs for a long time, and long before a new 1080p screen is obsolete, the technology that brings the Internet to that TV might seem very old. Users may be better off purchasing or renting less expensive set-top boxes for their Internet content rather than relying on technology built into their expensive TV sets.
Page 2: Netbooks galore and the return of Palm
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Notebook PCs are also getting small and more energy efficient. Netbooks, which started to take off in 2008, were omnipresent at CES. A Sony spokesperson asked me not to call the company’s new Vaio P Series Lifestyle PC a netbook because, he argued, it has a lot more power and features than the typical stripped down netbooks. He had a point.
The ultra-light machine weighs only 1.4 pounds and is 9.65 inches wide, .78 inches thick and 4.72 inches tall with the screen open, and comes in black, green, red and white. It has a well-sculpted keyboard that’s 92 percent of the size of a standard keyboard, and which is surprisingly easy to type on. It also has plenty of connectivity including Wi-Fi, 3G cellular broadband, GPS and Bluetooth. It comes with Vista and has 2 GB of RAM and either a 60 GB hard drive or 120GB solid-state drive.
In size, it’s smaller than most netbooks, but its price tag, starting at $900, is a lot bigger.
To save space, Sony left-off a track-pad but put in a pointing stick, or “nub,” that sticks up from between G, H and B keys. The LED-backlit 8-inch screen offers a resolution of 1600 x 768, and is certainly small, but reasonably readable.
I was also impressed by a somewhat larger notebook PC from Hewlett-Packard. The HP Mini 2140 sports a 10.1-inch LED display and a classy looking all-aluminum case. At 2.6 pounds, it’s a lot heavier than the new Sony but still quite light. Its 92 percent-scale keyboard is also quite usable, even for touch typists, and with an optional six-cell lithium battery, it should get pretty good battery life.
At a starting point of $499, it’s not the least expensive netbook, but it’s well priced for what it offers.
The biggest buzz from CES came from a very unlikely source. Palm, which has lately been a laggard in the smartphone market, impressed a lot of people with its Pre handset that has pretty much all the features of an iPhone with a pull-out physical QWERTY keyboard.
[cob:In_Focus]The device also features Palm’s new WebOS software that enables users to synchronize contact and calendar data over the air from popular Web sites, including Google’s Gmail, Yahoo and Facebook.
For example, if your friend changes his or her phone number on Facebook, it automatically changes on your Pre. And rather than connect the device to a computer with a cable, it will synchronize data from Web sites and Exchange servers over-the-air, using via the Pre’s 3G Internet connection.
Now that CES is over, the companies that showed off new products can get back to the business of figuring out not just what impresses reviewers and industry insiders, but what consumers will actually buy. Considering the state of the economy, that will be no easy task.
Larry Magid has been a technology columnist and broadcaster for more than two decades as well as a leading Internet safety advocate. In addition to serving as CBS News & CNET Technology analyst, Larry is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and other media outlets.