Top 10 best and worst of CES

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Top 10 best and worst of CES

It's been a long hard week for many people in Las Vegas this week as over 100,000 people have flocked to the city for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Three huge convention centre halls and numerous other locations have been used to demonstrate the next generation of electronic technology and a dizzying parade of new systems, peripherals and add-ons have been put on display.

The Best...

Honourable mention: 3D TV

Shaun Nichols: We'll say more on the 3D platform later in the list, but there are some impressive applications for 3D displays, particularly in the gaming front.

If you were to ask most people five or six years ago about gesture-controlled gaming, many would dismiss it as a passing fad or a gimmick. Lo and behold, the Wii comes along and the use of gestures to control movement is seen as a revolution.

There is likely a similar application for 3D TV sets. As the sets become cheaper and more widely adopted, hopefully it will emerge and all of the time, money and energy spent on these systems will not go to waste.

Iain Thomson: In some applications 3D displays actually do make some sense, as we saw at the show.

Movies in particular can be rather good, provided that the director doesn't do lots of pointless 'monster lunges directly at you' type shots. While the effect isn't true 3D it's a pretty good facsimile of the reality.

But some things didn't seem to get a lot out of the 3D environment. We both played the Avatar 3D first person shooter and as far as I was concerned the effect was both ropey and added nothing to gameplay.

Based on the buzz we're going to be seeing a lot more of 3D, so we better get used to it and developers better pick up their game.

5. Nvidia's Tegra platform

Shaun Nichols: With everyone looking to roll out smaller, more efficient, more powerful tablet models, some were asking who was going to provide the processing muscle. Nvidia answered the call big time with their updated Tegra platform.

Running with eight independent processors and the first dual core Coretex A9 chip, Tegra looks to be pretty formidable. While the competition was by no doubt weighted in Tegra's favour, the comparisons Nvidia made to Intel's Atom chip showed the new platform to be more than impressive.

If the new round of tablets are indeed going to take off, more powerful and efficient processors are going to be needed. Tegra looks like it may just be able to meet those demands going forward.

Iain Thomson: Nvidia's updated platform certainly looks the business and I think it'll do very well in the market.

Computing is getting increasingly visual and thus Nvidia is in a good position to capitalise on the shift. For a lot of the new tablets coming out with multitouch support graphic controls are the way forward and that trend is accelerating.

However, there was one aspect of Nvidia's news that I found a little disturbing, the amount of times it was mentioned putting it in cars. To my mind there is already far too much distraction for drivers, be it mobile phones or entertainment systems, and we need to cut down on this, not add to it.

4. Light Peak

Iain Thomson: Intel made a lot of promises this year but the one that really caught my eye was its new connection technology Light Peak.

Intel is claiming a whopping 10Gbps data transfer rates for the cables, which are expected to use braided glass fibre optics to achieve download and upload speeds unmatched in the industry. If the system works it's going to make backing up systems a lot more palatable.

The company wants Light Peak to replace a lot of new cables like HDMI that have come into use over the last few years to handle data loads that USB can't as yet. Intel does have the power to ram a new standard onto the PC platform but it looks as though most of the industry is also rather keen on the technology. Apple is rumoured to be supporting the standard and PC manufacturers we spoke to were very complimentary about the idea.

Looking ahead Light peak could technically reach speeds of 100Gbps with a bit more work on the standard. We probably won't need that kind of performance for a while but it's nice to know that it's that it's there if needed.

Shaun Nichols: When Iain told me about Light Peak after the Intel keynote I was more than a little sceptical. Do we really need a standard that can transfer a Blu-ray disc in three seconds? Aren't there so many other bottlenecks right now that peripheral connections are an afterthought?

Then I thought back about the other standards. USB 2 seemed to be more than fast enough when it came out, as did Firewire, as did many of the other connection standards when they first hit.

It's always good to keep something faster than it needs to be, because the speed with which the industry progresses suggest that other advances in hardware and software make Light Peak very necessary and, eventually, even challenged to keep up and then made obsolete.

3. Nokia Growth Economy Venture Challenge

Iain Thomson: Nokia's credentials as one of the good guys in the IT industry was bolstered by this year's CES.

First off there was the report from Greenpeace about the company's excellent environmental record but the real kicker for me was the announcement of the Growth Economy Venture Challenge. Nokia is willing to invest US$1 million in a developer who comes up with an idea that uses mobile technology to improve the lives of people in the poorest parts of the world. To cap it all the company has said that the idea doesn't even need to use Nokia technology.

