Gadgets that help save the planet

GreenGadgets650x340

Every year on April 22, more than one billion people around the world celebrate Earth Day. On this day, people, communities, organizations, and governments acknowledge the bountiful planet we call home and use this date to call attention to the importance of protecting its resources.

More than just a day on the calendar, though, protecting the Earth is a daily practice. And there are plenty of Earth-friendly gadgets available to help us limit our environmental footprint, reduce our reliance on electricity and save us money. Check out a few examples below.

Age of the smart home

NestMy house is my castle. And sometimes it feels just as cold as a castle might. But the Nest Learning Thermostat aims to change that. By monitoring energy efficiency standards, family schedules, and the performance of a home’s heating and cooling systems, Nest helps you reduce energy consumption and even diagnoses problems with your home’s energy system. Hooking right into HVAC wiring, Nest uses powerful data and intelligent algorithms to understand its owners’ habits, climate patterns and the nuances of a home, teaching itself how to behave so that it can automatically control temperature settings, remind you to conserve energy and can be remote-controlled from a smartphone, tablet or web browser. Though a little pricey, starting at $249, you’re likely to save a bundle in your home’s energy costs over time.

If you’re the type, like me, belkin-wemo-switch-and-motionwho panics after leaving the house, worried that the coffee pot might have been left on or that the oven wasn’t turned off, here’s a gadget that can put your mind at ease. Belkin’s WeMo Switch is a genius, eco-friendly device that can help save electricity, a little money, and even your sanity. Never worry about the coffee pot on again!

The Belkin WeMo Switch lets you schedule home settings, and turns devices on and off remotely. With the WeMo Motion Kit, it also gives you wireless control of your home appliances and electronics, helping you manage the devices of your choice as soon as movement is detected, from up to 10 feet away.

The WeMo kit is completely modular, allowing you to control as much of your home as you like by adding more switches to the network. Linking multiple switches allows you to increase the heat and turn on a light or a set of lights at the same time with only one sensor.

Watch for the Belkin smartphone app for any Android 4.0 and higher device this summer, making it even easier to manage your home remotely. If you can’t wait, you can sample it now with this beta app, though optimized currently only for the Samsung Galaxy SIII—so you’ll be taking some chances here until the full app rolls out.

Do you sleep soundly knowing all your devices have been shut down? Better wake up! Just because you’ve gone to sleep doesn’t mean your gadgets have. If they’re plugged in, they are slowly siphoning off power, even when turned off. With so many devices in our portfolios today, walking around our homes unplugging them would be frustrating.

conserveswitchav1With Belkin’s Conserve Switch AV Surge Protector with Remote, you can stop energy sucking with a single click. Like most surge protectors, this it protects your electronics from getting fried. It even includes sockets for “always on” devices for those that need continuous power, such as modems, routers and DVRs. The Conserve Switch AV provides coaxial protection for cable and satellite connections, and comes with a remote that lets you wirelessly turn off connected devices from up to 60 feet away. Mounted on a wall so it acts like a light switch, the remote can control up to six outlets and manage all your electronics—PC, TV, DVD player, VCR, game console and more.

A bright idea

HueHomeBoxWith energy guzzling incandescent bulbs doomed to become relics from our past, brilliant, energy efficient options are getting the love. Take the Hue, a smart light bulb system developed by Philips Electronics. Connected to a wireless network, Hue gives you total control over home lighting, from power management to intensity and color themes. A smartphone app and online portal lets you remotely adjust the brightness, fine tune the color and turn the system on and off.

Though a little pricey up front ($200 for the starter kit and $6 per bulb), the kit comes with three color-changing LED bulbs and a bridge that links up to 50 bulbs to the wireless network. These 600 lumen bulbs (equivalent to about 50 watts in brightness) use 80 percent less energy than a comparable incandescent bulb.

But Hue isn’t just a bulb–it’s also a platform for lighting innovation. Developers have full access to its public API to create their own lighting apps. Ambify, a $2.99 app built by an independent developer in Stuttgart, Germany, can turn your home or office into a vibrant discotheque, syncing the Hue bulbs to a playlist, and visualizing music in real time. Totally fun!

