Trends in Consumer Electronics
By Jeffrey Allen
Every January for the last 40 years, the consumer electronics industry has gathered in Las Vegas to strut its stuff at the largest show of its type in the world. Over the last 40 years, the size and importance of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has grown dramatically. This year, some 2,700 exhibitors from all over the world occupied more than 1.8 million square feet of floor space to show off their latest and greatest technology to more than 140,000 industry buyers, media representatives, and other interested persons.
For the last several years, I have attended CES to scout it for the readers of this publication and reported on my observations in order to give you insight into the evolution of technology that will affect you at home and at work.
We have seen a great surge in the advertising of HD (high definition) television in recent months. It should not surprise you to learn that HD television played a big role in this year’s CES. The ranks of manufacturers of HD products have swelled, and many of those manufacturers exhibited their newest technology at CES as well as providing a glimpse of things to come. Flat screen, big screen televisions have grown in popularity in the last few years, as the prices have decreased in the face of improved quality and increasingly large displays. Screens that cost tens of thousands of dollars just a few years ago cost only thousands today. One can find 50+ inch LCD and plasma screens today for less than $5,000.
As you will find, getting the big screen, high-definition television is only the beginning. Once you have the television receiver, you will want to consider expanding your technology to create the full home theater experience. You will want a DVD player to tie into your big screen TV. DVD players now exist in both standard and high definition (HD) formats. The newest devices also make hard disks available for recording television programming for later viewing. You will also want a surround sound speaker system. You can buy the components for the system independently or buy premade full surround sound systems. After you have the speakers, you will want to consider a dock for your iPod or other MP3 player, so that the music you have collected can play through the system or throughout your house. No theater would seem complete without genuine theater seats, complete with holes in the arm rests for a drink. Those chairs exist for home use, and I saw several versions at CES, sold as singles or two- or three-chair units.
Having a home theater or a “connected” home or office only whets the appetite for more. What happens during the period when you find yourself between home and office or driving to or from another location? Automotive electronics has become a very large portion of the show over the last several years. Automotive technology at the show ranged from high quality and reasonable speakers to so powerful that they totally overwhelmed people standing near the car, let alone anyone that might be in the car. Many, if not most, new cars on the market today come with standard or optional built-ins for Bluetooth technology to connect to cell phones and other devices, docks for iPods, GPS devices, satellite radio, and DVD players. For each of those devices, after market options exist for cars that came without such connections. The after market devices have become so good that they often rival the built-ins, both in terms of quality and aesthetics.
Mobile phone manufacturers have continued to merge more devices into the cell phone, which has now become the premier multifunction device in our lives. Even the simplest cell phones include personal information managers, cameras, and text messaging capabilities. Most have the ability to access the Internet at some level; many provide full Internet access. Other phone devices offer those features plus a combination of some or all of the following: GPS (global positioning system) capabilities, radio, and MP3 player capabilities. Some of the phones even come with the ability to work as cellular modems to connect laptop computers to the Internet.
One of the fastest growing and most significant telephone-related developments is the evolution of entertainment and other content transmitted to cell phone receivers. In addition to general Internet access, instant messaging, and related features, you can now have television content and other selected information transmitted to your phone for you to view. While the concept of this opportunity may be potentially impressive, approach it with caution. The one thing that remains substantially unimproved is the duration of the battery charge. While it may be true that battery technology has improved somewhat, the converged features often impose a substantial drain on the batteries. All of the features in the world do not do you much good if the phone battery runs out. Consider carrying a spare charged battery with you when you go out in order to ensure that you have the ability to make a call when you want or need to (or to get any of the other features the phone provides that you want to use at any given time).
Experienced photographers will undoubtedly continue to purchase the more and more sophisticated digital cameras, but for day-to-day use, the point and shoot cell phones cameras will grow in popularity as they will prove sufficient to satisfy most users. In dedicated cameras, ten megapixel resolutions have become available in very small packages for less than $400. My choice of brands to watch for: Sony, Canon, Casio, and Konica Minolta. While I personally consider Canon and Sony digital cameras the best in terms of quality, Casio has come out with a whole new line up of pocket-sized cameras in the 7–10 mega pixel range that offer an excellent value package of price, power, and features. I have tried out several of them and found them quite good.
