14/01/2007

CES: OVER ALL THOUGHTS

I'm in Seattle, relaxing at the airport before my flight to San Francisco then on to Auckland.
I've been using T-Mobile wi-fi hotspots to stay online during my time in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Seattle and I must say, I'm impressed.

Also, I just did a speedtest from Seattle to Auckland for Juha at Geekzone and the results were reasonable. As Juha points out, downloading from Auckland to Seattle is slower than uploading from Seattle to Auckland due to the asynchronous nature of the internet connections between the US and our part of the world. We're at a disadvantage when it comes to getting content out quickly which means we will likely never host a Youtube.com type service. We can host our services in the US with relative ease and at low cost, but we are in less control of it, which is a concern.

Seattle is blanketed in snow and as I sit here I'm able to reflect on what a fantastic show CES was - the best tech showcase I've ever experienced. All that we've been promised for years is finally coming together in terms of the interconnected digital experience.

Here's my Herald story outlining some, but only some of the highlights...

Size Matters in Flat-screen World

By Peter Griffin

LAS VEGAS - Amid the chaos of the world’s biggest electronics show they displayed images of utter calm – stunning shots of the earth taken from space and luxurious aerial footage of New Zealand’s Southern alps. What better way to sell the latest in high definition, flat-screen TVs to the world?

The big picture

Those flat-screen TVs increasingly sit at the centre of the high-definition world all of the vendors at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas were touting this week.

High definition games, movies and TV shows are no use unless you have a high-definition screen to display them.

But the screens have remained at price points, that even with the steep discounting of the last two years, have remained out of reach of most consumers.

Global demand for plasma and LCD screens is estimated to grow by 52 per cent this year with prices falling further. CES saw the likes of Panasonic, Sony and LG tout wider ranges of LCD and plasma screens at full high definition (1080p) and with new technologies built into them to make the images more life-like.

The TV makers tried to outdo each other by showing off the largest flat-screen TVs available. Sharp won out with its 108 inch LCD screen.

At the same time new screen technologies threaten to displace the current ones. Sony showed off an OLED (organ light emitting diode) TV, which boasts a better picture than many of its LCD counterparts.

Windows of opportunity

The unveiling of the Apple iPhone at Apple’s own MacWorld show in San Francisco arguably stole CES’s thunder, but Microsoft made a big impact touting the features of its new operating system Vista, which was voted best new product by the influential tech new website CNet.

Vista goes on sale here at the end of the month, starting at $259 for an upgrade from Windows XP to Vista Home Basic, through to $979 for a new version of Vista Ultimate. Microsoft was at pains to point out the value in Vista for everyone from casual consumers to demanding business users. Vista’s new user interface and improved security are its biggest improvements over Windows XP, but new additions such as Windows Home Server, which allows consumers to store all their digital content on a media hub they can access from anywhere via the internet, is designed to make a shift to Vista more attractive.

Elsewhere, Microsoft sought to make its Xbox 360 gaming console the focus in the living room, with an internet TV service that allows users to stream pay TV stations to their Xbox 360s, instead of using a set-top box from a pay TV operator.

IPTV requires a high-speed internet connection to operate. With an abundance of cable and fibre connections to homes in the US, speed isn’t an issue. But with most New Zealanders connecting at slower speeds over copper lines, IPTV is also likely to get off to a slower start here until broadband services improve.

A high-definition truce

The voice of reason cut through the crowded halls of CES on Monday when Korean electronics maker LG introduced a new disc player that supports the two main rival standards for high-definition content – Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

While the dual-format player carries a hefty price premium at US$1200 and has a number of technical limitations, it’s seen as a progressive move for consumers who are holding off buying high-definition players and discs until a winner emerges in the latest format war. If LG gets its way, that battle for supremacy among consumer electronics brands such as Sony and Toshiba, will be made irrelevant.

There’s even mounting support for the idea from the usually reticent entertainment industry. Warner Bros proposed a new disc format called Total HD, incorporating both high definition formats, which allow several times the capacity of a DVD to be held on one disc and movies to be displayed with better picture quality.

