Designtechnica’s CES 2004 Wrap-Up

There it sat alone, a symbol of a fading technology. In a sea of flat panel displays, the TV/DVD Combo from an unnamed manufacturer stood out like a UPS van at a Corvette show. It was one of the few, if not the only, CRT displays in the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The theme of the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) might as well have been “flat panels, flat panels and more flat panels.” It seemed as if every exhibitor had an LCD (Liquid Crystal Display), PDP (Plasma Display Panel), or DLP (Digital Light Processing) display to show off. While we have no way of quantifying our assessment, it’s probably safe to say that never before has there been such a collection of LCD, DLP and PDP displays under one roof.

Products ranged from the huge 80-inch Samsung and 76-inch LG Electronics PDPs to the tiny 240×320 LCD displaying ATI’s new 3D graphics engine for mobile phones.

The Designtechnica crew was at CES in Las Vegas from January 7 to January 11th and walked through the 1.38 million square feet Las Vegas Convention Center for four days to bring you the latest and greatest products from the world of consumer electronics.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, CES 2004 attracted over 129,000 visitors and over 2,400 exhibiting companies to Las Vegas. More than 18,000 of those visitors came from 110 countries outside of the United States.

We didn’t get a chance to visit all of the companies’ exhibits in the largest trade show in the world, but the blisters on our feet prove that we certainly gave it a try. We’ll spare you the pictures of our feet and go on to the good stuff.

Flat Panels Everywhere

With LCD and plasma displays becoming the standard for home use, one of the highlights of the show was the LG Electronics 76-inch PDP. It features 2.07 million pixels and a 1920×1280 progressive scan high-definition resolution, and is only 83mm thick. Pricing is not available at this time as the display won’t be seen in retail in the US until the fourth quarter of 2004.

All of the major players in the LCD and PDP market had something new to display, and their exhibit space was often as interesting as the products themselves. We have heard rumors that Panasonic refused to acknowledge Samsung as a competitor until just recently. There should be no debate now. Samsung’s booth was one of the largest and most impressive at the show. They reportedly started putting the exhibit together in November. Inside their walls of LCD’s was, well, more LCD’s.

Samsung’s booth was surrounded by and full of flat panel displays.

LG may have thought they had the largest display at CES, until Samsung unveiled their 80-inch PDP prototype. We’re not likely to see the Samsung behemoth on the market until 2005, and with a price tag over $10,000, it won’t be on everyone’s shopping list.

Samsung exhibited the HLP5685W, a floor-standing 56-inch widescreen DLP HTDV. While DLP displays are not as thin as LCDs or PDPs, the Samsung offerings show how DLPs are getting slimmer, while increasing in screen size. The HLP5685W features a 3000:1 contrast ratio and will be available for an MSRP of $4,999 in June.

Philips Electronics had an equally remarkable display. The centerpiece of their exhibit was a globe made of LCD screens. But one of the stars of the Philips show was their new Ambilight displays. The Ambilight uses ambient light technology, in which a subtle light surrounds the display and projects on to the wall behind the screen. According to Philips, their research shows that it offers a more relaxed viewing experience, as well as allowing for more vibrant colors. While there was nothing relaxing about viewing the Philips Ambilight display at CES, surrounded by noise and light pollution from every angle and getting bumped into by fellow show-goers, we’d love to see if the glowing light behind the screen really does make for better viewing in our own tests.

Philips’ display included a globe of flat panel displays

Sharp blew us away with the largest LCD screen announced to date. The Aquos LC-45GD1U is a 45-inch LCD HDTV flat panel. Not only is the 45GD1U the largest display of its kind, it also is the first to deliver a 1080p image, the best possible high definition image. Due to ship late in the summer of 2004, the television features a 1920×1080 pixel resolution and upconverts 1080i and 720p signals to 1080p. The rest of their Aquos line was just as impressive, with products for all rooms in the house.

The Sharp Aquos line blurs the line between PC and Television.

Projector and printer powerhouse Epson formally introduced their new line of rear-projection LCD TVs that include some innovative features. The 47 and 57-inch Livingstations feature a built in photo printer, digital media readers, and even a CD-R drive, allowing users to view, print and store digital images without the need for a computer. While we?re not yet sure if consumers really want or need these features, Epson gets points for doing something nobody else has done.

Epson’s Livingstation with built-in photo printer.

While televisions are getting bigger and thinner, computer displays also benefit from the advances made in the LCD arena. LCD computer displays are getting bigger, and the smaller models are getting better. Sony featured their 17-inch SDM-HS73P which features their “X-BRITE” technology previously used in Vaio notebooks. The technology is said to enhance contrast, viewing angles, brightness performance and overall image clarity – and from what we saw, it did all of that. This was one of the sharpest LCD monitors we have seen. Look for it in retail in February at a price of around $609. We can’t wait to see a 19-inch version of the unit.

BenQ displayed their FP783 17-inch LCD monitor that features a 12ms response time. They also introduced some larger models, including the 23-inch FP231W widescreen LCD monitor.

