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CES: Prom for Gadgets

The big dance for the consumer electronics industry, CES 2012 promises crazy cool gadgets and lots of excitement 

Like high school prom, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has historically been a pretty big deal for electronics manufacturers. It’s the coming out party for the most innovative, and sometimes the most outlandish gadgets and gizmos, sporting the latest technology advancements. This annual gathering draws more than 140,000 attendees and nearly 2700 different exhibiters crisscrossing 1.8 million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Given its exposure, the stakes are high and the pressure is on to impress.

Though some say CES relevance is waning due to the economy, competing events and big vendors sidestepping it in favor of other, more cost-effective product promotion, we can still expect at least one more year of fun, excitement, drama and gadget overload next week. I’m not attending this year, but I’ll be watching closely from the sidelines, looking for the latest computing advancements, home entertainment innovations and a variety of connected devices that promise to make our lives simpler.

Microsoft: Out with a Bang

(Disclosure: I supported Microsoft PR for eight years until recently, though I won’t be sharing any secrets here, sorry!). In spite of announcing its final year at CES, we can expect Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to give it his all in Microsoft’s final CES keynote, dazzling attendees and online audiences by demonstrating the advanced computing experiences we’ll get with Windows 8 on some pretty cool devices from its hardware partners (crossing fingers he’ll demonstrate a Windows 8-based tablet vs yet another notebook). And, he’ll probably put a big emphasis on Windows Phone 7, too, in a push to gain critical mindshare and compete with Apple and Google, both of which dominate the smartphone market. This is a pivotal year for Microsoft and consumer perception is crucial to the success of Windows-based devices, including Ultrabooks and tablets.

Ultrabooks: Thin, Light and Powerful PCs

Compact and powerful PCs are the way of our computing future, challenging the components under the hood to keep pace. As such, Intel has invested significant cash into what it has trademarked as Ultrabooks, requiring laptop makers to meet a very specific set of specs to realize the Ultrabook vision: thin, light, powerful and speedy, with rapid boot times that might rival what we experience today with our smartphones, which are nearly instant-on. We’ve already seen a few of these devices surface in late 2011, but I’m hearing we’ll see somewhere between 30 and 50 new Ultrabooks showcased at CES next week from the likes of Acer, Dell, HP, etc. Though expensive given the spec requirements, these skinny laptops make a world of difference as consumer mobility increases.

Tablets: Companions to the PC Workhorse

Though CES 2011 was all about tablets (I’ll have to confirm, but I recall counting something like 85+ different tablets unveiled last year!). Many of these tablets, mostly powered by Android, fell flat with consumers who were underwhelmed by performance and value relative to Apple’s iPad. That said, CES 2012 is an opportunity for device makers to re-set the tablet category and give Apple a run for its money, at least until Windows 8 ships. Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba and others are expected to show tablets, focusing on quality over quantity, many of which will likely support the long-awaited next version of Android OS, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS)—a much needed OS update to make a real run at the iPad and demonstrate to consumers it has a device worth considering. We’ll see.

Televisions: Smart Entertainment and Rich Experiences

Though I’m not as deep or smart on entertainment devices, I’m watching for the latest in-home theater advancements, namely device-to-device streaming gadgets and connected TVs. In previous years, our friends from LG, Samsung, Sony and others have shown us their entertainment visions with prototypes that either never saw the light of day or so far away from retail ready that our hopes die on the vine while we stood right there in their booths.

It’ll be interesting to see what TV makers do with 3D this year, which was all the rage in 2010 and 2011, but lacked consumer traction. For me personally, 3D is cumbersome and annoying, but if new devices surface that strip away the glasses and improve the experience, I may take another look. While I’m expecting to see glasses-free 3D TV, what I’d really like to see is better connectivity and more services options. We’ll likely see a slew of new internet-connected televisions that allow consumers to access digital content from the Internet right from their TV to supplement regular programming schedules.  I’m crossing my fingers for more strategic and meaningful partnerships to deliver interesting content that I care about with smarter delivery (can’t wait to dump cable!), including streaming content from Hulu, Netflix and Pandora. And as devices get smarter, we should start to see the ability for TVs to talk to our other devices like Windows Phone and Xbox, responding to voice and gestures, like Kinect.

