Every January, a combination of rolled-over digits on the calendar year and the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas get techie brains spinning about what’s to come in the months ahead. In 2008, smartphones were the talk of the town. In 2009, ultra-thin TVs with LED backlighting stole the show. This time around for technology enthusiasts, it’s, well, any number of hot up and coming trends. From the much-talked-about 3D TV to long-awaited rise of the streaming media box, here are the trends that many believe will define 2010, along with a healthy dose of reality that could cut many of them down to size.
What it is: Broadband on the go. Fourth-generation cell phone technology (hence the 4G) will allow your phone and other devices to move data at many times existing 3G speeds. Right now, only a handful of cities in the United States offer 4G service, mostly through Clear and Sprint. But the market will continue to expand as consumer appetites for data increase; Sprint claims it will blanket more than 120 million people with WiMax coverage by the end of 2010.
Our take: We got up close and personal with WiMax technology when Clear launched service here in Portland, and the speeds are promising. But right now, it’s only really useful for computers: both companies currently sell USB modems, routers, and mobile hotspots that turn 4G signal into Wi-Fi for surrounding PCs to use. That means an additional bill on top of your cell’s phone existing data plan. Ouch. We think 4G will really take off when cell phones – which consume the majority of data bandwidth on cell networks – start to make use of it.
What it is: Television that leaps out of the screen. Using extremely high refresh rates and active shutter glasses that strategically block off each eye over 100 times a second, 3D televisions create the illusion of depth within a TV. At this year’s Consumer Electronics show, all the major TV manufacturers, including Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, LG and Toshiba all announced televisions that will handle 3D content when they launch later this year.
Our take: Gimmick or not, you’re eventually going to buy it. Since most manufacturers have incorporated 3D technology into their flagship sets, even consumers who just want the very best 2D image quality will end up buying sets that also happen to do 3D. And if you just dropped $3,000 on a TV, we’re betting you’ll begrudgingly lay down another $300 for a Blu-ray player that will let you watch Avatar’s half-naked Na’vi running around in 3D. Since all these technologies eventually migrate down to cheaper sets, eventually even midrange buyers won’t have much of a choice at the retailer.
What they are: Digital books. Using e-Ink technology, e-readers are able to create a crisp, paper-like image that strains the eyes less than a computer monitor and doesn’t require electricity to retain, giving the devices extremely long battery life. Since many of them come with built-in 3G modems and lifetime service, owners can download books from online stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble from virtually anywhere. The incredibly small size of e-books gives even a modest e-reader the ability to hold over a thousand titles.
Our take: It looks like 2010 will bring a slate of larger, more capable e-readers, but nobody has tackled the biggest factor holding back adoption yet: cost. Even the cheapest e-readers cost over $200, and some of the best we saw at CES, like Plastic Logic’s Que, will cost $800. Even worse, none of the major e-book stores offer much of a price incentive to purchase digital copies, despite the drastically reduced distribution cost and consumer restrictions (like the inability to loan or sell them).
What they are: Cheap, tiny notebook computers. Despite using inexpensive Atom processors, minimal RAM, integrated graphics and tiny hard drives, they can typically run Windows 7, making them great portable computers for e-mail, Web surfing, and word processing. However, the line between what counts as a netbook and what isn’t continues to get blurrier. Many in the latest generation have grown to use 12-inch screens and even include discrete Nvidia Ion graphics, putting them more on par with real notebooks.
Our take: In a market still starving for jobs and cash flow, inexpensive netbooks should remain white hot in 2010, especially considering how many new options have arrived since the very first models. Intel introduced its new Pinetrail Atom processor for CES 2010, and AMD’s Neo processor has also started to make an appearance in some models. Nvidia’s Ion, which first appeared in 2009, should also start cropping up in a lot more places. When it comes to build quality, manufacturers have also started to outgrow their cheap roots of netbooks with high-quality models like HP’s Mini 5102 and Lenovo’s X100e. Sales have already proven this technology has legs, now we just get to see it mature.
What they are: Portable, slate-like PCs with touchscreens. Like a lot of technologies picking up steam in 2010, they’ve been kicking around for years, but recent innovations have just started to make them more practical and affordable. Specifically, the launch of Windows 7 in October 2009 brought a host of native touch capabilities that made it easier for developers to design and build tablet PCs.
Our take: Some of the first Windows 7 tablets, like the Archos 9, have proven novel. But if manufacturers hope to bring their tablets out of the sideshow and into the main ring, they’ll have to focus more on software that makes the tablet form factor more interesting and useful. Perhaps that’s why much of the current buzz on tablet PCs focuses on Apple’s yet-to-be-announced tablet. Given the company’s reputation for clever software, it might be one of the first devices to more fully exploit the tablet form factor by doing more than merely dumping a standard desktop on a touchscreen.
What they are: The 21st century replacement for your cable box, DVD player, and CD player. Streaming media set-top boxes like Netgear’s EVA8000 or D-Link’s new Boxee Box play video, music and photos from around your home network, but also reach out onto the Web to services like YouTube, Hulu and Netflix for content that streams instantly to your TV, from the latest episodes of The Office to Black Hawk Down.
Our take: Having snipped our own cable connection in favor of Internet content, we’re clearly convinced of a future here. But manufacturers have flirted with the premise of downloadable and streaming content in the living room for years, so what will be different in 2010? It seems to us that set-top boxes are finally reaching the ease of use and breadth of content they’ve been missing for years. For instance, the Boxee Box makes it a breeze to tap into everything from Hulu to Netflix and Last.fm, and even adds social features that make it possible to see what your friends are watching and recommend your own favorites. Watch out, Apple TV.
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