Looking Ahead to CES, the Show I Love to Hate

The annual CES, the US Consumer Electronics Show, is a treat beyond compare; it provides a way to see a massive number of cool products (unfortunately for someone like me, who loves to buy this stuff and has no patience, resulting in a massive level of frustration). Every year I miss more than I see, and in my mad rush to see as much as possible I generally find the week to be a time of blisters, muscle pain, and deep longing for things I cannot yet have. My wife has learned a defense mechanism that takes effect as soon as I return; the more excited I am, the more creative she is in hiding my credit cards. This is one incredibly wonderful and expensive show.

In a week or so, I?ll share with you what I saw at the show; for now, let?s talk about what I expect to see. I actually have a relatively good idea in some areas because analysts are pre-briefed under double, super-secret NDAs, which gives me a view few others are lucky enough to get.

Wireless Consumer Electronics

From wireless speakers to wireless cell phone headsets, one of the clear themes of the show will be getting rid of wires that entangle our stereo cabinets and, increasingly, our bodies.

We?ve had wireless speakers for some time and most of them have been junk. This year you will see a large number of high-end wireless solutions for the rear speakers, which have been particularly problematic to install. However, they may no longer be necessary; last year Yamaha and then Polk brought out speaker arrays, which fool the ear into thinking there are surround speakers when there aren?t; you?ll be seeing the much better second generation of these products.

Wireless TVs (I can remember when ALL TVs were wireless) are the next big thing for those that wall mount. Running the massive amount of wires one of these new TVs needs in the wall has been incredibly painful and a major barrier to adoption. It doesn?t help that there are two competing next-generation monitor cabling standards, making it likely you?d have to rip your walls open again the next time you bought a TV. Wireless is a natural here and you?ll see a number of TV manufacturers showcase a wireless link to a breakout box to make installation easier on some of the higher-end products.

For cell phones, PDAs, and MP3 players, wireless headsets will spread across the show. Not being tangled up in your iPod headset cable is a unique treat, particularly in the colder climates, where you might find yourself needing professional help to untangle your clothes so you can get undressed for bed.

Look also for automotive systems and cameras that connect wirelessly to acquire or dump media onto the network.

For wireless networks, you?ll see a massive number of products using the “Pre-n” high-speed wireless technology, which right now doesn?t interoperate. However, you?ll also see a large number of products that use proprietary wireless networks to better transfer sound and video. We saw this last year from Sonos, the iPod-like company and product that used a Mesh network to one-button link remote music systems throughout the home. Look particularly for a variety of Mesh products in a number of segments; I expect more of this at the 2007 CES, but Mesh may be the future for home wireless.

PC Versus Appliance

One of the big wars at CES will be the competition between PC-based home entertainment, largely led by Microsoft, and their new Vista Media Center and Intel, with their Viiv initiative. However, the undercurrent will be on Scientific Atlanta, which was recently acquired by Cisco and on the next acquisition in this space Cisco is likely to make. But it isn?t just traditional set top boxes; iPods are being used to distribute music today around the home and Apple, who won?t be at the show, is expected to launch a disruptive product next year. Typically, Apple waits until the product is ready to ship, but rumor has it that they are announcing at Mac World new PCs based on the Intel platform; this could be one of those or something completely different (don?t you just love speculating about Apple, particularly since they hate that?).

In terms of design and capability, the products will range from things that do just audio and look wild to things that do audio and video, play computer games, and look like typical receivers. On both sides, look for products that take corporate technology and adopt it for the home. I?ve already started testing one such product, the Infrant Technologies ReadyNAS X6, which is a full Raid 5 NAS in my own home and it makes for a great repository for music and movies. Now, the only question is whether we can come up with a name that is more attractive to consumers than NAS (my guess is that won?t be particularly difficult).

Look for new products that tie into your existing stereo and video gear and allow you to share this media all over the home?particularly useful if you have one of those massive DVD changers and you want to watch a movie in some other part of the home.

Digital Cameras

The next big thing is on-camera editing. We saw a little of this last year but it was mostly red eye reduction. This year you?ll see cameras that can add special effects and do much more in terms of automatically improving pictures. Most retain the original image as well to ensure that you don?t screw it up by accident.

As we exited the year, 6 megapixels was the high end for consumer cameras; watch this jump to 8 megapixels for next year (it?s a good thing memory is cheap, as this will result in relatively large files).

Look for an increasing number of consumer notebook computers to have cameras built in for video conferencing; also, it is hard to imagine a single cell phone not having this capability at the show. Private lives may be a thing of the past.

HD movie cameras, which were a very small part of last year?s show, will be available at more attractive (but far from cheap) prices from a variety of vendors as well. If you haven?t seen what an HD video camera puts out, you owe this to yourself. It really is almost like being there.

Personal Computers

PCs will be all over the show with next generation designs from a variety of players; here too, however, the Apple news will be casting a long shadow at the show. From the system vendors, look for a huge number of laptops that have multi-media features you can get to without booting up the system (music, DVD movies, pictures) and a number with secondary displays on the cover of the laptop.

Look for some increasingly interesting MacMini-like designs for desktop computers in custom colors. In fact, with both laptops and desktops look for a wider expansion of the kinds of things Voodoo has done to provide custom colors and designs on PCs and laptops. In 2007, I expect the majors will begin doing this as well; I?m already ahead of the curve, as I had two PCs painted this year by Smooth Creations (www.smoothcreations.com): A Sony 505x laptop for my wife and an Asus Vento case for me (editing note pictures are attached).

MP3 and Video Players

The revenge of Microsoft will be widely felt at CES this year, as a huge number of new products based largely on the Microsoft platform will be all over the show. Look for devices that do video and audio and have a feature set that exceeds that of the iPod Video from a variety of vendors. As you read about these, remember that Apple won?t launch their own products until much later in the year and will have the benefit of seeing these offerings first.

It will be hard to find one of these that doesn?t have the ability to show pictures and video, and it won?t be long until we take all of this for granted.

iPod accessories will be a massive theme at the show, ranging from interfaces that allow you to plug the device into your home or automotive equipment, to devices that move the buttons and dance to the iPod music. The iPod, while not cheap, is suddenly going to get a lot more expensive.

TVs

The big news is a massive drop in new-generation HD TV prices. Look for larger LCD TVs with LED backlights, strong improvements in color quality, and some impressive (and still expensive) large sets. Of course, the problem remains getting content for these things and the hope is there will be some progress on this front early next year.

Overall, picture quality will be increased, but it is the entry of LED as a lighting source that will likely make the biggest difference; unlike traditional lighting sources, LEDs have an almost unlimited service life. These will enter at the high end of the market but will bring the benefits of enhanced image brightness and less power use, making them very attractive when they show up in stores late next year.

Wrapping Up

This is just a small sample of what I expect to see at the show in January. Until then, I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and that everyone?s bank accounts survive the coming weeks.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.