Now the cynic in me thinks that Nokia's decision has more than a little self interest and it's not all hugs and puppies with the Finnish giant. Nokia's going to be handed a lot of good ideas while judging the entrants and anything mobile is going to benefit the world's biggest mobile phone manufacturer.

Nevertheless it's a great idea and will directly benefit people getting by on US$5 a day or less, which is still a shamefully high number of people. The winners will be announced in June and it's going to be very interesting to see what the development community can come up with.

Shaun Nichols: A million dollars is little more than a drop in the bucket for a company as large as Nokia. Still, this is a noble gesture.

We're in a time where everyone is counting their nickels and dimes, charities and non-profits are really hurting for funds. Who can give to others when you can barely afford to keep your own head above water. To that end, Nokia made a bold and admirable move here.

Investing in emerging economies is also a sage decision. The economies in places like India and South America have exploded in recent years, and the companies that invested there early have reaped some nice benefits.

There are also untapped sources of talent. No doubt many great business and engineering minds have yet to be uncovered in some of the poorer parts of the world.

2. Rise of the tablets

Shaun Nichols: The emergence of tablet devices was the big story of CES 2010. Kicked off by Microsoft and HP and then pushed along further by Nvidia's Ventana update and the unveiling of prototype devices from the likes of Asus and Dell, tablets were the intriguing development of the show.

The hype is understandable, as notebook systems get smaller and smartphone systems get more powerful, the middle ground will logically be the portable yet powerful tablet setup.

And things may only pick up in the coming weeks. If the latest rash of rumours are any indication, Apple is gearing up for the announcement of a new tablet device that is likely to give all of the previously named parties a serious run for their money.

The only down side is that these products all seem to be at least several months off. The tablet products are all still in the prototype stages and likely not to be out until at least the end of the year. Perhaps the 2011 CES will be the show in which the tablets finally land.

Iain Thomson: The first tablet were something of a disappointment, basically laptops with rotatable screens, but the technology has really come of age.

Be they full computers or just electronic reading devices the tablets we saw this week have been uniformly good, at least from a technology standpoint. The interfaces are easy to get to grips with, the technology is robust and it appears to be gaining acceptance in the consumer market. I got an email from my Mum this week asking if she should buy one, and she's usually well behind the technology curve.

That said some manufacturers still don't quite get it on pricing. Plastic Logic was demoing the Que tablet, which is a greyscale electric ink platform that lets you write on documents as well. It was a beautiful bit of kit but at nearly US$700 I can't see many being sold.

1. Green Technology

Iain Thomson: The greening of the IT industry has been remarkable in its speed and this year we saw more and more companies pushing environmentally friendly hardware.

People want to buy green technology and companies are getting very good at providing it. While there is a certain amount of greenwashing going on it's not as common as it was and most companies are sincere in their attempts to green up their products.

It would be wrong to suggest that all this greening is down to the inherent goodness of the manufacturers involved. There's a healthy dose of self interest in there too. People want to buy green, companies are looking to make savings on costs like power consumption and replacement. Being more efficient isn't just the right thing to do, it's also the smartest, and green technology helps with that.

When you look at what goes into technology it can be a real witches brew of chemicals, many of them highly toxic. All those toxins go somewhere and unfortunately that somewhere is usually the developing world, where they cause cancer clusters and birth deformities. It's not asking too much of the industry to clean up its act and doing so benefits us all.

Shaun Nichols: Last year, it seemed that adopting green technology was still something that was a hard sell and a bit of a chore. You did it more because you felt obligated than anything else.

Now, it's become a major selling point for new technologies. Greater energy efficiency keeps energy costs down. Lighter packaging helps to reduce clutter, and the use of technologies such as OLED has helped to make devices slimmer and more versatile.

It also seems like we may be nearing the end of the "green" era. Not because people will stop wanting cleaner, more efficient products, but because people will be expecting all products to be cleaner and more efficient. Increasingly, benchmarks and performance specs are losing ground to battery life, recyclability, and power efficiency. It seems that 2009 was the year in which Green Tech really came into its own.

And the worst...

Honourable Mention: Press room

Iain Thomson: OK, this is a bit parochial but it was so infuriating we had to mention it.

