Gadget Central

April 1, 2012

Technology Preview From CES 2012

Screen shot 2012-03-15 at 8.53.04 AM

By Tom Kelley

The annual Consumer Electronics Show, held each January in Las Vegas, is a gadget-hound’s paradise. Take your average Best Buy store, multiply the floor-space by about 150 or so, and then fill it up with just about every conceivable tech gadget from nearly every manufacturer on the planet, and you get an idea of what the annual CES extravaganza is like.

While the walking distance is tough, the “kid in a candy store” experience can’t be beat. Here’s a quick peek at this year’s CES highlights, stay tuned to these pages for in-depth reviews throughout the year.

Tablets

If early tablet debuts were the big story at last year’s CES, than the explosion of tablet debuts were the big story of 2012. It would be easier to list who didn’t have a tablet this year that to list those who did. A plethora of sizes, web-friendly or dedicated readers, large, medium or small, and a price point to attract nearly everybody. Notable for tablet users in the trucking industry was Panasonic’s debut of its ruggedized ToughPad model. Expect to see downward pressure on prices of most tablets, and a potential game of feature one-upmanship as a result of increased competition from new players in this market.

Ultrabooks

Generating just slightly less buzz than the tablet frenzy, “ultrabook”

portable computers were the second-biggest “thing” at CES. Size-wise, an ultrabook is between a netbook and a laptop, with length and width dimensions close to a 13″ laptop, but with a thickness closer to a tablet device. Apple was the first into this space when it introduced its MacBook Air models a few years back, now everybody else is coming out to play. As long as you’re not looking for an onboard CD/DVD player (off-board units are available), the ultrabook’s power, battery-life, and travel-friendly form-factor will be popular with connected truckers.

Tablet, Or Ultrabook?

Given the similarity of the tablet and ultrabook formats, the obvious question is which one to pick? With most tablets having an on-screen keyboard, and the ability to link to a Bluetooth keyboard, only the most extreme amounts of typing would justify making the choice on that basis.

If most of what you do on the road is keep up with e-mail, video chat, and reading or posting to social media sites, plus maybe a modest amount of “office” work, than either format will work equally well. If you need to use specialized high-end software, instead of common everyday “apps,”

then the ultrabook is the necessary choice. If basic communications and portable entertainment are your priorities, that the tablet is the answer.

Leveraging Existing Screens/Integrating Devices Another big story at CES was the debut of several devices designed to leverage the existing connectivity, processing power or screens of your smartphone or tablet to enable other lower-cost devices. Notable among examples of this tactic for road warriors were navigation systems offering larger screens at lower prices by pairing with an existing smartphone to gather real-time traffic and weather data. Another example was a radar detection system that used a linked smartphone to post and view locations of speed traps in real-time.

Web Enabled Televisions

The Garmin Smartphone Link 3500 was one of the new gadgets on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

The Garmin Smartphone Link 3500 was one of the new gadgets on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

While there were plenty of small mobile devices featured at CES, big televisions were still a big deal. Apart from the obligatory war of screen dimensions, the TV news was web-enabling the screens without the need of additional hardware. With most households now having some form of wired or wireless broadband connections, it’s a simple matter of plugging the set in to the network, enabling users to download movies from services like Netflix or Amazon, play video games with remote players, view photos/Facebook pages, and other web tasks right from the TV screen.


3D – Solution In Search Of A Problem?

It was no secret at this year’s CES that the rollout of 3D TV at last year’s CES was less successful than hoped for. Without much compelling 3D content available to watch, it’s hard to justify upgrading recently purchased HD flat-screen TVs for newer 3D units. Seeking to address this issue, Panasonic announced that it was partnering with NBC to broadcast most of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games coverage in 3D, in the hope that this real-world demo will finally make the sale for 3D.

Internet Radio

Even with the wide availability of AM, FM and satellite radio, all too often there’s nothing worth listening to on the radio. Given the costs of putting these signals “on the air,” it’s necessary to appeal to a broad, generic audience. The problem is that when you spend ten or more hours on the road listening to the radio, broad and generic quickly becomes boring and sleep-inducing. The alternative is a burgeoning selection of “internet radio” stations that can fine-tune content for very specific audiences, due to a far lower cost of distribution.

Internet radio “broadcasting” doesn’t require huge transmitter towers or a constellation of space satellites, just a good web-hosting server with decent storage, bandwidth and streaming capacity. To receive internet radio programming, all that’s needed is a smartphone, preferably with an unlimited data plan, or one of the new dash-mounted radios with internet connection capability.

But What About . . .

In many of the cases noted above, and elsewhere, the technology/hardware is ready, willing, and able, but the service/connectivity to make it all work is still somewhat lacking.

On the connectivity side, the North American pricing structure for mobile broadband service is a significant roadblock to widespread adoption of connected tablets/ultrabooks and internet radio. Even the so-called “unlimited” data plan offerings aren’t so unlimited – go beyond a certain level of usage in any given month, and you can expect to see your connection speed “throttled” significantly downward.

The typical caps on limited-bandwidth mobile services in North America hover around the 5GB/month range, enough for serious e-mail use, and maybe a tiny bit of web browsing, but not nearly enough for serious browsing, or video/audio streaming reception. Outside of North America, users have had budget-friendly access to high-speed mobile access for several years now, so the delay here is not due to a lack of technology.

Many of the key holdups here are due to regulatory and tax issues, not technology. The last few years have seen an explosion in the number of regulations enacted, and worse yet, the uncertainty created by the number of regulations proposed. It’s really tough to plan the deployment of wireless telecom infrastructure over a multi-year period, when the regulatory landscape is constantly altered by favoritism or misguided whim.

Similarly, when dozens of government agencies all seek to tax the capital, construction, operation and sale of mobile broadband service, the carrier’s return on investment becomes too questionable to justify deployment. Bashing corporate profits is a great rhetorical tactic, until one relies on those profits to fund the next generation of mobile broadband service.

Yet another factor hampering the widespread deployment of broadband wireless devices, and other tech marvels, is a lack of compelling content. Big-screen 3-D televisions are cool, but how many travel videos and kids cartoons can you watch? Enough to justify a new, more expensive TV? Likely not. Same goes for watching movies on the “small screen.”

Hollywood needs to get off its collective duff, stop wasting time telling people what to think, and start producing decent content where the 3-D technology is more than just a gimmick. The 2012 Olympic Games broadcast will be a great opportunity to validate the case for 3-D, but is only a single entry in a vastly under-served field. As for the small-screen, some offerings beyond “Sein Friends 90210” or the “Amazing Survivor Mole’s Brother Factor” or “America’s Got Dancing Stars Talent” might just make a more compelling case for using a video screen for something more than an electronic sleeping pill.

The tech industry is ready, will the regulators and the creative types catch up?