Tablets, 3D, smartphones set the tone at CES


Darth Vader makes a surprise appearance at CES 2011

CES 2011 is in some ways no different than in previous years: massive. The sheer number of companies exhibiting their products is overwhelming. But that’s CES and I wasn’t expecting anything different. What has come as a bit of a surprise is the number of attendees. The show is jam-packed with people milling around the show floor and making it nearly impossible to navigate some of the larger and especially flashy booths like LG’s behemoth which I suspect is consuming more power right now than the entire Las Vegas Strip – it has hundreds of TV screens of every shape and size imaginable.

This attendance level would seem to indicate that while the U.S. is still trying to pull itself out of a lengthy recession, worldwide interest in consumer electronics is hitting a feverish pitch which hasn’t been seen in the last four years, possibly longer.

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So what’s driving this curiosity? Strangely nothing ground-breaking or hugely innovative. Instead it appears that the industry has decided to hunker down and work on improving two categories that have been around for a few years: 3D and smartphones, while at the same time aggressively playing catch-up to the unprecedented success of Apple’s iPad in the tablet space.

3D, which made a big splash at CES two years ago, and then affirmed its presence last year with more products, is now pretty much everywhere. Every major manufacturer (and most minor ones) now have 3D HDTVs in their lineups and the focus is now on differentiation.

What started out as a single approach to in-home 3D – that being the use of “active shutter” glasses – has now fragmented into at least 3 techniques: the “active” approach, still being pushed aggressively by Panasonic and Sony, the “passive” approach which uses the same polarized technique employed in movie theatres, and a third – glass-less 3D which allows viewers to see the 3D effect with their naked eyes.

While the glass-less or glasses-free TV technology isn’t being scheduled for release just yet, it is maturing rapidly and is already slated to appear later this year in Nintendo’s handheld gaming device the 3DS.  The “passive” technology however will be hitting store shelves this year and I strongly suspect will win over consumers who have been hesitant about making the 3D plunge. The passive glasses are so inexpensive they can be considered disposable, there’s no limit to how many people can watch simultaneously, and it’s inherently flicker-free and perceptually brighter than the active shutter displays. The only catch might be the price of the TVs. At least initially, the polarized TV screens might be more expensive than the non-polarized type.

Will passive win out over active as the true single-standard? It’s far too early to tell, especially since consumer appetite for 3D remains suppressed due to our still-struggling economies, a lack of library-depth in 3D titles and an unwillingness to spend a lot of money buying new technology when many people recently upgraded to HDTV within the last year or two.

On the smartphone front, “4G” and Android are the dominant buzzwords. The 4G label is being pushed around a lot down here in the U.S. and I think it’s creating a lot of confusion for consumers both north and south of the border.

What is 4G exactly? Well according to a strict definition as cited by Wikipedia, it’s a mobility standard that doesn’t exist commercially yet with any provider as 4G requires “Peak data rates of up to approximately 100 Mbit/s for high mobility such as mobile access and up to approximately 1 Gbit/s for low mobility”. The fastest mobile devices at the moment are capable of up to 21 Mbps – a far cry from the 100 cited in the 4G standard.

So why are the U.S. carriers crowing about “4G”? It’s a marketing game. What they’re really referring to is the HSPA+ communication standard – the one that can deliver up to 56Mbps (but is currently running at up to 21Mbps in most countries) and is probably better labeled as “3.5G” since it is an upgrade of the slower HSPA standard (up to 14 Mbps) which along with EVDO was the original “3G” standard.

I guess these companies needed a way to tell people that they were getting something significantly better with HSPA+ than they were getting with HSPA, and probably felt that saying 3.5G just wasn’t going cut it. So they skipped it altogether and adopted 4G. For a good explanation of the current mobile landscape in the U.S. see CNET’s article on the issue. In the Canadian market you probably won’t hear the 4G term used at all. That’s because the major national mobile carriers are already operating HSPA+ and are thankfully resisting the incorrect 4G label. But naturally the power of U.S. marketing will leave some thinking that our American cousins are enjoying something that we can’t get. Rest assured, it ain’t so. So while Motorola’s new ATRIX will likely bear the 4G moniker in the U.S., the very same phone up here will simply be called the ATRIX – no other letters or numbers needed.

Finally, there are really more tablets here at the show than I can effectively discuss in this post, but I will be dedicating a separate post cover just these devices. Everyone it seems now has, or has plans for, an Android-powered tablet of some description, with many companies trying out several different sizes simultaneously. Most of these were anticipated, such as Motorola, RIM, LG etc, but some have been a surprise like Panasonic’s line of VIERA tablets which seem to be designed more as a complement to their TVs than as iPad competitors.

Stay tuned… more (much more) – and videos, to come…

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3 comments

  1. Jack

    Hello Simon,

    You described the CES with perfection and the technology world so well! Continue your great job! I’ll continue to read you!

    Like

  2. Greg

    Hi Simon,

    Looking forward to your tablet post. I would love to own a tablet that will tether to my Iphone!

    Greg

    Like