CES 2011 report: All tablets all the time, without Apple

The annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas produced a few surprises, but nothing that shook the trees.

Crosscut archive image.

The Motorola Atrix at the CES Show in Las Vegas.

The annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas produced a few surprises, but nothing that shook the trees.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — The annual Consumer Electronics Show —CES 2011 —may go down in history as much for what wasn't announced as for what was.  It was largely a predictable show: a tableaux of tablets, a torrent of 3D TVs, a slew of seductive smartphones.  Few if any real breakout products were in evidence except, perhaps, for a new "super phone" concept from Motorola.  There were Chinese companies by the score, but nowhere to be found was Apple.

Well, not quite.

While not an exhibitor, the Cupertino, Calif. company was more than well represented by competitors who used the comparison of "as good as an iPad" or an iPhone as a principal sales tool in marketing a broad range of competitive consumer equipment. Wide swarths of booths in both the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Las Vegas Hilton exhibition areas were filled with nothing but accessories and apps for the iPhone and iPad.

Equally noticeable was the total lack of any reference to Apple by the CEOs of Microsoft and Verizon in their respective highly publicized CES keynote addresses, especially when both of their companies are directly affected by Apple’s present and future business plans. Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer had nothing to say about a much-needed Microsoft tablet roadmap to counter Apple’s overwhelming dominance of the tablet market. Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg was mute when it came to the much-rumored announcement that Verizon Wireless will shortly begin selling the hugely popular iPhone after AT&T’s exclusive nearly five-year run. (The Wall Street Journal  reports that omission may be rectified at a Verizon press conference Tuesday, Jan. 11 in New York.).

As for the show itself. it appeared to have bounced back was back after last year’s Recession-slammed performance.  According to a CES press release, more than 2,700 technology companies exhibited their wares and an estimated 140,000 people including more than 30,000 attendees from outside the U.S. attended the five-day fete.

So what was hot? Please note the following is my own personal selection of interesting news.  For a broad view, and a look at hundreds more gadgets, spend some time on the CES-related CNET or Engadget sites.

Tablets: The show was awash in them: roughly 80 according to the CES. Most seemed to be based on the Google-created Android operating system, which has grown in the last year to become Apple’s strongest competitor both in phone and tablets.

The Motorola Xoom tablet was clearly one of the most highly regarded CES showstoppers, if for nothing else than it appeared to be the strongest entry yet to challenge Apple's pre-eminence in the tablet market, estimated by Bloomberg at an astounding 95 percent share. CNET and PC Magazine were among those to dub the Xoom the best product of the show.

The tablet features Google’s Android Honeycomb operating system, which is designed for tablets.  Previous Android versions were designed for phones, and lack the technological finesse for the more sophisticated tablet format.

Everything about it screams "we're a worthy iPad competitor;" specifications include a speedy dual-core processor (allegedly a Nvidia Tegra 2), better resolution (1280x800 vs. the iPad’s 1024x768), a larger display (10.1 inch vs. the iPad’s 9.7), a wider screen (16:10 vs. Apple's 16:9 aspect ratio), and it has a front and rear camera for photography and video chatting, which the iPad lacks.

Initially the Xoom will be sold only through Verizon Wireless, coming to market as a 3G-compatible device, and upgradable to 4G by June. No price was announced for the unit, but shipping is promised before the end of March. Will there be a WiFi-only version?  Motorola wasn’t saying.

All this self-congratulation may be moot when Apple brings out its iPad 2, rumored to be sometime in February. Stay tuned.

A major issue with virtually all the Android-based tablets introduced at CES is whether they will be able to upgrade to the Honeycomb operating system.  Upgradeability is the bane of anyone buying tech devices: will it become obsolete virtually from the day you buy it?  Caveat emptor . . .

One other tablet drew significant attention, and it was based on Research in Motion’s Blackberry OS : the Blackberry Playbook 4G tablet, which runs under its own operating system and also connects to the Internet via a 4G wireless hookup.  It will be available in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB versions sometime early this spring.  Few more details were available, but it could be a powerful tablet incentive to millions of Blackberry users who thus far have felt shut out of the tablet revolution.

Verizon Wireless 4G LTE: The phone network's new high-speed wireless service was virually everywhere when it came to companies introducing new wireless devices.  At least 10 4G LTE-compatible devices — smartphones, tablets, and hotspots — were announced by Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and LG.  Most devices should be available by summer.

3D TVs: Everywhere you went at CES, the promise of the 3D television revolution was thrust into your visual and aural living space.  Sony’s breathless “believe” campaign spoke of 3D wonders, and introduced tools for people wanting to create their own stills and video in 3D.  Sony and Toshiba, among others, had demonstrations of glasses-free 3D sets, which showed some potential but nowhere near market quality.

One development, shown quietly in a private section of the Toshiba booth, may hold some promise of real 3D TV innovation.  Last year, the hot 3D technology was the CEVO demonstration, which showed sets with an intriguing real time 2D to 3D conversion capability. In 2011, the sets will finally appear, and are scheduled to make their appearance in Q2.

