For the first time in several years, I actually had a good time at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It wasn't because of the usual Las Vegas hedonism. I avoided casinos and shows and the only parties I attended were working events where I interviewed vendors. What was fun about this year's show was the show itself. It was upbeat and optimistic.
After two years of a sagging economy, I got the feeling that tech is finally back. It wasn't the level of euphoria of the late nineties, but there was a general optimism that was evident at the booths and by the spirit of the crowds.
Part of that has to do with the fact that technology products were a hit during the holiday season. Digital camcorders, DVDs and even expensive large-screen flat panel TVs helped make this a jolly Christmas for the tech industry.
But the real excitement at the show wasn't what sold last year, but what promises to impact our lives in the years to come.
For one thing, we are finally seeing the oft-talked about "convergence" between personal computers and consumer electronics industries. Convergence has been a theme at CES shows going back several years but, until this year, it was pretty much a buzzword - not a reality. Now we're seeing real products that bring the two industries together.
The most obvious convergence products are flat panel displays that are both TV sets and computer monitors. PC makers have been building flat screen computer monitors for several years but someone figured out that the only difference between a monitor and a TV set is a tuner and a volume control so now Gateway, Dell and Hewlett Packard are in the TV business.
At CES, Dell showed off its line of stunning LCD screens which include a 30-inch model ($2,999), a new 23-inch model ($1,599) and a 17-inch ($699) screen. All of these flat screen TVs can be used for regular TV, high definition TV (with an added external tuner) or as a computer monitor. Not too many people need a 30- or 42-inch PC monitor but the 17-inch can easily be used in that capacity as well as for watching TV. I know because Dell let me borrow a W1700 17-inch Wide-Screen LCD TV which is currently serving as TV in my kitchen. Before I moved it to the kitchen I plopped it on my desk to use as a PC monitor. It worked fine but it struck me as a waste of space and a perfectly good flat screen TV (I hardly ever watch TV in my office and when I do, my old 13-inch CRT model does the job just fine).
For some people -- especially college students or those in small apartments -- the idea of using a single monitor for a PC and to watch TV does make sense. Thanks to "picture in picture," it's even possible to watch TV in a corner of the screen while using the rest of the monitor for your PC display. Of course, this could be great for slackers at work who want to watch soap operas while the boss isn't around and then quickly bring up their spreadsheets and work software when they need to look productive.
Dell's products use LCD technology but Gateway, Samsung, LG and other companies are also selling large screens with Plasma displays. Plasma is cheaper than LCDs, especially for screens larger then 42 inches, but not as bright. Also plasma screens can, eventually "burn in" after very long period of time.
A promising and more affordable option is rear screen LCD or DLP (digital light processing) projector TVs. Rear screen TVs have been around for years but digital technology is making them a lot better and a lot thinner. At CES I saw some 50-inch and larger rear screen TVs that were only about 14 inches thick. The most interesting TV at the show was the EPSON Livingstation -- 47-inch ($3,499) and 57-inch ($3,999) rear screen TVs with a built in printer and CD writer. In addition to watching TV, Epson is hoping people will use the TVs to display their digital photographs, copy photos to CD and, of course, use Epson ink and Epson paper to print their photos directly from the TV. The TVs are expected to be available in March.
Of course, flat panel screens are just one piece of this conversion. Microsoft is committed to turning Windows into an entertainment operating system. The company's first major foray is the Windows XP Media Center Edition but, during his CES keynote speech, entitled "Seamless Computing," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates promised more products with higher levels of integration between Windows and TVs. This includes technology to wirelessly beam signals from a Media Center PC to any TV in the house, including a device that will turn a TV connected to an Xbox gaming console into a remote PC viewing station. Because Media Edition PCs are also TVs and personal video recorders (like the TiVo), the technology can be used to transmit TV signals to devices around the house. It can also be used to copy TV shows from a Media Center PC to a laptop, PocketPC or dedicated personal video player. That way, you can watch your favorite shows away from home, on airplanes or wherever you happen to be.
Microsoft has a ways to go. So far, the Microsoft convergence products I've tested; the Media Center TV, Microsoft's hybrid "SmartPhone (that merges a cell phone with a PDA) and the company's just released SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology) are all promising but still not quite ready for prime time. The last thing consumers want to do is to be forced to "reboot" their TV sets.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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By Larry Magid
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.