CES Highlights: From iLounge Pavilion to 3D Televisions

Yesterday was the day. The day that I tackled CES in all its immensity.

I started small— in an outpost at the far end of the CES galaxy (otherwise known as the Venetian Hotel). Here, in relative quiet compared to the rest of CES, is where the vendors of high-end audio equipment are located. I browsed around and admired the latest in top-of-the-line receivers and speakers, some of which have yet to come to market. Unless you are the sort of person willing to spend upwards of $10,000 to achieve sound nirvana, you won't soon be purchasing any items here. But you can at least enjoy window shopping. In the realm of "just maybe" purchases, possibly within my budget, were some slick-looking new AV receivers from Onkyo, starting at just under $1000.

Next, I was finally off to the main hub of CES: the multi-hall Las Vegas Convention Center.

iPod and iPhone products

My first stop: the iLounge Pavilion, occupying a moderately-sized section of the North Hall. With over 100 vendors, the Pavilion was billed as "an exhibition of new iPod, iPhone, and Mac hardware and software." At one point, months ago, there was speculation that this could wind up as a competitive alternative to Macworld Expo. Not this year. The Pavilion contained virtually no Mac software and precious little Mac hardware. Rather, it consisted almost entirely of iPod and iPhone peripherals, with the typical emphasis on cases, chargers and headsets. I suppose this is in keeping with the emphasis of the iLounge Web site, but I found it rather dull for the most part. The best I can say is that it established a presence for Apple-related products at CES, a presence that is otherwise almost nonexistent.

One trend worth noting: With the release of iPhone OS 3.0, third-party vendors could create iPhone apps that directly link to the vendor's hardware products. A few examples of such linkages were on display at CES. At the Griffin booth in the iLounge Pavilion, I watched a demo of Griffin's iPhone app for iTrip (a hardware device to wirelessly connect your iPhone to your car's radio). With the addition of the app, which has been out for a few months, you can do all of the iTrip's setup and control directly from the iPhone screen — rather than from the smaller iTrip itself. Unfortunately, the app only works with the latest iterations of iTrip. If, like me, you have an older model, you're out of luck.

iHome, maker of a popular assortment of iPhone/iPod speaker systems, had an even more impressive example of this iPhone app-to-hardware linkage: an iPhone alarm clock app linked to a physical alarm clock. The (free) iHome app, due in the App Store any day, offers numerous features beyond what you get with the alarm function included with the iPhone's Clock app. For example, you can select to play anything from your iPod Library as an alarm and you can set separate sleep-time vs. wake-time options. The app is thus useful as an independent product, whether or not you own any iHome hardware. However, you can also use the app with iHome's iA5 clock/speaker system (expected to ship shortly). When your iPhone is docked in the iA5, the alarm settings you make with the iPhone app transfer to the iA5. These settings are retained even after you disconnect the iPhone. By this summer, iHome plans to release the iA100, a more full-featured variation of this concept. The iA100 will include a built-in FM radio as well as Bluetooth, allowing you to control the unit from the iPhone remotely. (By the way, iHome was not showing at the iLounge Pavilion, but was instead in a separate meeting room on the second floor of the North Hall, with appointment-only access.)

iHome iA5

Figure: The iHome iA5 alarm clock with iHome iPhone app showing.

Televisions rule!

After this, I at last ventured into the Central Hall. This is where the big guns of CES hang out: Microsoft, Intel, Sony, Panasonic, LG, Samsung, and Canon all have enormous booths here. For most of these vendors, the emphasis was on video, especially flat screen televisions. And the televisions generating the most buzz were the ones with 3D. I tried out several of them and was impressed with the quality. Overall, the 3D was as effective as what I see in theaters. All the televisions require the familiar clunky glasses for viewing 3D. However, there were some differences. In one case (I believe LG), the glasses were battery-powered, adding an additional thing that can (and did, in my case) go wrong: the glasses stop working when the battery dies. None of these televisions are available for sale yet. But they are coming this year. Before too long, you'll be able to watch Avatar in 3D in the comfort of your home. Or play 3D versions of video games on your Sony PlayStation. It will still be another few years before these devices start having wide-spread acceptance. But it's coming.

3D was not the only new television feature on display. For example, Samsung was showing a new line of LED televisions that offer much deeper blacks and higher contrast than any of their current televisions. And thin was definitely in, with several vendors showing thinner displays than now on the market.

But I need to single out LG for special mention. Their booth was, by far, the most impressive. I would have been happy to spend the entire day there. Of course, given how huge the booth is, you almost have to spend at least a few hours there to see everything. But what really made the booth stand out were: (1) how elegantly and attractively everything was displayed and (2) the fantastic array of products being displayed. As I already mentioned, there were LG's 3D televisions. When you were done drooling over that, you could stare out LG's 85" Ultra-HD television, with a 3840 by 2160 resolution — twice the resolution of the current 1080 Full HD. The additional resolution clearly makes a difference for such a large-sized screen: the image details were unmatched by anything else I have ever seen. At the other size extreme were LG's water-resistant OLED televisions, quite small but with super-rich color.

LG-ultraslimUltra Slim

Figure: LG's forthcoming 6.9 mm Ultra Slim LED HD television

If I had to pick the one item that most impressed me, it would be LG's 55" Ultra Slim LED HD television. The screen itself (as seen in Figure above) is only 6.9 mm thick, unbelievably thin even by today's super-thin standards. This is achieved in part because the bulk of the internal hardware is not in the screen "box" itself, but in a separate (still quite small) unit that sits flat on a table. The video image is sent from the unit to the screen wirelessly! This eliminates one of the biggest hassles of mounting a flat-screen television on a wall. Sadly, this television won't be available until at least 2011. It's just a prototype now.

You'll soon be able to control all of these televisions via LG's Magic Motion remote. It works like a Nintendo Wii controller: you move the remote around in the air to navigate to different portions of the screen. A few years ago, most people had probably never even heard of LG. Those days are clearly over.

[Updated January 9 to add figures.]