Locked in

Hollywood’s growing presence at CES – producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney president Robert Iger were among this year’s presenters – indicates the importance the entertainment industry is placing on the technology used to distribute its content, but digital rights management (DRM) issues could serve to derail the seamless digital integration the tech sector is striving for.

Apple with its hugely popular iPod and iTunes software, uses a proprietary copyright protection system to prevent music downloaded from the iTunes.com music store being shifted onto non-Apple devices. With the launch of Apple TV, a digital hub for media content in the lounge and the iPhone, critics suggest Apple’s adherence to a closed DRM system will hinder consumers not happy to exist solely in the Apple world. Microsoft, the other main user of DRM technology is following the same route as Apple with its Zune music player, which will carry your music collection, but won’t play music bought from Apple and only connects to Microsoft’s own Zune Marketplace music store.

With content now well and truly king, consumers are in danger of having the promise of the digital living room spoiled by incompatible DRM formats that prevent them from freely moving their content between devices.

Peter Griffin attended CES as a guest of Microsoft

My Herald on Sunday column on Windows Home Server...

HOT TECHNOLOGY: A DIGITAL HUB FOR THE HOME

by Peter Griffin

Not many things have changed in Las Vegas since my last visit a couple of years ago. The San Remo Hotel has renamed itself Hooters and hired bustier waitresses and Steve Wynn’s golf course is finally finished. But as the Las Vegas-resident illusionist Jillette Pen (of Penn &Teller) points out every night during his show - the city’s greatest asset is still the bad mathematics skills of its millions of visitors. They keep on coming. So do the tech heads and computer companies, drawn each year to the Consumer Electronics Show, which is now in its 30th year. To celebrate the milestone, the CES organisers dug out some photos from the first CES show held in 1967 in New York. They show a group of middle-aged suited men standing around a Hitachi computer the size of an ATM. How things have changed. The gadgets are smaller and smarter than ever, if not cheaper.

If there was any theme at CES this year, it was that the convergence of digital devices that’s been promised for so long, is finally happening at a level that consumers can relate to. Everywhere I looked at CES, companies were showing off new devices that gather together all of your digital content in the home then serve it up to your mobile devices or to other locations via the internet.

A good example is the debut of Microsoft’s Windows Home Server, new software that lets you back-up and store all of your digital media in one place and access it via a web browser when you’re away from home.

I’ve been doing this for years in a rudimentary sense using an FTP (file transfer protocol) server to store all my valuable files online. All I need to access them is an internet connection and a web brower.

Windows Home Server extends this concept to home computer users and importantly, makes it easy to us.

It’s designed for houses with multiple PCs, Xbox 360 consoles and digital cameras who want to share the documents photos, music and video on those computers and avoid losing any of it if one of the machines fails.

Rather than replicating the features of Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows Vista, Home Server is based on the Windows Server 2003 platform, which is generally used by businesses to share files across their networks.

Home Server sets up separate accounts for everyone in the family and organises folders of their files on an external storage device, separate to your computer. Several manufacturers are climbing onboard as hardware providers. The most prominent one at CES was Hewlett Packard with its MediaSmart Server, which has bays for including the hard drives to hold your digital content and software tools to help you organize and access it.

The idea with this HP box is that you hide it out of sight in a closet. It’s a computer, but there’s no screen, no keyboard. It sits there, connected to your network router via an Ethernet cable and on a daily basis backs up the entire contents of your computers.

Using an interface called Windows Home Server Console, you can log onto the server to view the files and control access to them. If you have files on your Xbox 360 console, on a new Vista machine or any device that supports the Windows Media Connect standard, you can access the content on those devices. It means you could play video on your computer in the bedroom that’s stored on the Xbox 360 in the lounge.

That’s all great for the home, but one of the most useful features of Home Server will be used away from the house. Remote Connect lets you log into the server remotely, via a secure web browser connection. It’s a bit like logging into your web mail account where you may already store files.

Microsoft says it will offer on Windows Live, free web domains for Home Server users so, they have an address on the web they can surf to and log into their home network. With all this digital content now at our fingertips, security and access restrictions will be crucial but the benefits are potentially great for those families with big digital content collections.