Appliance to Appliance Chit-Chat: The Promise of a Connected Home

One of the more promising visions we’ve been hearing about is the ability for utilitarian devices, such as refrigerators, stoves or washer/dryers, to take on more meaningful roles in the home, enabled by connectivity features and cloud functionality. These features have been available to some degree in appliances recently, but they are super expensive and require fairly sophisticated networking to get their full value. Though still expensive and not yet mainstream, we’re getting closer. That said, I long for the day in which my smartphone can talk to my refrigerator, letting me know that while I’m at the grocery store I’ll need to pick up milk or that I only have one egg when I need two for the dinner that the appliance so thoughtfully recommended the week before while meal planning. Both LG and Samsung lead this device-to-device connectivity with a variety of appliances, and I expect to see them both unveil refreshed products next week.  I still won’t be able to afford one, though.

Device-to-device connectivity continues to evolve in the automotive industry, too, so connected cars are likely to be a big theme at CES 2012. Led by Ford last year, Audi, Chrysler, GM, Kia, and Mercedes-Benz all have a spot on the show floor, demoing new features that deliver digital content to their vehicles, including deeper dashboard and smartphones interface. But I’ll be watching for additional connectivity that supports robust safety systems, richer music services like Pandora, and hands-free, voice-activated texting, which I actually have now with my Windows Phone 7 Bing app, which also talks to my car’s Bluetooth navigation system—pretty cool stuff!

So, in spite of what might happen to CES in the future, I’m still expecting CES 2012 to be THE consumer tech event of the year. No doubt there will be lots of cool gadgets and gizmos that create a stir. In some ways, I wish I could be there this year to see them all firsthand. But since I won’t, I’ll be tracking my favorite tech pubs for all the latest news:

I’ll circle back after the event to highlight some of my favorite devices, but I’d love to hear what you’re hoping to see. Share a comment below.

Acer Giveaway: Aspire S3 Ultrabook

Acer Aspire S3 (courtesy Microsoft)

Acer is giving away its new Aspire S3 Ultrabook everyday until Dec. 31 from the Acer Facebook page. Super quick and easy entry, so its worth visiting and entering, which you can do every day.

This is a gorgeous Windows 7 PC, meeting very specific Intel criteria to be categorized as an Ultrabook, weighing less than 3 pounds and only 13 millimeters. The new Acer Aspire S3 Zenbook is one of the thinnest notebooks on the market. It ships with Windows 7 Home Premium and takes advantage of low-voltage Intel Core i-series processors to deliver real processing power, a 1.5-second wake-up time from sleep, and up to seven hours of battery life.

Check it out: https://www.facebook.com/Acer?sk=app_297878640224800

How to Choose the Right PC for Your Family

Before you brave Black Friday, make sure you know what you’re looking for.

Technology advancements are swift. With massive R&D budgets and marketing dollars, big named technology companies have teams of creative and smart people thinking up new scenarios, new capabilities and new products to move our experiences forward. All this innovation is exciting, but leaves many of us confused and in some cases completely paralyzed by the complexity. With so many device options, form factors and new features, you might be asking yourself where to start. Here’s a quick primer on how to break it all down.

First, ask yourself: How will this PC be used? Maybe you need a versatile PC that serves as the center of gravity for your home. Or you have a teen heading off to college who needs to balance mobility, productivity and entertainment. Or maybe you’re happy with your desktop PC, but want a companion device to surf the Web. Regardless, be sure you know how you’ll use it and be clear about your budget.

Desktop or Laptop?

Most busy families use some kind of technology to manage complex schedules, light computing and to keep everyone organized, so for some, it’s critical that there be a computer dedicated to the family and easily accessible by everyone. Naturally, this scenario might be well suited for a desktop PC, which is experiencing a resurgence this year as a result of key innovations that impact its size and usability. For example, All-in-One touch PCs have become a popular choice for families to help manage the home, while some desktops with powerful features and capabilities are dedicated to serving entertainment needs, be it movies or graphics-intense games.