Power Up

XD DesignSpeaking of light…why not make the sun work for you? Relying on the sun for gadget power is much more efficient than using electricity from a wall outlet, and a lot less expensive, too.

For quick charging on the go, try the XD Design Solar Window Charger, which can be stuck to any window to absorb energy straight from the sun. Using a USB or Mini USB connector, this portable device charger will power most small gadgets like phones, Bluetooth headsets, and small tablets, as well as give a quick boost to a dying battery in a point-and-shoot camera. With a range of pretty colors and just over a half-inch thick, you can even use it while its plugged into your device on the windowsill, speeding down the highway in your car or in the comfort of the train during your daily commute to the office.

 

Going green on the other end of the plug is a smart choice, as well. A typical charger continuessolar-charger to zap energy if it’s connected to an outlet even if a device isn’t plugged into it—wasting energy and money. And over time, a fully charged battery that stays connected to a charger can damage a battery. This is where the Mushroom GreenZero comes in. This cute little device automatically shuts off when charging is complete, saving energy, money and the battery itself if left plugged in charging all night. Just push the green top, which is also a button, to begin charging.

IDAPTThough not quite as cute, the IDAPT i1Eco is a universal charger with an interchangeable tip system that accommodates different device connectors, enabling you to charge multiple gadgets with a single power source—reducing the daily impact on the environment. Like the Mushroom GreenZero, the IDAPT also automatically shuts off when a charge is complete. As an added bonus, its made from recyclable materials, keeping it carbon neutral.secondwind-battery-charger-ictcrop_300

If you have kids, you have batteries—lots of them! We offered tips on recycling batteries before, but here’s another great option: the SecondWind Battery Charger. Rather than throwing out batteries by the handful, this smart little device actually recharges regular batteries, accommodating any normal, store-bought AA and AAA alkaline batteries. Charging up to four batteries in about 90 minutes, it even detects defective batteries—so you’ll always know when it’s time to really let go.

For as little as $30, these multitasking power boosters not only save you time and money, but they reduce your energy footprint, making them great investments.

What’s your favorite energy saving device?

 

*Portions of this story were first published for myHTC

 

Xbox 360, Kinect GIVEAWAY!

 
Enter to win the Microsoft Access Your Holiday Gift Bag Sweepstakes!
 
 

 
Eight lucky winners will each win a Microsoft and Access Hollywood gift bag consisting of a Microsoft Surface with a Touch Cover, Windows Phone Nokia Lumia 920, Xbox 360 with Kinect, five (5) Xbox games (Dance Central 3, Halo 4, Nike + Kinect Training, Kinect Disneyland Adventures and Kinect Adventures), one (1) Month Xbox LIVE Gold Membership and an Artist Series Mouse!
 
 
Come back and let us know if your a winner. Crossing fingers for you!
 
 
 

Mobile Trends Driving Internet Growth, Changing our World

Apps, devices and connectivity are indispensable to how we live our lives today

The world is going mobile. Ok, that’s an obvious statement. But think about its significance. Everywhere we go, everything we do, we’re carrying a smart, connected mobile device. Be it a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone, mobile devices have become an essential tool to get where we’re going, to make important decisions immediately, to keep us productive on the road, to make dinner reservations, entertain our kids and even secure our homes remotely. We’re always connected, but we’re only at the tip of the ice berg in terms of how it will change our world.

Presenting to a Stanford University audience last week, Mary Meeker, famed Internet analyst and respected partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) venture capital firm, shared her annual “Internet Trends Year-End Report,” which reveals incredible Internet growth. She estimates the number of Internet users worldwide has grown by eight percent this year to hit an astounding 2.4 billion users. China tops the list with 538 million users, while Iran is the biggest growth engine, up 205 percent. She highlights that the U.S. grew three percent to hit 244 million Web users— 78 percent of the total population.

But if ever there was a doubt about the role mobile plays in our lives, just take a look at the facts Meeker highlights in this report. She spells out how devices and connectivity trends are leading to the complete re-imagination of everything from healthcare and our digital wallets to smartphones that unlock hotel door locks.