Bluetooth Is Not Dead

We’ve heard for years that Bluetooth was going to be the next big thing in wireless communications in the US. It has garnered much interest overseas but never really caught on that much in the States. It seems like that is about to change, as many companies had innovative Bluetooth offerings at CES this year.

Known primarily as a motherboard manufacturer in the US, EPoX introduced a line of Bluetooth devices for home and office use. They featured parallel and a USB Bluetooth printer adapters for wireless printing, a Bluetooth enabled keyboard and mouse setup and several Bluetooth motherboard modules. What most impressed us from EPoX was the BT-DG04A, a Bluetooth enabled flash memory stick. The unit features a USB Bluetooth module for connecting to other devices and comes with 64MB, 128MB or 256MB of onboard storage.

BenQ had an offering in this arena also, showing their s900 series Bluetooth keyboards, designed in conjunction with BMW DesignWorksUSA.

3Com had a Bluetooth PC card allowing a laptop to wirelessly communicate with other devices. Several manufacturers had Bluetooth headsets for cellular phones to show off. Many of these devices are not yet ready-for-prime-time, but will be on the market in the next few weeks and months.

Headset manufacturer Plantronics showed off their line of Bluetooth communication devices, including the M3500 mobile headset with Audio IQ. Audio IQ is supposed to improve audio quality, especially in noisy environments. The M3500 should be available in early Spring of 2004.

One of our favorite Bluetooth products was the FIC MP3 Bluetooth Headset. It connects to your wireless phone, notebook PC, or pocket PC via Bluetooth. It plays MP3s and stores data and works as a cordless headset when connected to your phone.

TDK featured Bluetooth communication kits made specifically for various PDAs and mobile phones. The kits allow for easy communication between PDAs, laptops and phones and will be available later this month.

Everything Wireless

While Bluetooth was prominently displayed throughout CES, wireless networking products were still a huge portion of the show. Many manufacturers showed off their new 802.11a, b, and g products.

IOGEAR, which had one of the best looking booths at the show with a futuristic neon-green and clear plexi theme, was showing off their Wireless-G broadband gateway and a new wireless USB print server.

Another product that IOGEAR exhibited was the GWU514, an 802.11b USB client device with a built in thumb drive with 128MB of storage.

Going one-up on its competitors, Buffalo announced its 125mbps wireless AirStation router. The WHR2-G54 operates on a theoretical maximum 125mbps chipset, surpassing the latest offerings from D-Link and Netgear which feature 108mbps maximum data rates.

Netgear’s 108mbps offerings got a facelift with the addition of an integrated USB2.0 port, allowing for network attached storage. Called the WGT634U Super Wireless Media Router, the device will be available in Quarter 1 of 2004 with a retail price of under $200.

We’re starting to see some new and innovative features on SOHO routers. Compex impressed us with their NetPassage 26g router, a wired and wireless 802.11g router that includes two USB ports for connecting a printer and webcam.

But it’s not just the networking gear that is wireless this year. Many product categories have wireless components that were shown off at CES.

Sony introduced their Wireless Dream System, which features wireless rear speakers. Samsung had a similar device, using Bluetooth for their rear speakers, but we were unable to see the product.

Innovations In Storage

Several companies showed off new storage solutions at CES. It seemed like everybody had a USB flash memory product as they were found everywhere in every color.

The flash memory products with built in 802.11b or 802.11g seem to be very useful. Several companies stated that they were “the first” but we saw several of them. Companies are adding more than just wireless to the thumb drives though. The Cruzer Titanium from SanDisk is a virtually indestructible 512MB drive. There were several smaller companies out of Taiwan and China showing off thumb drives with different twists such as neck pendants, key chains, bright colors, laser pointers, belt clips, and different shapes.

Storage capacity in these drives is increasing dramatically. SanDisk and Lexar both touted new 2GB flash drives, with SanDisk also entering a new line in the Memory Stick format.

Several companies offered products using the 1.5GB Cornice Storage Element and announced prototypes for new products using 2GB and 4GB Cornice or Tosbiba drives. Such devices included USB2.0 drives that require no external power, flash drives, and MP3 players. We’ll see these devices on the market this summer. Toshiba also announced a new .85-inch drive which will power a new wave of portable storage and mp3 players later in the year.

China’s MagicStor also introduced some striking storage products. Their main announcement was a new series of 1-inch hard drives with capacities of 2.4GB and 4.8GB. The drives were shown as Compact Flash Type II devices, USB 2.0 devices and as internal drives for small form factor designs. MagicStor also announced plans for developing a 0.8″ hard disk drive.

XIMETA expands upon their NetDisk line with the new NetDiskOffice, a network attached hard drive with an integrated 8-port 100mbps switch. The NetDiskOffice can be used stand-alone as a USB2.0 drive, or hooked directly into a network. It adds seven more ports to a network, perfect for a SOHO situation where the 4-port router has run out of ports. The NetDiskOffice features a  250GB 8MB cache hard drive and should be available in February 2004.

XIMETA’s NetDiskOffice with integrated 8-port switch.

Who Doesn’t Offer A Digital Media Player?

It seems as if every hardware manufacturer has either a portable MP3 player or a networked media player – or both. Digital music was one of the main themes of CES 2004 and we saw some innovative ideas.

