CES Report: Microsoft Surface, Storage Improvements and Monster HD Displays

Sprawling CES showcases technologies, from astounding to ridiculous.

by / April 8, 2008

In early January, Sin City once again transformed into a showcase for the latest and greatest gadgets from around the world. The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is one of the largest trade shows in the world. This year, the four-day event drew 140,000 attendees from 140 countries, 2,700 exhibitors and covered almost 2 million square feet of floor space. CES was so large that it couldn't be contained in the massive Las Vegas Convention Center; the event also had satellite venues in the Las Vegas Hilton and Sands Expo and Convention Center at The Venetian.

CES attendees were confronted with the mind-boggling task of navigating the show floor. In fact, there was so much to see and so much ground to cover that CES provided shuttle service from one end of the Las Vegas Convention Center to the other. Shuttles also ran every 10 minutes to and from The Venetian. First-time CES attendees may be surprised to learn how much work it takes simply to travel from one venue to another.

There were plenty of gadgets to drool over at CES - and plenty to steer clear of. Most attendees agreed the show's heaviest was Panasonic's behemoth 150-inch high-definition (HD) plasma TV. The crowd-favorite was never short of gawkers mesmerized by its 12.5-foot screen (measured corner to corner). Weighing almost a ton, the titanic TV made the company's 108-inch screen that was introduced three years ago, seem downright diminutive.

It seemed every exhibitor at CES had HD on the brain as most booths boasted high-definition display capability. Attendees who endured the slew of HDTVs, smaller cell phones, and the latest laptops (slightly higher performance than 2007!) found some fresh products worth a second look. While not positioned as prominently as the giant TVs, Microsoft Surface was an example of technology that is both practical and astounding.

Invoking fond memories of sit-down Ms. Pac-Man machines, Surface is a touchscreen tabletop PC that users control with their hands and fingers. A demonstrator showed how easy it is to use: Simply place a digital camera on Surface, and using one finger, drag images to and from the camera and the hard drive. Microsoft also showcased a finger-painting tool, an interactive wine guide and a travel planner - all of which can be used without a mouse or keyboard, though a soft, virtual keyboard is available onscreen.

The interface is very much like the feature-laden computer terminals depicted in the sci-fi film Minority Report, in which applications are controlled via a multi-touch, reactive screen. Microsoft expects the first Surface units to carry a $10,000 price tag.

Forgive the cliché, but thin was most definitely "in" at CES. Big names like JVC, LG and Hitachi proudly showed off ultra-slender LCD TVs that are less than 2 inches deep - skinnier than a business card is tall. The anorexic models of the bunch were Sony's OLED TVs and a concept TV from Pioneer. The organic light-emitting diode (OLED) is a technology that allows for screens that are truly paper thin. Though it debuted last year, Sony's flexible OLED screens were again a big hit with CES attendees. And Pioneer's 50-inch plasma TV measured just 9 mm thick. There was no manufacturer suggested retail price for the Pioneer TV, which may not be available for a year or two. Buyers hoping to snap up the Sony 11-inch OLED TV screen - which is only 3 mm thick - can expect to pay at least $2,000.

Storage capacity was another hot ticket at CES. Several companies announced the arrival of advanced flash memory storage drives. Intel showed off dime-sized 2 and 4 GB cards while SanDisk and Samsung displayed compact flash drives that offer 128 GB, as well as 8 GB memory cards. Samsung and Hitachi also chose CES to introduce 500 GB laptop hard drives, besting the current champ by a 180 GB margin.

Being that this was the Consumer Electronics Show, TVs were lords of the realm. Beyond those already mentioned were 3-D TVs (with special glasses, of course), waterproof TVs, even TVs that let two people watch two different things on the same screen at the same time (also with special glasses).

One nifty bit of technology made for one of those "Why didn't I think of that?" moments: A company called Vievu showed the crowd a wearable video technology. Also called a personal video recording device, the Altoids container-sized camera clips onto a user's collar or belt and features a 4 GB flash drive that can store more than four hours of VGA-quality video. The only moving part is a lens cover that turns the unit on and off. Exposing the lens starts the recording, and covering the lens stops it.

When the recording is stopped, the unit automatically saves the recording as a file. Vievu claims the unit is rugged and essentially weatherproof. As long as high definition isn't a requirement, this little camera beats carrying around a handheld recorder. Depending on the model, buyers can expect to pay from $500 to $700.

One of the most hilarious gadgets of CES came courtesy of the makers of the insanely popular Guitar Hero video game series. In Guitar Hero, players strum along to popular rock songs using a game controller that is a pseudo-guitar. Guitar Hero III is a bestseller, and developers gave their official backing to a product that made its debut at CES - Guitar Hero Air Guitar Rocker. Players now can pantomime their way to geek rockstardom using only a special bracelet and belt buckle with a built-in speaker.

Somewhere in the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center was the "international" part of CES, where goods from companies that lack a strong presence in the United States are showcased. After a thorough inspection, it seemed China, South Korea and Taiwan made up 99 percent of the international exhibitors. Row after row, they hawked low-cost power supply units, PC cases and Webcams, as well as components and cables of all varieties. There were also several children's toys, some of which were genuinely terrifying. One was an iPod dock for tykes that comes in the form of a pig-insect hybrid mutant. With huge, black eyes and a glowing mouth, those not traumatized by the aesthetics could insert an iPod into its back and control the volume by touching the ears.

Another ubiquitous doodad was the personal video screen. Seemingly every sixth booth at CES had its own version of what was essentially a pair of glasses with built-in video screens and little speakers. Most accept inputs from a variety of sources, such as TVs, video game consoles, DVD players and video iPods. Some were of better quality than others, but most of them succeeded in giving the user an engrossing experience by simulating the sound and sight of a home theater.

Perhaps the biggest story of CES was the latest development in the high-definition DVD format war. Though claiming only a sliver of the home video market, Toshiba's HD DVD and Sony's Blu-ray had battled for next-generation supremacy. Both formats offer beautiful images, but the higher-capacity Blu-ray disc held onto a commanding lead, thanks largely to the Sony PlayStation 3 video game console's built-in Blu-ray player. Though more expensive to manufacture than an HD DVD, Blu-ray won exclusivity deals from a majority of Hollywood studios. A day prior to CES opening, what observers believed was the final nail in HD DVD's coffin came when Warner Bros. announced it too would become Blu-ray exclusive after switching away from production of both formats. In February, Toshiba announced that it would cease production of HD DVD players. With their massive exhibition booths almost side by side, the Blu-ray camp was constantly abuzz with attendees, whereas the HD

DVD display was a virtual ghost town. Many in the geek set decry both formats as obsolete in favor of streaming media, but the industry seems to acknowledge that slow consumer adoption means widespread application of streaming high-def content is a long way off.

There were countless other devices at CES to take note of - home media servers, GPS devices and mostly useless robots - but high-definition technology ruled. From the monster displays at the Panasonic, Sharp and Sanyo booths to wireless HDTV sets for those who are fed up with a rat's nest of cables, high definition truly defined the 2008 CES.

Perhaps the only real drawback to CES was its sheer size. A few days out of the office might seem like a good time, but it turned out to be more taxing than relaxing. The show required attendees to literally walk miles to take it all in. After a few seconds spent at one booth wondering, "What the heck is this thing they're showing off?" it's time to move on to the next gadget. The full four days wasn't enough time to see all of CES, and at the end of the day, most people wearily trudged back to their hotel to reflect on the enormity of it all.

CES was an exciting - and tiring - experience. By the time it was all over, attendees probably were glad to go back home where the people are few and the gadgets fewer.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.