Consider her stats:

  • Mobile devices now account for 13 percent of worldwide Internet traffic, up from four percent in 2010.
  • There are five billion mobile phone users in the world, but only one billion smartphone users—just 17 percent of the global cellphone market and growing by 42 percent a year globally.
  • Nearly 30 percent of adults in the U.S. now own either a tablet or an e-reader to access digital content.
  • Combined, the global smartphone and tablets installed base is expected to exceed the PC installed base in the second quarter of 2013.
  • Handset makers have shipped well over 600 million smartphones that run on the Android operating system, growing six times faster than the iPhone.

Meeker’s presentation validates just how important connected devices have become to keep us productive, entertained and balanced—blurring the lines between personal and work. But another interesting shift that she describes is what she calls the move from an asset-heavy lifestyle to an asset-light existence, largely a result of the cloud. Everything is digital today—our documents, music, images and video—freeing us of physical clutter, and giving way to a “sharing economy.”   

Until next year’s report, she acknowledges that the Internet and mobile is in “spring training,” so it’ll be fascinating to watch how experiences, conveniences and efficiencies further alter the way we live our lives, driving additional growth.

What do you think? How has the growth of the Internet and mobility impacted you? Is life easier? What capability are you waiting for? Let us know in the comments. 

 

What is NFC Anyway?

Courtesy: NFC Forum

NFC makes just about anything smarter

Imagine flipping on music when you walk into a room with just a wave, or see a new recipe from a grocery store ad with just a tap. Wouldn’t it be nice to start up your workstation and access your email just by setting your phone on the desk? We can already pay for our coffee by swiping our phones at the register. All this done with NFC technology, and it’s behind the dynamic, personalized experiences and offers served up to us in real-time, activated with just a swipe or a quick tap from a smartphone.

NFC stands for Near Field Communication. In a nutshell, it’s a way for devices to talk to each other when they’re within very close range (approximately an inch and a half). Based on inductive coupling (think electromagnetic power), it’s been around for nearly a decade, spawned from a similar technology known as RFID, which is widely used for tracking and identification of goods.

Backed by big names in computing, NFC is popping up in all kinds of devices lately, from laptops and tablets to smartphones. Already widely accepted in Europe and Japan, NFC in the U.S. has had a slow start. But that’s about to change. Deloitte analysts predict that it will be baked into nearly 300 million devices worldwide by the end of 2013. And Forrester Research predicts that more than one-quarter of U.S. consumers will have an NFC phone by 2016.

The Exciting Possibilities

Most commonly used in smartphones,the technology can either speak to other NFC enabled devices or it can activate inexpensive NFC tags, which can be embedded in virtually any material from advertisements and retail shelf tags to prescription drug labels. Tags are activated when brought in contact with an NFC-enabled device.

While high-profile mobile payment solutions like Google Wallet and Isis Mobile Wallet have garnered the most media attention in recent months, the scenarios for NFC technology go far beyond payment transactions. Imagine touching your phone to a poster advertising a new movie ,instantly viewing its film trailer and offered a discounted ticket. We may even be able to check for drug interactions or usage information by tapping our phones to a prescription bottle.

10 More NFC Possibilities

  1. Hotel check-in and room keys: Skip the desk, and stop by a kiosk for quick and efficient check-in with just a swipe. Proceed to your hotel room and wave your phone to unlock the door.
  2. Foursquare and doctor appointment check-ins: Simply walk through the door with your smartphone to automatically post your arrival on social media platforms or alert the receptionist of your arrival, including serving up your insurance information automatically.
  3. Purchase tickets: With just a quick tap to your PC, purchase concert tickets and even book your airfare.
  4. Control your home: Automatically adjust security or temperature settings when you arrive home or tap your phone to the washer to start or delay start laundry.
  5. Book, movie and restaurant reviews: Wave your phone across a book or a menu to pull up the latest reviews.
  6. Detailed comparison shopping: Tap your phone to a product and search for lower prices elsewhere.
  7. Portable medical history: Access your medical history from anywhere.
  8. One-touch setup of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices: Bypass the setup steps and just tap your devices together for automatic setup.
  9. Content sharing: Place your camera next to your monitor to automatically view a slideshow.
  10. Auto-adjust your car seats and other cabin settings: Switch drivers often? With a quick tap or swipe, now your car remembers your favorite settings.