COOL NEW STUFF – THE BEST OF CES

SHARP 108 INCH LCD

The biggest spectacle at CES, literally, was Sharp’s new 108 inch LCD TV set. The thing is massive, as big as a queen-sized bed, and delivers a pretty good quality picture too. It’s debut came as two other TV makers – Panasonic and LG, debuted large plasma screen TVs. Panasonic’s 103 inch plasma sells for US$70,000, while LG’s 71-inch plasma will sell for around US$15,000. Sharp’s LCD monster hasn’t yet had a price tag put on it, but the screen can display full high-definition video (1080p) so will be able to feature all those new HD movies in all their pixel-perfect glory.

www.sharp.com

SANDISK SANSA CONNECT

It doesn’t quite have the sex appeal of Apple’s new iPhone, but SanDisk’s new wireless music player threatens to take a bite out of its other major rival – Microsoft’s Zune. The Sansa Connect follows the Zune in providing built-in Wi-Fi networking which allows users to connect to online music stores to download music and to listen to internet radio stations. Sansa Connect will be internet-ready wherever there’s Wi-Fi coverage. There’s also a strong community aspect to the device, with an online marketplace allowing users to trade music recommendations. The Sansa View is a new media player with a four inch colour screen and eight gigabytes of built-in storage. It signal’s SanDisk’s debut in the portable video player market.

Price: US$250 (4GB version)

www.sandisk.com

NOKIA N800

Nokia’s new internet tablet device would look pretty unremarkable where it not for the fact that the Finnish mobile phone maker has joined forces with Skype – the leading free internet calling provider. This is a serious move for Nokia, which makes its bread and butter selling phones to mobile network operators who view Skype as the arch enemy. The Nokia N800 is a compact, wide-screen device with a high-resolution colour screen that allows you to access the internet, use instant messaging and make internet phone calls – all at the same time if you wish. There’s Wi-Fi for connecting to wireless networks and Bluetooth to link with other devices. 128MB of onboard memory can be supplemented by SD memory cards. The N800 runs on the Linux operating system and the Skype client which will be used to make make free internet calls will debut early this year.

Price: 399 (euros)

www.nokia.com

HP TOUCHSMART

A good number of computers debuted at CES, but the most impressive in my opinion was the HP TouchSmart IQ770, which features a touch screen that lets you navigate your media collection by tapping on the screen rather than a keyboard. The TouchSmart runs on the new Windows Vista operating system and has a 19 inch screen which can display an electronic notepad and calendar for the family to keep track of each other. There’s a wireless keyboard and a compartment at the rear to slot in a compact HP PhotoSmart photo printer, with the photos shooting out the front of the computer. With two dual-core AMD Turion 64 processors and 2GB of memory, the TouchSmart is also incredibly powerful. There’s also a 320GB hard drive for media storage, multi-format DVD burner and a TV tuner for recording live TV.

Price:US$1799

www.hp.com

LG BLU-RAY & HD-DVD DRIVE

Korea electronics maker LG stole the early part of the CES show with the BH100, a disc player that will play both Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs. In doing so, it effectively makes the high-definition media format war irrelevant before it even begins. But it’s not that simple. For one thing, the BH100 is incredibly expensive and has to make compromises to accommodate both formats. The biggest sacrifice is regular CD playback. It also won’t support the interactive functions of HD-DVD discs, but adds interactive functions for Blu-ray discs. So the BH-100 is a mixed bag, but all credit to LG for making the bold move of delivering a combo drive, the type of which will save consumers major headaches when it has been somewhat refined.

Price: US$1200

www.lg.com

2 comments:

flatscreenforum said...

Regarding Windows Vista, I've heard that you probably don't want to try upgrading your current computer, so we'll all have to treat ourselves to shiny new machines.

All the best

Flat Screen Forum UK

Juha said...

Asymmetric would be the right word, but the links to the outside world aren't, as far as I know. In fact, as a network engineer pointed out, the asymmetry lies in the inbound traffic being something like three to four times higher than outbound.

Logically, that would mean outbound traffic would go faster, as there's less congestion.

I've yet to see that though, but it's an issue worth exploring further, with better tools than Speedtest (which after all relies on the various ISPs hosting the servers).