Vegas, baby! The city of electric lights, all-you-can-eat buffets, endless rows of slot machines, and yes, the Consumer Electronics Show. The CES is the yearly event that allows manufacturers of everything from PCs to A/V receivers to robotic vacuum cleaners to show their latest devices, compete for your attention in the midst of 1.5 million square feet of exhibition space, and hopefully send you home thinking "Wow, I can't wait to get one of those for my house/car/office/pocket." I spent four days navigating the show floors (and casinos), and I have the blisters on my feet to prove it. I also have some ideas about what we'll be talking about in the Informit Digital Lifestyles section for the next year, what kind of gadgets you'll love, and what kind of silly things we're probably better off without.
First off, let's take a look at some of the trends that were evident based on the types of products companies were offering as well as what some of the other media pundits were saying.
The powers that be would like you to think that media servers are going to hit it big in 2005. What are media servers? In their most capable form they are the computers in your living room that are tied into your home theater system and networked to other stereos and television in your house. They are your DVR for watching and recording television, your stereo for storing and listening to your digital music, and your picture viewer for sharing your photos with friends and family. In their most basic form they are a simple box with a network card tied into your PC that lets you send the music and pictures from your computer's hard drive to your TV and stereo.
The most popular software for media servers at this year's CES was Microsoft's Windows XP Digital Media Center 2005. All of the major PC vendors were offering media servers based on this platform, and in its latest configuration, it's a very capable system. Many of these PCs still look like, well, PCs, but some companies are redesigning them to look like the A/V components they will be sitting next to. I was particularly struck by the HP Digital Entertainment Center Z550 series, which isn't much bigger than my current DirecTivo box.
What’s the biggest problem with Microsoft's Digital Media Center? You can only get it with a new PC designed to work with it. Can't buy it off the shelf and install it on your existing computer.
Microsoft isn't the only game in town, however. D-Link is offering a solution that will turn your regular PC into a media center. Divx has their own version. Tivo has plans to expand their recently-announced Tivo-to-Go program to include a whole-house network. And DirecTV will be offering a similar system at some point in the future (more on that in a bit). Another company, Hi-Tek, has even built a multimedia PC directly into the back of a 46-inch HDTV-ready LCD television. That's a great idea to reduce the cables hanging out from your TV, but it does make it a bit more difficult to replace components, make repairs, etc.
Most media server manufacturers also makes "extenders" that will wirelessly (or with wires, if you prefer) send your music and movies to other rooms in your house. Just plug an extender into your second TV, hook it up to your network, and you can listen to the music and watch the recorded shows that live on your PC in the living room.
All these options are great, and the technology is truly at a workable stage now. You can get some fantastic functionality out of these media servers including HDTV tuners, multiple input sources, a single remote control for all of your components, and massive hard drives for hours and hours of TV storage along with all of your songs and every picture you've ever taken.
Yup, 2005 has all but been labeled "Year of the Media Server." So what's wrong? Well, several things, actually. First of all, not many people really want a PC in their living room (yet). I think after people find out what these babies can do this will change, but for now it's not the best place for your computer. If you are open to having your media center be your "entertainment PC" and set up a network so you can keep your "main PC" in your office or den, then this plan can work well for you. But if you only want one PC, the living room just isn't the best place for it. Sure your TV is great for playing games and checking email, but it's really not the best way to get any real work done. If this is how you feel, you can start off with the "lite" version of media servers (keep your PC in the den but transmit photos and music to your living room). But that's a bit too watered-down for my tastes.
The next problem: complexity. This one's closely related to the first problem. If you really want to get the most out of your media server, it probably shouldn't be your only computer. And many people are confused about hooking it up with their A/V equipment, not to mention setting up a home network. Over time these problems will take care of themselves as home networks become more common and more manufacturers offer media servers, but I'm not so sure these hurdles can be overcome this year (according to the Consumer Electronics Association, the sponsor of the CES, home networks are only supposed to reach 52% penetration into American homes by 2008). And let's not forget the different brands and flavors of media servers that are already out there. Which system do you go with?
Another problem: price. If you want to do anything beyond the "lite" version, you're pretty much going to be buying a new PC. And I'm not talking about the stripped-down $500 PCs, either. These are generally full-featured, highly capable PCs that are not yet found in the sale catalogs. $1000 would be an inexpensive media server; $4000 would be towards the upper end.