If one were visiting from Alpha Centuri, the obvious lesson from CES is that the world is hungry for 3D TV.  But privately, many non-company-attached tech observers felt they were witnessing a consumer electronics version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Sales to date of 3D TV systems have been lackluster.   And even the anticipated growth of available content in 2011 through 3D-ready cable TV channels and Blu-ray disks may not overcome the sense that the Next Insanely Great TV Thing may not be 3D TV.

Smart phones: Motorola scored 2 for 2 in the arena of hot breakout products with its introduction of the Atrix system. Imagine that your smartphone (or “superphone”) is the center of your computing life.  You use it as your cell phone, then you plug it into a “dumb” terminal — essentially a laptop computer that uses the Atrix phone as its processor, browser, email source, productivity software, games, multimedia — the whole laptop enchilada.  It also can connect to your wide screen high-definition TV via HDMI so that virtually any HD media stored or recorded on your phone can run in full HD (1080p) on your set.

The phone itself is roughly the size and weight of an iPhone, has an HD-quality screen, can record 1080p HD video, and is powered by the powerful NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core processor.  That engine is powerful enough to deliver many services needed for a functional business laptop.  This is a first edition: far from perfect.  People used to full desktop capabilities from their laptops may snicker at this device.  But it is definitely a technology concept that cannot be ignored.

The unit is a 4G phone network device, and will be sold through AT&T.  No wireless-only model and no other phone company has been announced for the Atrix.  Pricing is also unknown either for the phone or for the laptop terminal.

Laptops: Right before CES, HP quietly introduced the Pavilion DM-1: a netbook that, to me, is ideal for a small-footprint lightweight device. While HP was not on the show floor, I had a chance for a hands-on test in their CES convention suite. Roughly the same dimensions as Apple’s Mac Book Air with its 11.6-inch screen, although a pound heavier, the laptop sports AMD’s dual-core Vision technology, which features a Direct-X graphics accelerator, better than 720p resolution (1,366-by-768), a full-size keyboard, HDMI port, three USB 2.0 ports, a 32-gbyte hard drive, and reportedly over nine hours of battery life. HP and Verizon are also touting the DM-1 as one of the first netbooks equipped to run on Verizon’s 4G LTE network.

For a computer that costs only $449 out the door with virtually no additions, it’s well worth looking at.

A PS:  Tablets, to some, are the new laptops — but not to me.  I took my iPad armed with the new Zagg Bluetooth keyboard and tried using it at CES as my travelling laptop.  While the Zagg units fits together with the iPad in a beautiful lightweight package, I’ll not do that again for any intensive use.  Laptops are “real” computers, and I missed having a real computer with a real mouse and a keyboard that felt rock-solid.

Set-top boxes: While the news spread rapidly last week that Google had asked TV manufacturers to delay exhibiting new TVs with Google TV at CES, adding to what has generally been a negative press reaction to their new TV system, a look at the crowds at both the Logitech and Sony booths chatting up Google TV representatives may be a good indication that Google TV is far from dead.  Both companies are major supporters of the system.

Meanwhile, LG introduced what may be a major new set-top box competitor: the SmartTV Upgrader.  An add-on box the size of a Roku or Apple TV box, the SmartTV unit offers access to "hundreds of apps" from the LG App Store, plus subscription services including Netflix, VUDU, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video on Demand, Best Buy's CinemaNow, and streaming sports. It allows users to stream content from their PCs and comes with built-in WiFi and HDMI.  It also comes with a built-in Internet browser and can be controlled from an iPhone or Android smartphone.  No price or release date was available at press time, but it does look like a worthy competitor in a rapidly growing field.

One for the geeks:  Speaking of obsolescence or lack thereof, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s keynote address at CES contained one extremely significant tech note that should not be lost on anyone whose techno world centers around Windows.  Ballmer showed a wide variety of so-called System on a Chip (or SoC) processors  from ARM-based processor manufacturers including NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and x86-based makers Intel and AMD that will run the next version of Windows.  What that means is that virtually any device built by those companies will be capable of running Windows.  And that means that Windows is working hard to become future-proof, no matter what else changes in the techno eco-system.  Here’s a Microsoft press release with more details.

And some fun stuff: The “Emperor’s Throne Room” music from “Star Wars” blares out in ear-splitting, over-sub-woofered aural madness as we're all gathered at the huge Panasonic booth's wall of video, when suddenly what appears to be an endless line of white-clad weapons-carrying Star Wars storm troopers — perhaps 30 or more — march menacingly through the crowd.  The music reaches a crescendo, and abruptly a menacing Darth Vader, emerges on stage.  We tremble with delight, awaiting  to be sliced and diced by his light saber or some similar mayhem.

Sadly, however, he is but a front man for a 20th Century Fox exec who announces that the complete Star Wars movie cycle is now available on Blu-ray.  The announcement drones on: Poor Darth Vader has nothing to do, no one to fight nor menace.  He stands alone, forlorn, a worn out prop, while the marketers deliver their spiel.  Apparently someone forgot to script how to get the poor schmuck off stage.  Poor Darth.  Poor us.

And what were you doing last week?


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