I haven't posted for 5 days because I've been at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the largest annual tradeshow in the country. Indeed, judging from the crowds, most people on Earth (including ALL the venture capitalists) were in Vegas this weekend. I surely would have run out of patience inching my way down the infinite taxi lines, if not for the company of porn stars in town for the concurrent Adult Video Expo.
For the handful of you who weren't there, here's my quick rundown on what you might want to buy this year, based entirely on the 5 types of consumer electronics on my personal shopping list...
Parents know that by the age of 3 months, baby heads will always turn to an active TV screen. They just can't help it. Unfortunately, I've never outgrown this behavior, and apparently I'm not the only one. At CES, bright, eye-popping, expansive flat panel displays covered just about every wall.
Panasonic still makes the best plasma displays, but who needs the high price tag, power consumption and burn-in of plasma when LCD panels have reached parity in size, brightness and color? Though LCD panels usually suffer from a bit of flicker around moving surfaces, or even a "screen door" effect on solid colors, perfect images are now available if you step up to LCD panels from either Panasonic, Samsung, Aquos (made by Sharp), or Hitachi. IMHO, upgrading a TV to the eye-popping colors of a great flat panel display enhances viewing even more than adding HDTV content.
As for projectors, there was only one. Sure, vendors distracted us by displaying hundreds of impostors--plastic junk that cast dim shadows reminiscent of scratchings on the walls of a dark cave. But only Fujitsu's LPF-D711 projected a wall-size image with the lumens and crispness of a high-end flat panel. I hate to report that the Fujitsu costs $25,000, but if you've got it, spend it here.
Finally, this was the first CES with displays that support progressive scan HDTV at full resolution (1080P). The Fujitsu projector and flat panels I recommended above all support 1080P.
2. HIGH-DEF DVD'S
Just when it looked like Sony's Blu-Ray had pulled ahead in the format wars, HP announced support for HD-DVD, joining Toshiba, Microsoft and Intel. Why did HP do that, when Sony, which owns a major movie studio, is in a particularly strong position to dictate format? In reality, Sony Pictures hurts Blu-Ray more than it helps--naively crusading for DRM, the studio execs continue to hamper Blu-Ray so that users can't easily rip or stream DVD's (as if we'll all buy a copy of Rent for each TV).
This war will last for years. Meanwhile, if you must have high-def in 2006, there will be far more content available for Blu-Ray than for HD-DVD.
3. HOME AUTOMATION
Home automation includes the remote control, synchronization and monitoring of electronic products through wall switches, remote controls, phones, PDAs, PCs and web browsers. I observed this year at CES that home automation products have finally matured to the point where consumers can stitch together broad, integrated functionality in existing homes without having to pay $50,000+ for professional installation and programming.
(Yes, the X10 protocol has been around for 20+ years to cheaply control household elements over powerlines, but I and many others know from experience that X10 does not work reliably, especially in large homes or alongside increasingly common electronics that draw current even when turned off.)
The first step is to decide which electronics you wish to control--lights, media, climate control, sprinklers, shades, window cranks, thermostats, door locks, alarms, garage doors, etc. (For some of those elements, you will need to replace existing products with controllable ones.) Then select a control protocol that supports those devices through in-house powerlines or wireless -- such as Z-Wave, Zigbee or Insteon. (Since Z-Wave is furthest along, my firm Bessemer invested in Zensys, the Z-Wave chip vendor, as did Cisco.) Finally, buy and install products that control those elements using your selected protocol, such as wall switches, touch panels, remote controls, TV interfaces, key fobs, and PC application or widget.
3. MEDIA DISTRIBUTION
The market for standalone Personal Video Recorders (PVR) is going away as consumers choose between PVR set-top boxes from their cable/satellite/IPTV service provider (Easy) and Microsoft Media Center (Robust). For anyone who wishes to integrate multiple PVR's (including handheld ones), Media Center is the best choice. As a platform, Media Center can also accommodate home video, video surveillance feeds, and third party video streams like Movielink.
Compelled by the promise of taking Scrubs and Monk with me on the road (as well as a $299 show special) I jumped into the world of mobile PVR by purchasing Creative's Zen Vision video player. It has nice resolution but what really distinguishes it from the dozens of competitors (most of which run Microsoft Mobile) is the 30GB of internal storage.
For audio distribution in the home, the best choice is still Sonos, though the company has been painfully slow filling in its product family. Sonos has waited a full year to debut a follow-on product, which appears to be nothing more than last year's product without the amplifier.
4. SMART PHONES
The Motorola Q phone preview was the belle of the ball, promising Verizon subscribers Microsoft Mobile, EVDO, a QWERTY keyboard, Bluetooth, and Razr-thin style.
5. HOME TELEPHONY SWITCH
Nothing--I couldn't find a single telephony switch at the show. Is Panasonic still the only choice for residential switches? With an increasing number of virtual phone lines (Vonage, Skype, fax, POTS, doorbell intercom, docked cell phone), it's impossible to reach them over cordless phones without the benefit of a switch.
Obviously, I've reported on just a sliver of what was at the show. There were entire neighborhoods devoted to other product categories like gaming consoles, photography, satellite radio and telematics. (Who Has Time For This?) I managed to cover less than half the real estate, and I missed the Innovations Zones at the Sands where, among other things, one could browse home robotics and media-enhanced exercise equipment. With all the opportunities to meet people, I didn't even have time to lose money at the poker tables or catch an evening show.
I did, however, find a seat at an Oxygen Bar, which applies a series of therapies over 15 minutes to Refresh the Soul. The spiritual diet includes oil for your hands, a whiff of strong-smelling alcohol, a 30-second neck massage by the dude behind the bar, a disgusting little cocktail laden with caffeine and sugar, and, of course, air. With all that New Age nutrition, I did, as promised, feel tranquil, balanced, holistically well, naturally high, internally resonant, and lighter... precisely, $22 lighter. Oh, and I also got some oil in my eye which hurt like a motherfucker.
Of course, the real highlight of my trip was bumping into Penn Jilette, but that's another post.