As we predicted, networked media devices have really taken off. Until recently, most of the devices on the market were from smaller, lesser known companies. That has changed dramatically with many of the larger companies throwing their hat in the ring.

Yamaha impressed us with their MusicCAST home music network system. The system has been on the market for a few months now but this was the first time many in the industry got a look at it. The home-theater component sized MCX-1000 digital audio server features an 80GB hard drive and wired and wireless networking. It connects to two different clients – a in-wall client and a thin wall-mountable or free-standing client.

With their “Connected Planet” theme, Philips announced their Streamium line of wireless audio and video streaming devices. The 802.11g SL400i and SL500i allows the streaming of audio and video content from a server to a TV or home-theater system. Philips also announced Streamium products in an all-in-one home theater unit and a mini system.

Roku introduced the Soundbridge M2000, a networked music player with a 12-inch display that truly looks like it belongs in a home-theater. The Soundbridge plays digital music stored on a remote computer through a wired or wireless network and supports all major formats.

The Roku Soundbridge front view (top) and side views (bottom).

There were also many new MP3 players announced at CES 2004. Pendant style players were prevalent as flash memory sizes are starting to increase. Several companies had interesting products in this line featuring USB recharging and built-in speakers.

iRiver and a host of other companies showed off their 1.5GB MP3 players with a 1-inch hard drive. iRiver has been making a lot of noise in the MP3 arena and announced plans for a 20GB and a 40GB hard drive-based player. In 2003 they were the leading manufacturer of flash-based MP3 players and will refresh that lineup this year with higher capacities (up to 1GB), longer battery life and USB2.0.

These new hard-drive based players look to give the Apple iPod a run for their money. Besides the iRiver offerings, we were impressed by the new Gmini 220 by Archos and the hard drive-based players from Korea’s Xclef. Archos’ Gmini 220 introduces a new form-factor with a more squared look rather than the rectangle shape of most other hard drive-based players. The unit features a 2.5-inch gray-scale LCD, USB2.0 and a 20GB hard drive.

“Best Of Show” and Conclusion

With so many innovative and interesting products, it’s hard to pick just one product as the best. Several of the products we already mentioned stand out in their field.

Small form-factor or home-theater PCs were also the rage at CES 2004. FIC introduced a few models including some with integrated 17-inch LCDs and Windows XP Media Edition that will be re-branded. Taiwan’s Tsunami caught our eye with their striking blue metal and acrylic industrial design and hardware based decoding. MSI and Shuttle also expanded on their HTPC product lines.

The product that most stands out in our minds though, is the TekPanel 300 by Hy-Tek. This is the ultimate HTPC and in our thoughts, the wave of the future. The TekPanel is an HTPC built into a 37″ LCD flat panel display. It is packaged in a clean and modern looking custom brushed aluminum enclosure that can be wall-mounted or sit on a flat surface.

The innovative TekPanel – front view of the 37″ LCD (left) and side view of media slots (right)

The TekPanel features a display that is 48 lines denser than HD – which is achieved by a built-in proprietary scaler. Inside is a regular ATX motherboard running a Pentium 4 with an ATI Radeon graphics card, built in media readers, DVD drives and all of the expandability of a desktop computer. With all of this, the system is still only about 5-inches deep. Hy-Tek had two TekPanels networked playing Halo and there was no ghosting at all. This was by far the most impressive gaming display on an LCD we have ever seen. The image was sharp and clear and viewable at all angles.

Showing what can be done with mostly off-the-shelf components, the TekPanel gives us a glimpse at what our home-theater of the future will be. The ultimate HTPC comes with quite a price tag at over $6,000, but with more entries in this arena, we’ll hopefully see lower prices soon.

With the lines between home A/V, mobile A/V and computers blurring more and more, true digital convergence is just around the corner. CES 2004 showed us just how close we are to the “killer app”. We’re looking forward to the innovations of the next year and CES 2005. Hopefully we’ll see some of our dream products, such as an “instant-on” HTPC similar to the Tek-Panel, smaller digital media players with more storage, and 40+GB drives integrated into PDAs.

In the next few weeks and months, Designtechnica will bring you product reviews and news on these devices and much more. Stick with us, it’s going to be a fun ride!

More images from CES 2004:

Yamaha MCX 1000 Media Server
The Yamaha MCX-1000 Digital Audio Server

Yamaha’s in-wall client for their networked media system.

The Yamaha Acoustic Projector Speaker. It is made up of over 100 1-inch speakers and simulates 5.1 channel surround sound.

The Video Without Boundaries HTPC showcased the development of an “instant on” Linux based HTPC.

Tsunami impressed us with their industrial design and HTPC models with a hardware MP3 decoder.

Compex added a twist to the wired/wireless router by incorporating two USB ports for a printer and webcam.

The Hummer H-2 was the vehicle of choice for many displays. Here is the Infinity woody.

Polk Audio had their own H-2, a lifted black beauty.

Who would win in a battle of mascots? The 9-foot tall CES robot or the tight-wearing Microsoft butterflies?

More flat panels – Panasonic shows off thier Viera line.

LG Electronics had a networked home to go along with their huge flat panel displays.

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