NFC is still making its way to the mainstream, but third parties are beginning to integrate the technology into many products and services. Its success relies largely on big venders promoting how it can be used and consumer awareness. The excitement over NFC is building, and we’ll continue to see more and more NFC-based solutions that will make our lives easier.

Got a bright NFC idea? Let us know in the comments.

(portions of this story were previously published for myHTC)

Career Focused or Super MOM: Let Marissa Decide

Deviating from my normal thoughts on tech innovation, today I’m thinking about women, work and motherhood

Regardless of who it is, I get excited when I hear about women being appointed to powerful roles and busting stereotypes. I was over the moon when Hilary Clinton was appointed to Secretary of State. Giddy with excitement that Meg Whitman joined HP to turn that ship around, and now Marissa Mayer has been appointed as Yahoo’s new CEO. Good for them!

But, it’s a never ending debate. Some say, “Women Can Have it All” while others say “Women Still Can’t Have it All,” so it’s no wonder why many women are feeling frustrated, confused and isolated when making decisions about how they support their families–outside of the home or inside the home. I personally live it every day. While I get excited about doing creative, interesting work outside of my home, when I’m doing it, I feel guilty about not being home with my boys and even more guilty about the laundry piling up while I’m working. In the end, I get breakfast on the table and get out the door to meet with my clients. But I do it on my own terms, designing my own hours and carving out my day in a way that works best for my family.

While the debate rages on about choosing a career or motherhood, pundits are also commenting on the challenges Marissa Mayer faces in managing Yahoo! out of the red, and part of this discussion is centered on her ability to be a good mom, too. Just as the 37-year-old exec took the helm at Yahoo! last week, she also announced that she is six months pregnant with a baby boy. Stanford-educated, a high-profile former female engineer at Google, a high-demand dynamic speaker, wife, mom-to-be, and now, CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the news sent press into a tizzy, again fueling the debate about “having it all.” Is it really a valid discussion?

While the pundits parse the news and the debate, there is one single factor that we all need to keep top of mind: every woman is different. Economics, work style, stamina, interests, expectations, social factors all play a part in any woman’s ability to be successful at balancing high-profile jobs with motherhood. Some mothers can do it with ease (and perhaps with help!), while other women with different circumstances wouldn’t think about taking that path. Just like some people choose to be teachers over rocket scientists, moms get to choose whether they work in the home or outside of the home. Let us choose.

From my point of view—as a 40+-year old wife and mom of two small boys juggling work and clients, a blog, and managing our home—it’s a woman’s choice! Let Marissa decide how she wants to manage her work-life balance. Does she take maternity leave? That’s for her to decide. Does she bring the baby to board meetings or telecommute? That’s between her and the board. Will she opt to meet partners and customers in person or video conference? She has options. Should she skip a keynote to be with her son on his first birthday? She gets to decide. Not me, not you, and not the pundits.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my own career, sometimes highlighted in this very blog, we have more choices than ever before as a result of technology innovation. Technology allows us to get a little closer to having it all, if that’s what we want—it makes life a little easier to be connected when we want or need to be. Will Marissa take every tech advantage she has to have it all? Totally up to her.

So, let’s stop generalizing and let Marissa decide. And let us know how you came to your own decision. What did you choose?

No Wires Required: Device to Device Connectivity Has Never Been Easier

New standards in wireless communications are leapfrogging previous standards, increasing connectivity performance and improving battery life to keep you always on

 

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the smart people who came up with the idea of wireless communications. I can’t live without it. In fact, I can’t remember the last time that I hard-wired my PC to our modem at home so that I could connect to the Internet. Until recently, I even docked my PC at work with an Ethernet connection, but today I’m all wireless all the time. <!Technology has evolved at mind-boggling speeds, and today we have a variety of wireless connectivity options available to us—4G, Bluetooth, WiDi, NFC, RFID, and the list continues to grow. But not all wireless technologies are created equal.  

