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Flat screen TVs were again all over the place (exactly how many companies can produce the exact same product?), offering larger screens, lower prices, and faster refresh times (for LCDs) and blacker blacks (for plasmas). Panasonic boasted the largest plasma TV in the world with their 103" monster, but last year’s holder of that distinction, Samsung, probably wasn’t too worried with their 102" model.

Portable media players were also a dime a dozen – like last year. This year’s crop boasted higher capacity, bigger screens, and smaller overall footprints.

Home media centers were also big again this year, although there were more standalone boxes that don’t require a PC. That’s probably a more logical step into most living rooms since not many people are willing to shell out $1000+ for a new PC to pipe movies, music, and photos through their homes. My biggest complaint with them: where’s the HD? While some offered HD content, many simply allowed the sharing of SD content. That’s fine, but how about helping push HDTV technology in the mainstream a little bit?

Microsoft talked a lot about their Windows Media Center extenders, and of course most installations of Windows Vista will come with Media Center features. Eventually that will mean that most PCs will have the capability to live near the home theater if people want them to, and a separate PC purchase won’t be required to get media center features.

In related news, DirecTV apparently abandoned their plan to create their own media center (announced at last year’s CES and never heard from again) and instead partnered with Microsoft. Their new receivers, specifically the recently-released R15 DVR, will be able to connect to Windows Media Center PCs and "send" movies, music and pictures throughout the home, even to Xbox 360s and portable PlaysForSure devices. A good move for both parties that will pay off as the adoption of the DirecTV R15 DVR and new PCs with Windows Vista grow.

Figure 3

Figure 3 DirecTV R15 DVR: Future Microsoft Windows Media Center Extender

Next generation DVD players were very noticeable, with HD-DVD and Blu-Ray duking it out all over the show. HD-DVD probably got the bigger boost by showing actual production DVD players (expected this Spring), with one costing under $500. Price wars are good for consumers, but do these things have to look like big, blocky VCRs from 1980? How about some design?

Figure 4

Figure 4 The HD-DVD Toshiba HD-XA1 (apparently built using a 25-year-old VCR case)

Intel’s Viiv (rhymes with "live") was on display, and Intel hopes it does for media center PCs what Centrino did for notebook computers. Dual-core processors can do nothing but good when it comes to processing video (especially making your own home movies), and I was most excited by the portable dual-core chips for laptops. That should give Centrinos a good kick in the pants this year.

Satellite radio also had some impressive news. Sirius offered the S50 portable receiver, but their big news was the imminent launch of the Howard Stern Show. XM had more hardware news, and the products I liked the best were the Samsung Helix and Pioneer Inno – portable receivers that allow you to pause and rewind live radio like Tivo as well as save songs for custom playlists. Plug them into your home PC and they’ll let you download the full MP3 via Napster. Cool little gadgets about the size of an iPod Mini.

Figure 5

Figure 5 Pioneer Inno XM Radio and MP3 player

Phillips had a flexible LCD screen that rolled up like a window shade. It was not demonstrated on a final product, but even under its glass case the possibilities for this technology are exciting. Imagine being able to carry a standard-sized cell phone with a pull-out screen to use when you need a PDA. Cool stuff, and the 10-15 people constantly crowded around the display would seem to prove there is interest in it.

SpeechGear makes Compadre two-way instant translation products for PCs and PDAs. They even bundle it with a tablet PC. Speak into the microphone and it speaks back to you in one of a number of languages while writing a transcript of the conversation for you. It’s a great idea, kind of like having a babel fish in your ear or Starfleet’s universal translator, but they kept the devices inside a glass case. An odd choice for products that are available today and not simply prototypes, but the demo it had running looked pretty good. If this works as well in the field as it did on display, it’ll be light years beyond anything I’ve seen before.

Samsung had probably the most practical and capable all-in-one device I’ve seen with its A940 wireless phone. It’s a cell phone with high-speed EVDO data access through Sprint, a 2 megapixel digital camera and camcorder with 2x optical zoom, a full-motion streaming TV, and an MP3 player. It can wirelessly download songs through Sprint’s music store, responds to voice commands, and can even do speech-to-text dictation (great for people who don’t like to use the small keyboard for text messaging). It supports Bluetooth wireless devices and has a built-in speaker for calls and even playing music. All this in a 1-inch thick package.

Figure 6

Figure 6 Sprint Power Vision Phone MM-A940 by Samsung

Celestron, known for telescopes and binoculars, wins Best of Show in my book with their SkyScout personal Planetarium. Part GPS, part spotter scope, the SkyScout lets you point at an object in the sky and, with the press of a button, will identify that object and provide facts and other information about it. Is that Venus or Jupiter? Bam, you know instantly. What’s that red star in Taurus? Wham, you know the star’s name and some fun facts about it. You can even search for objects. Want to know where Mars is? Find it in the built-in database and red lights in the viewfinder will tell you to look up, down, left, or right until you’re staring right at it. Perfect for use with a telescope or just to bring along on family trips. It’s a practical and fun way to learn about what’s in the night sky.

Figure 7

Figure 7 Celestron SkyScout – the best new gadget at the 2006 CES

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