TECHNOLOGY

CES' practical approach

Electronics show scales back on the glitz, but still features work-worthy products

At the 2009 International CES this month, more than 2,700 consumer electronics vendors gathered in Las Vegas for the annual display of the hot and the new. But given the dismal state of the economy, the glitzy, glamorous products touted in years past seemed, well, inappropriate. This year’s show focused more on practical products that give people the tools to do business in ways that are less expensive, faster, and smarter.

Here are three of the trends showcased at CES that could improve the day-in, day-out lives of government workers, and a few products ready to ride the trend into your agency.

Trend: Greater enterprise functionality of smart phones and handhelds

Product: Palm Pre smart phone and webOS operating system

The blockbuster of the show was easily the Palm Pre smart phone and its webOS operating system. Whenever anyone even mentioned the Pre, eyes would glaze over with some powerful emotion — was it love, or lust, or joy? Most likely it was a combination of all three. Demonstrating the Pre at the press conference, Palm chairman Jon Rubinstein showed off the intuitive user interface based on touch gestures — slide, pinch, zoom — that let you spin your data around like a partner in a tango. The audience at the demo practically swooned at each dip and spin. Even so, the Pre offered a simple beauty without excess. No buttons, no window panes, no applications to keep loading and switching. The Pre also offers an ambient light sensor so you could check it in a movie theater at a dimmer brightness.

And the Pre didn’t solely rely on touch. The curved device, which features a 3.1-inch screen that curves toward you, slides open to reveal a QWERTY keyboard.

All of the Linux-based webOS applications — contacts, calendar, music, e-mail, search — communicate with the Web. Appropriately, considering the Vegas setting, Rubinstein used a “deck of cards” analogy to describe the way you could stack and shuffle applications. The Synergy e-mail system compiles all e-mail formats—gmail, Outlook, Verizon—into one synched list.

As of this writing, no price has been set, but the smitten multitude speculated on the Internet that the Pre could cost as much as $399. Sprint-Nextel says it will roll out the first Pre smart phones in the United States during the first half of the year.

Product: Blackberry Curve 8900 smart phone

Research in Motion officially announced the BlackBerry Curve 8900 from T-Mobile on Jan. 7, the day before CES officially opened. RIM added enhanced multimedia features, a Global Positioning System receiver and built-in WiFi 802.11 b/g support to this more standard handheld. It also offers a 480-by-352 pixel video camera, and a cryptographic lithium cell battery that provides up to 5.5 hours of talk time.

The new BlackBerry also offers a full QWERTY keyboard and is lighter and thinner than its predecessors. No longer just for e-mail and phone, the Curve 8900 supports a memory card up to 16G to accommodate the music, photos and videos that have become common. The Curve 8900 from T-Mobile is scheduled to go on sale next month at T-Mobile stores and online at www.T-Mobile.com. Pre-order prices on the Internet were mostly in the $449 to $500 range.

Trend: Smaller, more portable, full computing in mini-laptops

Product: Sony VAIO P-series Lifestyle PC

At CES, the best example of the mini-laptop PC trend, sometimes referred to as netbooks, was the Sony VAIO P-series Lifestyle PC. The crowd around the Sony booth was almost silent, they were so absorbed in trying out the 8-inch, 1.4-pound notebook. A carnival-style barker touted the notebook’s features, demonstrating how it fit into the pocket of his cargo pants. He described the P-series target audience as senior vice presidents, or someone who needs to take a PC almost everywhere.

I have to admit that I got a travel-sized makeup kit for Christmas that was bigger than the P-series.

The keyboard felt smoother and more comfortable than the one on my primary desktop PC, and the screen was more vivid. The P-series comes in black, white, dark red and green with a glimmering metallic sheen.

Sony is marketing it as a secondary laptop, not a primary one. It also features a GPS, Windows Vista and a four-hour battery that can be expanded with a larger capacity battery to eight hours. A 1.33-GHz Intel Atom processor helps keep the unit cool and quiet, incorporating a fanless design. It was late in the day when I got to the Sony booth. The demonstrator said the unit had been running all day, yet when I touched the P-series, it was cool.

The P-series is available for pre-sale now at www.sony.com and at retailers next month. A unit with a 60G standard hard drive will sell for $900; a 128G solid-state drive will also be available.

Product: HP Pavilion dV2

HP also debuted the Pavilion dV2, another entry in the laptop category, which uses AMD’s Yukon architecture. The dV2 weighs about 3.8 pounds and is 1.3 inches thick. It has a 12.1-inch diagonal LED BrightView display with a nearly full-sized keyboard and is scheduled to go on sale in April for about $700.

Product: HP Pavilion dv3

The company also unveiled the HP Pavilion dv3, a 4.35-pound, 1.01-inch thick, 13.3-inch display machine that runs on an AMD Turion chip. It’s designed to enhance entertainment options, including advanced graphics and video, and will sell for around $800.

Trend: A more stable Windows operating system.

Product: Windows 7

A new Windows OS is always big news, and Windows 7 is no exception. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave a preview of 7 at the show’s keynote on Jan. 6. A beta version of the software is available for download now at Microsoft's Web site. This trend may be based on a single product, but when it’s the operating system the federal government uses, you can bet that it will affect almost everything feds do.

The new operating system keeps what users liked about Windows Vista and tosses what they didn’t, said Aaron Coldiron, Microsoft senior marketing manager. Windows 7 runs on a foundation of Windows Vista, so it has all the security features of that OS, including Bit Locker drive encryption, Coldiron said.

One of the comments that came up in a survey of 250,000 Vista users was that they were annoyed by all the prompts and pop-up notes, Coldiron said. The operating system sent too many messages informing users of all it was doing on their behalf.

Windows 7 lets users decide which application prompts it should send, if any, and when. This will enable a speedier, more streamlined system. All the bells and whistles on Vista were what prompted user complaints of slowness, Coldiron said.

The latest Windows incorporates Windows Touch, which will offer support for touch technology. Users will be able to zoom in on an image by moving two fingers closer together on screen or zoom out by moving two fingers apart. The Windows Start menu, Windows Taskbar and Windows Explorer have larger, more finger-friendly icons.

Bonus trend: Touch everything!

Actually, touch was another keyword that described this year’s CES. Almost everything had a touch screen, from PDAs to laptops. Samsung even showed a touch-screen Coke machine. Expect to be able to paw your way to an ice cold Coke in the very near future!

Especially noteworthy in the non-potable category was Hewlett Packard’s Touchsmart tx2z series, which features an AMD Turion processor. Users can use the same touch gestures they are already familiar with from their iPhones and other touch-based devices, HP representatives said.

Sad but hopeful trend: the economy

On the second day of CES, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the unemployment rate had reached 7.2 percent, the highest since 1993. CES’ characteristic party mood was palpably diminished, and the idea of spending $2,500 to buy a 40-inch TV display seemed positively distasteful.

Attendance at the show was down 10 percent, and CES veterans confided to me, a newbie, that the mood was more somber than in previous years. People shouldered their laptops and headed back home through a snowstorm that played havoc with airline schedules.

“There’s always next year,” they assured one another. “It’ll pick up next year.

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