Though I’m not all that interested in how it works, I do care that I have the latest technology to make my life the most efficient and use my devices most effectively. That’s why I got excited by the news at COMPUTEX 2012 last week in Taiwan where computing manufacturers showed off a few new devices that take advantage of the latest evolution of wireless technology.      

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi (or Wireless Fidelity) is a connectivity technology using variations of the 802.11 technology standard to connect devices, including personal computers, tablets and video game consoles, but also smartphones and other specialty entertainment devices that stream TV, movies and music. With a range of up to 100 feet indoors and up to 200 feet outdoors, a Wi-Fi device connects to a local wireless router, which translates data into a radio signal, transmitting it to the device using its built-in, often hidden, antenna.

Now, here’s a little alphabet soup, so stay with me because it’s worth knowing. Wi-Fi is available in several different standards providing varying degrees of data transfer per second. The most popular Wi-Fi standard used by device manufacturers today is 802.11n, but previous standards are still used, like 802.11b (first commonly used spec) and 802.11a. You’ll be safe with any device using 802.11n in terms of its compatibility, but you might also see 802.11g, which theoretically transmits data just as fast and efficient, though often slowed down by network congestion (from microwave ovens, wireless phones and even Bluetooth devices). The 802.11n has improved speed and range over other versions and supports multiple streaming devices, reaching speeds that can be as much as twice as fast as other standards.  

Next-Gen Speeds Will Blow You Away

But now there’s a new standard in town, promising to make all the previous standards whither in its shadow. Watch for devices hitting the market later this year with 802.11ac (commonly called 5G Wi-Fi), which is the next step after 802.11n. This new standard is expected to be about three times faster than previous standards. Unless you’re a tech enthusiast living in your mom’s basement, you won’t need to hear about the bits and bytes. Just trust me. This new standard is crazy fast.

So what all this tech mumbo-jumbo means is more performance from your devices. To put it in perspective, the new 5G Wi-Fi will deliver instant playback of multiple high-def movies simultaneously to all your household TVs while your kids play Fruit Ninja or your husband bangs away on his keyboard with  the latest Adele album streaming in the background. Before 5G, this would have been a painful, sluggish experience. And because of these speeds and multiple playback capabilities, this new standard increases the efficiency of your devices, thereby improving battery life significantly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do I Need to Upgrade AGAIN?

Though this new evolution is exciting (ok, so maybe I’m the only the one excited!), your current router is probably doing you just fine, so there is no need to rush out there and get a new router. But, if you’re in the market for the latest, hold out for the new 5G…even if you don’t have devices yet to support it—they’re coming and you’ll be glad you made the investment.

Let me know what you think. Are you ready for unimaginable data speeds? Do you need it in your home today? Let us know in the comments below.

Your Personal Cloud Demystified: The Glue that Simplifies Life Online

As our need to be mobile increases, our gadget portfolios grow from a single PC to multiple devices—our data is scattered across all of them. The cloud brings it all together.

Chances are pretty good that if you’re reading this post, you have already used the cloud. Got Gmail? On Facebook, Pinterest? Use online banking? There you have it. You’re computing in the cloud!

Simply put, cloud computing is just a metaphor for how we use the Internet to access our digital information—photographs, music, movies, games, recipes, banking…you name it. When a file is stored in the cloud, it just means the file resides on one of millions of servers across the globe, accessed through an Internet connection. The cloud is the glue that connects the information generated from our PCs, smartphones, tablets and other devices to our digital life, keeping our stuff right at our fingertips.

My family uses the cloud in a gazillion different ways. From making video calls to grandma in Pennsylvania  or shopping from our tablet to tracking our financial accounts on our smartphones—I can also be connected to my car’s dashboard thanks to the cloud. Even the documents I create on my PC are uploaded to the cloud to access on my smartphone or share with my colleagues at the office so that I can be more productive at work—which gets me home to my family faster.