On the flip side, some families are constantly on the go and need to take their computing experiences along with them, using the cloud as their family hub to connect multiple devices, including laptops. From tiny netbooks to big and powerful desktop-replacement systems, the differences in pricing, features, and performance are staggering.

 

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 Notebook, Netbook or Tablet?

The explosion in innovation has literally changed the look and feel of PCs. Smaller and more powerful computer components, advanced materials and design aesthetics are part of the overall package now. From powerful productivity notebooks and ultrathin laptops to sleek new slates designs, which one is the best fit depends upon lifestyles and budgets.

Ultraportable: Generally weighing under three or four pounds, PCs in this category are skinny and light with fantastic battery life. Great for families on the go, connected by the cloud and with a growing portfolio of connected devices. These PCs command a premium given advanced CPU components, though.

Thin and Light: At a lower price point than the modern Ultraportable PCs, Thin and Lights offer a great alternative for those who need to carry their laptops with them. At 13-inches, this category is the sweet spot for mobility and productivity, but may not be able to accommodate all the functionality of its larger cousins.

Mainstream: Balancing productivity, mobility and performance, this PC does it all. The versatility makes them perfect for families. You’ll usually get a 15-inch display weighing in just under six pounds, powerful processors for quick starts and multimedia performance, like HD video and sound, and often long battery life. Whether desktop or laptop, it’s the perfect machine for most households.

Desktop Replacement: These massive 17-inch and larger laptops are meant to literally replace your old desktop, monitor and keyboard system with a single device that can also be easily transported in a pinch. Often weighing more than six pounds, these PCs are powerful and full featured. For families that balance time between blasting opponents online or watching HD movies, you’ll find these machines have discreet graphics processors, powerful main processors and advanced media components, such as Blu-Ray players. But with all this performance, expect a short battery life.

Companion: Companion PCs are tiny, low-voltage devices that are generally used to consume content like reading online magazines, email and Web browsing, but not intended to replace your primary PC. With eight- to 10-inch displays and weighing less than two pounds, these PCs come in a variety of different form factors, be it mini laptops, slates or something in between (referred to as convertibles). These are great devices to travel with, slide into your diaper bag for an outing or just cuddled up in a chair reading with it.

Making Sense of the Specs

If all that isn’t overwhelming enough, the other very important piece of the puzzle are the specifications you need to look for in your new PC. Once you are clear about how you will use your PC, you need to make sure the specs measure up to this vision. For instance, if you intend to use your PC primarily for entertainment, you’ll need to be sure the specs of the machine can accommodate that heavy workload.

Operating Systems: The Operating System (OS) is the software that makes your device light up, the bridge between the hardware and your applications, like Microsoft Office. It controls your overall user experience, manages the performance and security, and allows you to do things like save your files. You essentially have two choices: Apple’s OS X or Microsoft’s Windows. Apple and Windows platform zealots can be intense, so be aware that passionate supporters on either side of the “platform war” can be overwhelming. Be it Mac or PC, you’ll need to choose your platform wisely. More than 95% of all PCs in the world run Windows. The Mac platform tends to be more expensive than Windows-based PCs, and many popular applications (especially games) are not available for OS X, but its popular with trendsetters for no other reason than…well, it’s trendy. If you choose the Mac platform, you get one choice: OS x, but if you choose the broader Windows platform, Home Premium is usually sufficient for most home use (e.g., playing videos, Web browsing, and using Microsoft Office).