Wireless networking at home and at work continues to attract more and more users. Look for implementations of the 802.11n technology at your local computer stores. The “n” routers offer more power at the same or lower prices and include reverse compatibility (they also work with 802.11 (a), (b), and (g) devices. I put one of the “n” routers in my office and in my office at home. Both replaced 802.11(g) devices. The older devices worked well, but had areas where walls or other things interfered with coverage. I have found no such areas with the “n” router, so my home and office wireless networks both work better with the “n” routers. You might also look for implementations of “WiMax” to will allow broader area distribution of a signal and, potentially, the ability to have high speed wireless Internet access in more and more locations.
VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) continue to grow in popularity. Several large VoIP providers now offer Internet telephony for home and business. The quality of the service has gotten better, and the connections, in my experience, have been strong and clear. I installed a VoIP telephone connection in my house a couple of years ago as an experiment and have been quite pleased with it. VoIP does not even require special telephones. Once you install the electronics for the connectivity to your Internet connection and a telephone line (a simple enough task that you can easily do it yourself), a standard touch-tone telephone will work fine to complete calls. You can even use your wireless telephones with VoIP. Several providers now offer special phones to work with laptop computers as the use of VoIP has become more mobile through the ability of the laptop computers to connect to the Internet on the go. More recently, Vonage has adopted portability as a feature and sells a version of its connection kit that includes a USB Thumb drive, preloaded with its software, together with a telephone headset (earphone-microphone). The thumb drive plugs into a USB port on your broadband Internet-connected Windows computer and makes that computer your telephone connection. The connection can move from computer to computer or from place to place with the same computer, along with the thumb drive.
Satellite radio continues to grow in popularity and, in the future, will likely present a radically changed landscape. For those of you not familiar with satellite radio, you have had a choice between two providers, Sirius and XM. Both have a modest subscription fee. Satellite radio offers a wide variety of programming ranging from specific genres and periods of music, to talk shows, to comedy, to news and sports. You must have a special receiver to get satellite radio, and the receivers all tie uniquely to one or the other provider. The ability to receive broadcasts almost anywhere that the antenna has an unobstructed view of the sky has contributed greatly to the steady growth in popularity. Many car manufacturers now offer built-in satellite radio receivers as an option. Expect that number to continue to increase. A growing variety of receivers for home, work, car, and personal portable use at very reasonable prices will contribute to the increasing popularity of this medium. The big news in this industry broke after the close of CES. Sirius and XM agreed to a buy out of XM by Sirius. The transaction will require governmental approval. If approved, it will mean that, at least for now, satellite radio would have only one provider. Likely, that would result a merger of programming, enhancing the programming available to all subscribers. Over time the technical differences will likely disappear, and a single transmission technology will reach all subscribers. We will have to wait to see whether, if approved, the unification of Sirius and XM will result in an increase in the subscription charges.
Laptop computers have gone through a major change in the last year. More and smaller portable computers came to the show and have come to your computer supplier. Manufacturers have gone through three generations of chips in that same time period. On the Windows OS side, the Pentium class chips that dominated a year ago will always have a place in the museum of computer processors. The Core Duo replaced the Pentium and its work-alikes as the processor of choice during the first half of 2006. During the last half of 2006 and going into 2007, the Core 2 Duo replaced the Core Duo and its work-alikes. During 2006, even Apple moved its hardware to the Core Duo and then the Core 2 Duo. Virtually every computer shown at CES used a Core 2 Duo processor or work-alike. The Core 2 Duo works faster and better than the Core Duo, and the Core Duo works faster and better than the Pentium class processors and work-alikes. The rapid sequencing of changes in the main processor used resulted in substantial price drops in the Pentium class and the Core Duo computers. Interestingly, you can find the Core 2 Duo computers at bargain prices too. The laptops available now cost less and do more than their predecessors a year ago.
More and more attorneys have chosen to make use of digital presentation technology in their practice. I saw a number of new portable projectors at CES, mostly of the DLP variety. I saw relatively few LCD projectors, leading to the possible conclusion that the DLP technology has won or is winning out over the LCD technology at the portable level. I saw some interesting low-powered portable units, but they have little utility for a law practice. Vendors did display more and more small, portable, but higher powered projectors. Look at 1,500–1,800 lumens as the lower level floors for illuminating power. 1,500 lumen units have largely replaced the 1,000 lumen units. Many units of up to 2,000 lumens have become available for $2,000 or less. Many manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon of this technology and produce quite satisfactory units. I am very partial to the units marketed by HP, Toshiba, and Casio because of the combination of size, power, features, and price that they offer.
Jeffrey Allen (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a general practice in Oakland, California. His firm, Graves & Allen, emphasizes real estate and business transactions and litigation. He is a frequent speaker and author on technology topics and the Editor-in-Chief of the GPSOLO Technology & Practice Guide and the Technology eReport.