The cloud has significantly changed the quality of our lives and improves how we connect to each other and our stuff. But if you’re concerned about privacy and security—you should be. And so are the providers that bring these ground breaking services to you. In most cases, cloud service providers take privacy and security very seriously, using the toughest security encryption techniques available—this isn’t just lip service. That said, nothing is foolproof. Anytime you access the Internet…err, cloud, be sure you understand all the privacy policies and don’t lose sight of the strength of your passwords.

If you’re just beginning to dabble with cloud applications, start with setting up a file sharing account and link your family calendars…you’ll be amazed how quickly these two steps will simplify your life.

Here’s just a sampling of how we use the cloud in our family:

Amazon Cloud Drive: Amazon Cloud Drive is an online storage service. We store our music, movies and documents in Amazon’s online storage (a.k.a. the cloud), and access our stuff from any device, anywhere. Right now, you can get unlimited space for your music in Cloud Drive, plus 20 GB of storage for your other files, for just $20 each year. And your Amazon MP3 purchases won’t count against your quota.

 

Evernote: Evernote is a lifesaver for memory-challenged moms, like me. A combination of local software and cloud service, a “note” can be a piece of formatted text, a full webpage or webpage excerpt, a photograph, a voice memo, or a handwritten note and even file attachments. Users can sort notes into folders, then tag, annotate, edit, add comments, search and export as part of a notebook. With internet access, your Evernote can automatically synchronize with a master copy held on the Evernote server, allowing you full access across multiple devices to view, input and edit your notes, even when an Internet connection isn’t available. Cool huh?

Mint.com: I secretly love personal finance—though my love for it doesn’t help me make the right decisions. Mint.com is a brilliant cloud-based application that helps track all our household financials—banking, credit cards, investments and the like. Mint brings all our financial accounts together online or on our mobile devices, automatically categorizes our transactions, lets us set budgets and encourages us to achieve our savings goals. It allows us financially challenged parents to streamline budget and goal setting, and it offers suggestions on how to save more and suggests better plans.

 

Microsoft Office Web Apps: I’m addicted to Microsoft Office, and now I can be even more productive with the online version of the Office suite. Now, I can access, edit and share my Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote documents online from anywhere, from any connected device with a web browser in conjunction with SkyDrive (see below). I can’t live without it. I use it to write my blog posts, access my husband’s calendar (he gave me access, promise!) and build presentations for work. But my absolute favorite is the templates that Microsoft provides, many donated from other creative users, like this Meal Planner (awesome!).

SkyDrive: SkyDrive is a cloud storage solution that allows you to store documents, images, video, music, etc. that you can access through a web browser from any connected device. As I mentioned above, I use it with Office Web Apps, but I also use it to share photos and post information I want to share with others on Facebook using my nifty Windows Phone SkyDrive app. Of all the cloud storage services, SkyDrive offers the most free storage, up to 25GB. Wow.

 

 

Skype: Making video calls isn’t just for the Jetson’s; it’s for everybody now. One way to do it is by using Skype, a cloud-based service that allows you to communicate with friends and family by voice, video, and instant messaging over the Internet, in some cases for free. Though most people know Skype for its video calling, it also enables voice phone calls to be placed over traditional telephone networks. Calls to other users within the Skype service are free, while calls to landline telephones and mobile phones require a small fee, as in itty bitty, barely a fee. I love the videoconferencing feature for face-to-face calls on my laptop with people in multiple locations—like Gaga in Pennsylvania and auntie Tash in Phoenix—regardless of my location.

 

  

UPDATE: I nearly forgot to mention one of my very favorite cloud apps: Ancestry.com, which I use to trace my family tree. I’m a history buff, and I’m fascinated by my family roots—largely driven by the stories told to me by my Granny Emma who passed away years ago. She told me stories about her parents’ difficult lives in the early days of Kansas settlements. When I discovered Ancestry.com, it not only helped me track her family origins, but it also helped me validate the challenges of her parents’ lives and other Kansas settlers—incredibly difficult. With more than nine billion digital historical records ranging from federal census information, birth certificates and marriage licenses to war registration cards, it also connects users to other researchers and the work they have done. Other researchers on Ancestry.com pointed me to digital records and archives that proved my great, great grandfather was a founding father of the Kansas town I grew up in, and his huge role to protect Kansas interests during the Civil War. Fascinating!

