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CES 2012: Answers To Your Electronics Questions – Not All That You’ll Like

By: Rob Pegoraro 18 January 2012

LAS VEGAS–Summing up CES in a word is no problem: “Overwhelming” usually suffices. But if you have to fill a CES 2012 Central Hall500-word blog post or an 800-word photo gallery… that’s when things get tricky.

With a record 1.86 million square feet of exhibit space, I and the other estimated 153,000 attendees had a lot of hardware to survey.

It’s easy to get caught up in the specifics of new models on display and judge the show by the dent they made in the market. But you’ll get more useful insights if you zoom out a bit to see what patterns emerge from those details.

So instead of considering the new hardware unveiled at this year’s CES, I’d rather assess how all that gear might answer a few questions I often hear about the electronics industry.

“Will my next TV cost any less?”

HDTV manufacturers might as well have hoisted a “Mission Accomplished” banner over the Las Vegas Convention Center. The surest sign that prices haven’t finished dropping was not a wave of bargain-priced flat-panels on the floor (CES exhibits rarely lead off with loss leaders), but the spotlight manufacturers turned on expensive, breakthrough TV technologies like OLED (organic light-emitting diode) and 4K (four times HD resolution) screens.

I am in even less of a rush to buy either of those next-gen sets than I am to buy a 3D TV. But if a fresh round of high-end sets, with appropriately magnified profit margins, in effect subsidizes TVs for the 99 percent—please, go right ahead.

“Will I get a better, cheaper choice of things to watch?”

Once again, manufacturers are stepping up their efforts to provide a wider set of Internet media sources on connected TVs—in some cases, including full Web browsers, whether as part of a Google TV package or in a homebuilt setup.

Unfortunately, manufacturers don’t cast the only vote here: Most sports sites continue to shut out law-abiding viewers with regional blackouts. And if you want to get your cable or satellite box’s monthly cost out of the equation—forget it. After more than a decade of work, box-free cable viewing remains confined to TiVo owners and tinkering types willing to watch on a computer with add-on hardware like the HD HomeRun tune I saw. It’s sad that manufacturers have to brag that a new Fios TV app lets subscribers watch 26 channels without a separate tuner; that’s nothing we couldn’t do 15 years ago with a “cable-ready” TV.

“Will my remote get any easier?”

After the overwhelming success of no-remote interfaces like Microsoft’s Kinect, TV manufacturers may finally be taking the hint. At CES, many of them demonstrated control systems built on voice, gesture and even facial recognition with microphones and cameras on upcoming TVs.

Many of these experiments won’t make it into products. But recognizing that cramming ever-more buttons into a handheld device has become a problem is the first step towards fixing it. Maybe the answer will simply be more elegant versions of the smartphone apps some vendors already offer to control TVs and Blu-ray players. Maybe we’ll all wave our hands, Kinect-style, to control our video gear—hopefully after standardizing on the same gestures to change channels and adjust the volume.

“Will the tablet market remain an iPad market?”

After last year’s dismal debuts, I hate to express too much optimism. Vendors do seem to have learned that you can’t hope to compete with a tablet thicker and heavier than today’s iPad—much less whatever model will be on sale six months from now—but until I see more prices announced it’s hard to judge the prospects of their hardware.

Software developers also need to come through with interesting, useful apps for tablets running Google’s Android operating system. So I can’t give tablet competitors more than an incomplete grade here.

“Does the digital camera have a future?”

The point-and-shoot digital camera continues to look like an endangered species. The vendors I spoke to who were directing their efforts into such niche categories as ruggedized, water- and drop-resistant models or “ultrazoom” cameras with extreme telephoto range look to be in better shape than those pitching pure photo quality, even when augmented with smartphone-style features like “tilt-shift” effects. Sorry, but in the mass market that no longer outweighs portability.

A few vendors, such as Samsung and Kodak are going further to add WiFi-sharing features that are supposed to work with phones and tablets, not just computers. I hope somebody gets this right—because I do, in fact, need a new camera.

“Will my phone have better battery life?”

To judge from CES 2012, the fix for a phone that dies too often is an external battery pack–because the phones themselves seem to be headed in the wrong direction.

Screens are getting ever larger–the 4.5-in. displays on many 2011-vintage smartphones look compact next to the 4.7-in. screen of HTC’s Titan 2 or the 5.3-in. display of Samsung’s Galaxy Note—even as many of these new releases include fast but power-hungry LTE wireless support. Their power sources just aren’t keeping up.

It’s a sad state of affairs when you get more detail about battery life in Intel’s pitch for “Ultrabook” laptops than in a presentation for a new Android phone. Just ask any reporter who covered CES.

Have other questions about the show? You can ask me in real time at noon Friday, when I’ll host the first in a series of Web chats for CEA. http://blog.ce.org/index.php/live-chat/

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