CES 2010: Get yer gadgets

A review of the new, novel and notable from CES 2010. Published by Pause Magazine, the customer mag from cabler Mediacom Communications that’s produced by the estimable Paul Levine.

From Vegas, with Juice: Tech Gadgets worth Noting
By Stewart Schley

The last truck filled with big-screen TV demo units pulled away from the parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center months ago, but like the flashing neon sign above Harrah’s Casino, the techno-extravaganza that is the annual Consumer Electronics Show never really stops pulsing. Its influence extends beyond the Nevada desert as products that had their coming-out party in Vegas land on store shelves and ultimately in your life (and mine).

This year’s CES, as always, was a bloated, noisy affair, a uniquely American monument to the clever, the too-soon and the “what-were-they-thinking?” within the marketplace for toys and tools featuring electrical cords. (Or batteries.) But for all its hype and din, CES is very good at foreshadowing what’s new and what’s next in gizmo-land.

To that point, CES 2010 was a coming-out party for 3D television, but that was just one hint of what’s ahead in consumer electronics, and a distant one at that. (We’re all for 3D, but battery-powered glasses? Another new TV set? Seriously?) Other categories on display at CES may not be as sexy, but they promise to have more immediate impact. Like these:

Energy monitoring. Real-time metering and control of electricity consumption is supposed to be the stuff of the long-anticipated “smart home,” a term that has always suggested fancy greenbelt housing developments. But somebody forgot to tell the inventive people from Tenrehte Technologies of Rochester, N.Y. The semiconductor company won a CES Best of Show award for its nifty, inexpensive system for monitoring energy consumption and getting the most appliance bang for your utility buck. Tenrehte’s Picowatt system not only tells you how much juice you’re using, it can automatically cut off standby power to TV sets or other devices when they don’t need it. Individual “smart plugs” that plug into power outlets will cost around $79 when they’re introduced later this spring.

Digital imaging. A CES Innovations award went to the Eye-Fi ProX2 ($149), a clever combination of secure digital photo memory card and wireless communication device. It resides inside your digital camcorder like a normal card, but it connects to your PC through your home Wi-Fi network, meaning you don’t have to fiddle with that pesky hard-wired USB cable to get photos and videos off your camera and onto your computer or to a website. New this year: Class 6 transfer rates, meaning even the fattest files get written fast.

Mini-PCs. Yeah, we get that tablet computing devices are the Next Big Thing. But there’s still life and innovation going on in the netbook space, typified by HP’s new line of inexpensive ($399 and up) PCs that handle basic applications and web surfing while throwing in some sweet extras. HP’s Mini 5102 borrows from the smartphone world by adding touch-screen control on top of a standard keyboard. If you’re on the go, it’s a dandy device. Lenovo’s sleekly profiled Idea Pad series also is worth a look.

Portable power: Someday, your 401k will double in value every six months, and batteries will last forever. Until then, you can fortify the juice with a portable power device like Duracell’s SmartPower Wireless Charging System, also a CES Innovations honoree (the price isn’t set yet). It’s capable of delivering up to 35 hours of power to any USB-compatible device, like a mobile phone, Kindle reader or iPod. If your battery dies out there on the lonely road, it’s a nice friend to have. As for the 401k thing? They’re still working on that.

Automotive Internet. It’ll have impact, alright. But unfortunately, it’s the kind that will make your monthly premiums rise. If there was a bad idea brewing at CES, this was it. (Well, this and a $150 fake electric guitar called the Fingerist.) Browsing the dashboard for restaurant reviews and Wikipedia entries at 55 MPH? Or 30 MPH? Or even 5 MPH? Doesn’t matter: It’s a huge distraction. And potentially a lethal one at that. Worse yet: unconvincing PR statements from developers about commitments to ensure safety. A big thumbs down to Intel, Google and a handful of car makers for pursing the wrong kind of killer application.

CES: fabulous flops

Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show, the technology industry lays on the techno-hype thicker than the hard case of an old IBM PS/1. But there are always plenty of duds on display alongside the breakthroughs. Here’s a completely random list of some notable strikeouts from CES shows past.

Apple’s Pippin game console, 1996: Remember it? Neither do we.

Flexplay DVD, 2003: A disposable DVD that rotted into unplayable form after 24 hours. It even turned black.

Microsoft MSN Smartwatch, 2004: Headlines would appear on your wrist. Nobody knew why you’d want them there.

Apple’s Newton, 1989: Everything Apple’s gorgeous new iPad isn’t, it was. Clunky, heavy, eye-straining, ugly. And now history.

Nokia N-Gage, 2003: A portable game player that doubled as a phone. Except it looked like you were talking into a flank steak.

HD-DVD, 2006: Nothing like a format war to confuse consumers and lose money. It lost, Blu-ray won.