How do you use the cloud? What are your favorite cloud apps and services? Leave your tips in the comments.

 

The Connected Home: 5 Easy Steps to a Wireless Home Network

Credit: Amazon.com

The Connected Home is easier than you might think and you probably have most everything you need to make it happen today

I’m a little spoiled. I’ve spent most of my adult life in the technology industry, affording me the most advanced technology capabilities available. You could say that I’m in the “first movers” club. Just given my proximity to the advancements, my family is often first to adopt a new consumer technology, and sometimes we even play around with enterprise-class technology. With this advantage, though, I sometimes forget that there’s a huge community of people out there who are completely intimated by the technology that I can’t live without. So, today, I’m taking a step back to address a few fundamental computing principles that everyone should be embracing. First up: The Connected Home.

I wrote about the connected living room a few months ago when Microsoft updated Xbox 360 and Kinect, and I talked a little about my family’s connected home. Connected devices are the new norm. Just about everything we do today is dependent upon an internet connection or mobile broadband, both in our home and while we’re away. Our PCs are connected to the internet, enabling us to work from anywhere and anytime or collaborate with colleagues remotely. Our smartphones are connected to 3G networks, not just to talk voice to voice, but video chat, too, and to check our email and movie times from anywhere. We take our tablets with us on the go so that we have access to our stuff stored in the cloud, but more often to entertain our kids with games. And we stream movies and music using Bluetooth devices and through our game consoles, using them also to communicate with friends and family with video chat. Some of us even have top of the line appliances connected to the internet to keep track of what we have in the refrigerator and remind us when we need milk (ok, not many of us, but this is available today!).

If all this sounds great and you’re on board to take advantage of it, but paralized by how to start, let me help. Setting up a wireless network is easier than ever, and you can do it, too. I’m going to take you on a little tour to help you get your wireless network up, walking you through a series of easy steps to get you connected to the people and information you care about using your devices, broadband and the cloud. Trust me, its easier than it sounds.

Step 1: Get a High-Speed Internet Connection

Most of us already have a high-speed internet connection in our homes, which is the backbone to a home network. A single internet connection will support countless internet-ready devices, enabling all the computers to share files, access other connected devices (such as printers and backup drives) and get to the web easily. High-speed internet connections are offered by your cable service, satellite TV service and even your phone service providers using special equipment, specifically a modem. If you don’t already have one, call your provider to get it.

Step 2: Setup a Wireless Router

Next, you need a wireless router, which is the traffic cop for your network and connects your devices to the modem. Though you have a choice between wired and wireless routers, I think most of us want to be freed of cumbersome cables, so we’ll assume you want wireless, too. Your computer will use the router to wirelessly connect, and the router will send communications through your modem to the Internet. If you don’t already have a wireless router, make sure you get one with the latest technology using 802.11g or 802.11n standards, which have great performance and are compatible with just about everything. D-Link, Linksys and Net Gear among others offer great devices and great prices, starting around $50 and up. Unless you’re technically savvy, though, there is no reason to pay much more than $100.

Ok, ready? Now that you have the router supporting the latest wireless standards, locate your cable or DSL modem and unplug it from the power supply to turn it off. Next, connect your wireless router’s USB cable to your modem. Your modem should stay connected directly to the internet (which your service provider alreeady setup for you). Next, plug the power back in and turn on the modem. Wait a few minutes to give it time to connect to the internet, and then plug in and turn on your router. After a minute or so, the internet, WAN or WLAN, light on your router should light up, indicating that it has successfully connected to your modem. Following your router’s manual, you’ll use your computer’s browser to name your new network and create your admin credentials, including a login name and password, and it will now be a network recognized by your computer.