Hundreds of journalists, bloggers and analysts descended on CES this year but when it came to filing copy we all faced a serious problem – actually filing copy. The press room at the Venetian had been cut to a fraction of its usual capacity and there was a grand total of 14 LAN connections available. Meanwhile the wireless network was about as reliable as a lace condom.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) angered a lot of journalists with the abysmal level of support and a lot of people were having serious problems, particularly with jobs like uploading video which takes a lot of bandwidth and needs a reliable connection.

I suspect the CEA has just got cocky. It knows that we have to cover the show and also that the press aren't a real priority but this year the staff either were actively trying to rub us up the wrong way or just staggeringly inept.

Shaun Nichols: This one started out as a personal gripe that we were going to leave off the list, but once it started affecting the content on, we decided to put it on our list.

To understand the situation you have to first know how CES operates. Press conferences are usually carried out at the Sands Expo Center, while the show itself takes place about two miles away at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The organisers of CES decided to scale the press room at the Sands down to support maybe a couple dozen people this year. What they neglected to consider, or chose to ignore, was that the day before the show is known as "press day," a time when the biggest companies hold their major press conferences and nearly every reporter covering CES converges on the Sands.

The results were pretty ugly. The room was packed to the rafters, and then some. The wireless network was completely overwhelmed and what few Ethernet connections there were almost caused fistfights. Reporters desperate to plug in their laptops spilled out over two halls in the Venitian hotel and an internet connection became a distant hope.

As a result of the state of the press rooms at CES, I can say with certainty that the filing of at least five stories got delayed for hours because we were unable to get online. Not a big deal for the organisers, perhaps, but the sponsors of the show who missed out on coverage because reporters couldn't file might be a bit upset about the whole ordeal.

5. 3D TV

Shaun Nichols: The introduction of 3D TV was a major, major theme for this year's show. That it received such a tepid response should worry a lot of manufacturers.

3D TV right now seems to be a technology developed for the sake of developing it. The presentation is sort of cool, but not exactly groundbreaking. The images still are not three-dimensional in the way a tangible object or hologram would appear, just better-defined between layers. I'd even go so far as to say it's even less impressive than the transition from standard to high-def TV sets.

On top of that, integrating a 3D setup requires a complete overhaul of the entertainment system and an investment roughly in the neighbourhood of an automobile. I have a hard time seeing consumers getting behind the technology in earnest any time soon.

Iain Thomson: I remain something of a skeptic about 3D, but there have been moments in the last week where 3D has looked very good.

Intel, for example, showed a number of clips of 3D viewing that were actually rather good. However, these were more the exception than the rule.

Almost all the major consumer electronics have geared up for a big push into 3D and there's almost an element of the idea being too big to fail. There will be about 50 films coming out next year in 3D, including the new Shrek in May, and the success of Avatar has given many in the industry hope that the technology will prove popular with consumers.

However, it's a big leap from putting on a pair of spectacles in a cinema to maxing out the budget on a new entertainment system and sitting in front of it with a pair of silly glasses on. I have my doubts if many people are willing and able to make that jump.

4. Slow economy

Shaun Nichols: Last year, the looming economic storm was nominated as the worst thing about CES. This year things are starting to look better, but not great.

Companies are more optimistic and new technologies are once again being pushed, but there is still a very palpable anxiety over the economy. Though some new technologies were showcased, it seems that innovation is still being held back by funding and revenue issues, and as such the overall crop of products at the show this year was fairly underwhelming.

The crowds were also down once again this year, and it seems that the falling attendance is really starting to affect the show itself. Many of the services previously provided at CES were both cut or greatly scaled back, and that tell-tale sign of corporate affluence, the "booth babe," was a rare sight this year.

Iain Thomson: Shaun and I spoke often about how much livelier the show was this year compared to last year, with a lot more visitors and more upbeat companies. Nevertheless sales aren't really growing much and some are worried.

While the Christmas period proved not as bad as some had expected there is still a significant shortfall in consumer demand and companies that have built their business model around continuous growth are in trouble.

There's also a certain amount of denial going on. I heard several people express the view that electronics buying was a requirement for a lot of consumers but these are still hard economic times. With job security at an all time low and those people in work saving against the possibility that they won't soon then a major electronics purchase isn't high on the agenda in the real world.

3. CES shuffle

Iain Thomson: CES is a very big show and delegates spend a lot of time getting from one spot to another. Unfortunately the CES shuffle can make this a frustrating task.

The shuffle is best described as a sort of aimless meander, as people walk slowly along looking at the exhibits, and occasionally just stop in their tracks with no thought for the people behind them. Because of the sheer volume of people at the show you are forced into informal lanes in order to get around, so a shuffler will slow up everyone else behind them. It makes getting somewhere quickly and huge chore.