Processor/CPU: The central processing unit, or CPU, is the brains of the system and determines how fast your PC can manage data. AMD and Intel are the leaders in PC processors and are shipped in most Windows-based PCs.  Intel is the biggest manufacturer, and you’ll find its CPUs in most laptops, though AMD is often a less expensive option. Look for Intel’s Atom, Celeron, Pentium, and its new Core series (i3, i5 and i7). Atom processors are low voltage processors, but not quite as fast or powerful, suitable for netbooks and slates. Intel’s Celerons and Pentiums are made for low-end machines intended for e-mail, Web browsing and light computing tasks. Given the swift technology advancements happening today, it’s best to opt for Intel’s Core i-series or AMD’s Fusion processor, which are more likely to support future OS upgrades and a must for gamer and editing photos and video. Processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and higher is better.

Graphics Card: If editing media or playing videos games is important to your household, you’ll want to pay close attention to the graphics card, particularly for 3D games or managing HD media. Ideally, something between 512MB and 1GB is the best option, but don’t drop below 256MB if cutting edge graphics is important.

RAM/Memory: The more Random Access Memory (RAM) your PC has, the more multitasking it can do and the faster it will run. RAM is where the OS stores programs and data for actively running applications and files. You’ll want at least 4GB for modern and basic computing tasks, but 8GB is best, which requires a 64-bit OS (vs 32-bit) to maximize its potential.

Hard Drive: If you’re a pack rat (like me), you’ll want to pay close attention to the size of the hard drive to store your music, videos and photos. You should be able to manage all this with 500GB to 750GB hard drive, but at a minimum 250GB. Consider that the OS and your applications, like Microsoft Office, take up a big chunk of storage on your hard drive. Make sure you give yourself enough space, but also consider its performance. The hard drive is a moving part, a disc that spins inside the computer. The faster it spins, the harder it works, increasing the performance of the machine. Look for at least 7200 RPMs. Another increasingly popular option is the Solid State Drive (SSD), which increases performance and saves power consumption, which expands the life of the PC battery. With no moving parts, SSDs are less prone to failure, and can open and process applications and files faster, but storage capacity is smaller than a traditional hard drive. SSDs are a premium option and found in many ultrathin PCs that are hitting store shelves this holiday season.

Battery: The life of the PC battery is one of the biggest barriers to the ultimate connected computing vision, and is a huge focus for many tech R&D centers. The ultimate goal is to substantially increase power efficiencies and increase battery performance to realize the vision. Today’s PC batteries will get you anywhere from three hours to up to eight hours of battery life, but largely dependent upon how efficient your PC will run, and can be extended to up to 18+ hours with an attachment battery. Another issue with battery life is its tendency to degrade performance over time, so the life of the new battery will be much longer than the life of a two-year old battery.

Display: This is probably obvious, but the larger the display size the heavier the laptop and the more power it uses. For optimal mobility, look for a 12- or 13-inch screen with a resolution of at least 1200x 800 pixels. If you watch a lot of movies or play video games, you’ll probably want a lot of screen real estate, so look for a 15- or 17-inch display with a resolution of at least 1440 x 900 pixels or higher. And look for LCD screens with LED back-lighting, which are brighter and use less power, and a must for modern PCs. If no LED, consider looking at another device.

Connectivity: For me, this is the Holy Grail. Look for a PC with lots of connectivity options so that you can always be connected, whether at home or on the go. If your goal is to always be connected, look for machines that support 802.11 wireless standards, such as built-in WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0, and WiDi, which connects your PC wirelessly to WiDi enabled devices like HDTVs. Many PCs today also have optional 3G or 4G mobile broadband capabilities, though these options require a separate cellular data plan from your carrier. This is a worthwhile option if you need to be connected while traveling on business or vacation and a Wi-Fi signal is not available.

MY POINT OF VIEW

Though some believe the PC is at the center of your digital universe, I say YOU are at the center of your digital universe, supported by a broad device portfolio. The role of the cloud and nearly ubiquitous connectivity has shifted the paradigm from devices to people, getting you closer to the information and people you care about most. That said, the PC will remain an extremely important part of our lives, and as technology advancements are made, the form factors will evolve and morph to a variety of shapes and sizes. So try to think forward a little when you’re shopping for your devices and make sure you’ll easily be able to upgrade with the next wave of software. The goal is to mazimize your investment and keep you connected.

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