A final problem worth mentioning is interoperability. It can be tough to get your PC to talk to all of your components. In some cases it may require purchasing new A/V components (if your old stereo receiver doesn't have the right kind of input connectors, for instance). Some of the extenders work wirelessly, but it's still difficult to transmit video wirelessly without a strong and stable wireless signal throughout your house. And if you have satellite TV, you still need to keep your receivers and run them through your media server.
It's not tough to predict that handheld devices are going to be big. Handheld games like Sony's PSX, portable music players like Apple's iPod and Creative Labs' Zen Micro, PDAs, wireless phones and phone/PDA combos are already big news. Unfortunately, there really weren't any breakthrough devices at this year's CES. There were some evolutionary features for sure, but nothing revolutionary. For the most part, MP3 players are still MP3 players and cell phones are still cell phones. Still, we're going to keep seeing more and more of these things all over the place in 2005, so in that sense, this is a big year for portable entertainment devices.
One particular type of device that was all over the place was the portable media player. Essentially these are devices that can store your songs, your pictures, and your TV shows or movies. Think of them like iPods with bigger screens. Cool gadgets, for sure, but they have their limitations. First of all, the ones with the best-sized screens are still a bit too big, and the ones that fit into your pocket are difficult to watch video on because of their small screens. Their hard drives are still a bit small (20GB is common), battery life isn't all that great yet, and because of copyright issues, it's still more difficult to transfer video to these things than it should be. Microsoft has a Plays for Sure program that makes it a bit more certain that the device will work with Windows Media Player 10, but sometimes just getting the video onto your hard drive can be a real chore.
What to watch for in 2005: consumers will finally decide whether they want one device that does everything (phone + PDA + MP3 player) or if they want multiple devices that specialize in one or two of those functions. So far manufacturers aren't sure what consumers want, and I think 2005 will be the year devices of both types are released in enough numbers to let us vote with our wallets on what truly suits us best.
Companies to watch: Creative Labs, iRiver, Archos, and Apple (even though they weren't at the CES and didn't announce video capabilities for the iPod at Macworld).
Ever heard that word before? Neither had I, but it was all over the CES this year. Essentially telematics is the networking of your car so it becomes a rolling information and entertainment device. Think of your car as becoming a mobile wireless network, able to bring you live traffic information, driving directions (that take the traffic reports into account), your MP3 music collection (updated wirelessly and automatically when you pull into your garage), and even live TV. Tie into that a radar- and video-based safety system that will warn you if you're trying to change lanes when there's a car in your blind spot or if you're trying to back up and something (or someone) is behind you. Now you now know what the study of telematics is.
Delphi displayed several impressive systems for safety and entertainment. Not only can their systems let you wirelessly update your music collection to a hard drive mounted in your car, but their systems will also let you transfer movies and television programs from your DVR to that same hard drive. Watch these programs in the comfort of your back seat or even on a dashboard-mounted LCD TV on the passenger's side. Delphi's safety equipment was impressive as well. They featured cars set up with proximity alarms to alert you of traffic that is too close, video cameras to warn you of hidden hazards, and in-car mounted cameras to keep an eye on your baby in the rear-facing car seat in the back.
Want to take this stuff home today? Too bad. Delphi was only displaying most of this technology for car manufacturers. We'll have to wait a while longer until companies like GM bring these products to market in their new cars.
Think watching recorded TV in your car is cool? How about watching live satellite TV? Several companies were displaying roof-mounted satellite dishes for SUVs and vans. No, they don't look like the 18" oval dishes on the sides of so many houses. They are bigger, but they lie flat on the roof rack and automatically track the location of the satellites in the sky. They feed into a receiver under a seat and allow you to watch anything on Dish Network or DirecTV that you'd see at home. Great for long road trips, but not so good for city driving where obstructions like trees, bridges, and buildings would block out the line-of-site satellite signal. Still, they make watching a DVD in your back seat seem rather quaint and old-fashioned.
Afraid of getting lost because you're too busy watching TV and listening to music? You need an in-dash LCD tied into a navigation system. Get stuck in traffic a lot? Even the best navigation system can't help you there. Or can it? XM satellite radio has developed a real-time traffic reporting system that can identify local traffic problems, send them to your navigation system, and suggest alternate routes for you. Never wait in a traffic jam again!