There are ways around the problem however. Cutting through exhibitor stands is a popular method, while some people just barge through. The Japanese delegates are particularly adept at this for some reason, maybe because it's commonplace in cities like Tokyo or Osaka.

Being British I start out at these shows trying to be polite, saying excuse me and apologising for nudging people. But by day three that goes out the window and I'm barging with the best of them.

Shaun Nichols: While stuck at a standstill behind some guy moving with his pull-cart bag at about half a meter per hour, I came to the conclusion that CES needs an express lane.

I guess these are just everyday annoyances, I guess. On any downtown sidewalk you will find people who are texting on their phones, staring at store windows in the middle of the sidewalk, or meandering along with their friends shoulder to shoulder.

The problem is, CES is a very concentrated area with a great many distractions. Simply getting caught up in a sparkly window or having a lapse in common courtesy can cause a pretty big stink.

So for those of you attending CES or any other conference, please show a bit of courtesy to your fellow conventioneers and step into the booths to have a gander.

2. Conference Cough

Iain Thomson: If statisticians were to look at the amount of time lost to the dreaded CES flu I suspect companies would find they are loosing millions as a result of CES.

When you get 100,000 people flying in from all corners of the globe, gathering in one place and shaking hands a lot you're built pretty much the best environment possible for getting sick. Add in a lot of activity and short sleep rations and you'll find yourself at a low ebb and vulnerable to a virus attack. If one person has the flu then it jumps from person to person fast and before long everyone's got it. The Las Vegas climate doesn't help either, since it dries out your mucous membranes and makes you more vulnerable.

One of the essential bits of kit to pack before CES is anti-bacterial hand gel according to some people but personally I've got my doubts about its efficacy. I've tried it and it seldom works. Frequent hand washing in hot water is slightly more effective but it's still not enough. This year a very nasty strain of flu has swept through delegates and as we left we ran into a fellow hack who was obviously suffering from a nasty attack of it and both Shaun and I have been hit.

Sadly there really is very little you can do about it but suck it up and isolate yourself when you get home so that you don't infect others.

Shaun Nichols: When flying in to Las Vegas for CES, journalists more or less concede that they are going to get sick. The circumstances are a perfect storm for illness.

During the show most of us are pulling 14 hour days, working shoulder to shoulder with others, and living off of coffee and whatever you come across at the press conferences or events (I was able to eat lunch a total of one time during the show.)

Going home I was starting to feel a nice bout of chest cold setting in, but Iain was far worse. At first glance this morning he seemed a light shade of gray and from there on it didn't get much better. I know that British people usually have this sort of hue, but he still looked pretty bad.

If you have a co-worker or loved one who is coming home from CES, it's not such a bad idea to keep them isolated for a while. Granted, they may not take it well, but we all know that feelings are way less important than not getting the sniffles.

1. Microsoft's opening keynote

Shaun Nichols: Keynote gaffes and goof-ups are nothing new for Microsoft, but this year's opening address may have just been the worst ever.

Before things ever even got off the ground, an electrical error knocked out power to much of the stage and forced Microsoft technicians to run on the stage to diagnose and reboot two demo systems which looked to have been knocked offline.

Power was restored and the keynote kicked off with a song proclaiming "I've got a feeling tonight is going to be a good night." Not since Custer's scouts foresaw a leisurely stroll through the plains has a prediction been so wrong.

The power outage managed to completely disable at least one product Microsoft was planning to showcase, and the demos that did survive didn't fare much better. Hardware issues hampered the demo of Microsoft's internet-connected TV service, while a mistimed play command goofed up the HP tablet demo.

As Steve Ballmer was leaving the stage the frustration was quite clear amongst all parties involved. Given Ballmer's affinity for throwing furniture I would not have wanted to be a chair backstage.

Iain Thomson: I haven't seen so many disgruntled people coming out of a keynote in a long time and Shaun looked like they'd been at him with hot knives by the time he got out.

This is actually rather odd, since Ballmer usually gives a pretty good speech. His infamous 'developers' cry or lumbering onstage dancing are the stuff of legend in the industry and it's not as though Microsoft doesn't have anything to say.

But the constant foul ups and mistakes drew first amusement and then ire, as the clock ticked on and people started to get restless. It was pushing 9pm by the time the delegates got out of the hall and many looked as though they were wishing they'd left sooner.

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