LAS VEGAS — With the economy bouncing back and a general sense of optimism returning, the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show was a considerably more upbeat event than its predecessor a year earlier. Electronics companies rolled out some flashy new technologies at this year's show in anticipation that consumers, slowly regaining their confidence, will once again take to spending on the latest must-have gadgets.
As always, though, there were winners and losers. Some companies came out looking strong and ready to meet the future while others looked as if they were still limping through the effects of a depressing 2009. Not everyone can shine at CES — here are our picks for who did and who didn't.
Hitting the jackpot: Toshiba, Skype, Google
Toshiba: CES is very much about winning bragging rights with impressive new technologies. This year, Toshiba took the honours with its Cell TV, a marriage of an LCD screen and a supercomputer.
Toshiba said the TV will have more than 140 times the processing power of a regular screen thanks to its Cell processor, which the company has jointly developed with Sony and IBM (Sony’s PlayStation 3 was the first consumer electronic device to use it). All of that data-crunching ability will allow the television to not only play back 3-D movies, but convert regular 2-D content — like standard-definition DVDs — into 3-D as it is played back. The Cell TV will also be internet-connected with 802.11n Wi-Fi, and have a built-in Blu-ray player and hard drive with one terabyte of storage.
As if that wasn't enough, Toshiba also demonstrated a 3-D gesture-based control system for the TV, where simple hand motions replace the remote. The company didn’t say when the TV would be available, other than this year, nor did it announce pricing — such a loaded device is not likely to come cheap, however.
Announcing the Cell TV, provided it will indeed materialize in 2010, was a good move, as it allowed Toshiba to regain some face. The company was humbled at CES two years ago when it was left holding the losing format, HD DVD, in the high-definition disc war.
Skype: The popular internet-calling service scored a coup at this year's show by announcing that Skype will be available on televisions. Video calling technology has been around for years and it has flopped just about every time anyone has tried it, particularly on cellphones.
Skype, which says that one third of all its computer-based calls are already video calls, may finally be the company that can bring video conferencing to the home consumer. Most previous attempts at establishing video calling have focused on local connections. Skype, on the other hand, finds much of its appeal in providing people with long-distance communication, which is the type of call where seeing the other person makes considerably more sense. High-definition big screen calls are going to prove popular with loved ones separated by geography and could move Skype further into mainstream use.
Google: While not technically a CES announcement, the Nexus One smartphone made a big impact at the show, and it is likely to instigate change this year. The Nexus One, which Google announced the day before the show and then demonstrated at a CES event, is the first phone to be sold directly in North America by a major manufacturer without a service contract tied to it.
Google wants to change the market by having people buy their phones outright, then force cellphone providers to offer them a good deal in order to get their business. The Nexus One, a slick and worthy competitor to the iPhone, is not yet available in Canada, but it could actually have a much bigger impact here than in the United States, where only two major carriers can accommodate its technology format.
Google said that with a slight tweak to its antenna, the Nexus One can easily work on any 3G network in Canada. That means people who buy a Nexus One when it eventually becomes available here will have four compatible carriers to choose from — Bell, Rogers, Telus and Wind.
50-50 odds: 3-D television
3-D television: Every major electronics maker announced plans to release 3-D TVs this year, but the question of whether or not people really want the technology still remains. On the one hand, many households have recently bought big, expensive flat screens, so the appetite to buy another television — which will inevitably be more expensive because of the added 3D technology — is not likely to be high.
Additionally, while movie studios are pumping out an increasing number of 3-D movies and television producers are beginning to jump on board, there still isn’t enough content available for most people to justify a purchase. Some people are also dead set against wearing the required glasses for 3-D. There may need to be a few more blockbuster hits like Avatar to spur consumers' desire for 3-D television.
Rolling craps: Microsoft, Sharp, Canadians
Microsoft: Expectations on Microsoft going into CES are always high, given that the company has the annual plum job of giving the show’s kickoff keynote address. In recent years, the company has failed to deliver, and this year was no exception. Attendees were looking to Microsoft for an announcement on any of a number of fronts: its rumoured "Courier" tablet computer; a new mobile phone strategy that could fix its woes in that market; or further details on plans for a next-generation video game system.
On the first item, Microsoft disappointed, managing only to show off a prototype tablet computer from HP. The company was quiet on the second item and provided only a grain of information on the third — that its Project Natal motion-control system for the Xbox 360 should be out before the end of the year. Microsoft’s lack of flashy news again caused CES attendees to once again muse that perhaps the opening keynote should be given to a company more skilled at generating hype, such as Apple.
Sharp: At least one company usually chooses to promote the wrong thing at CES, and this year it was Sharp. While every other television maker was touting 3-D or internet-connected sets, Sharp chose to focus on its new "QuadPixel" technology, which basically adds some extra yellow to the regular red, green and blue pixels displayed by all screens. The extra yellow, Sharp said, allows for richer and more realistic colours. That may be the case, but the company's attempt to look unique came off as an anachronism — the quest to outdo rivals in picture quality ended years ago as all TV makers arrived at offering pretty much the same top-quality results. Touting colour depth rather than additional features seemed out of place and made Sharp look like it’s behind the pack.
Canadians: With the annual parade of new technologies comes the inevitable and all-too-frequent disclaimer: "not yet in Canada." It's understandable, then, that many Canadians either don't care about CES, or are angered by the event. The reasons often come down to Canada’s small market size, its separate licensing rules — especially in the case of technologies that incorporate online content — or government and CRTC regulations. Until some of those issues are resolved, Canadians can expect a healthy dose of techno-envy every January.