Step 3: Encrypt the Network (this is easier than it sounds)

Once your router and primary computer are configured, your operating system will show you a little wireless connectivity icon. Clicking on it will open a window with your wireless network options. Select the network you just created and then click “connect.” You’ll be prompted to set up a password or “key,” which will be required by all users to connect to the network. This wireless key ensures your privacy and security. It will be a very long series of numbers and letters, so you’ll want to make sure you keep it accessible. You’ll have occasions to refer back to it, particularly when you host guests who want to connect their devices or you add a new device to your network.

Step 4: Connect Your Devices

Now it’s time to connect your other internet-ready devices to the network using the installed router as your hub. You can connect multiple computers, printers, smartphones, your Xbox console, Smart TVs, tablets and even your appliances. But first, make sure all your devices are internet ready and powered off before you connect them to your network. Technology evolves quickly, and the latest devices talk to each other seamlessly using built-in wireless connectivity. If you’re using Windows 7 (and later versions), home networks are a cinch to create. This modern operating system is smart, so it knows what devices are trying to connect and will automatically kick in to help, particularly if your devices are Windows compatible (you’ll know this because they generally say on the device).

And with Windows 7, Microsoft introduced Home Group, which is a simple way to automatically connect Windows-compatible devices so that they can talk to each when they’re connected to your home network. It offers privacy and family settings, and ensures your documents and files are only altered by the owner while providing access to those you share them with. Movies, music, grocery lists, calendars can all be shared across the network from device to device.

And don’t just focus on your computers, either. Connect all your internet-ready devices: Smart TVs, tablets, smartphones, game consoles, entertainment hubs. If its smart, connect it. You’ll be glad you did.

That said, if your devices are a little older and not equipped with wireless LAN cards, you’ll need a USB wireless network adapter for each device, which will tell it to use its antenna for transmitting wireless signals.

Step 5: Share Documents, Files and Printers

Now that your computers and devices are connected, you can begin sharing files, printers, games, and more across your devices. Stream movies and music from your PC to your TV, access files on your laptop from your desktop PC, sync your photos from your smartphone to your TV, and print your boarding pass from your tablet. No matter what room you’re in, you’ll be able to access the information you need from any one of your devices easier, faster and with the flexibility to move freely throughout your home—baby in one hand and device in the other.

See? Easy! Consumer technologies have gotten so smart in recent years that home networking has become nearly effortless. The caveat here, though, is an assumption that most of us are now using modern devices with the latest operating systems and built-in connectivity technologies. Not only are these devices much easier to use, but they’re more secure, more mobile, more stylish and are designed to make our lives easier. Technology is no longer delegated to the geeks we know and love—we are all empowered now and never has it been so easy.

Next up, we’ll talk about the cloud: what it is, why you need it and how to get it. Your personal cloud doesn’t bring stormy weather, it follows you with your stuff everywhere you go.

For the best quality and value on internet-ready devices and networking products, visit MOMconnected’s online Amazon Shop.

 Glossary of Terms

  • 802.11: 802.11 and 802.11x refers to a family of specifications developed by the IEEE for wireless LAN (WLAN) technology. The 802.11 standard specifies an over-the-air interface between a wireless device and a base station or between two wireless devices.
  • Bluetooth: A trademark for a wireless technology that enables devices such as portable computers, cell phones, and portable handheld devices to connect to each other and to the Internet.
  • Home Network: A home network is simply a method of allowing computers to communicate with one another.
  • Modem: An electronic device that connects computers via a cable or telephone line, allowing the exchange of information. It consists of a modulator to convert computer information into a data signal and a demodulator to convert it back again.
  • Service Provider: A company or organization that provides access to the Internet through its servers, usually for a fee.
  • Wireless LAN: A wireless local area network (WLAN or wireless LAN) consists of two or more computers that communicate wirelessly via radio waves.
  • Wireless Router: A router is a device used to direct traffic flow between local computers networked together, either via Ethernet cabling, or through radio wave technology. A network that uses Ethernet cabling is referred to as a hard-wired network, while radio wave networks are called wireless networks.

 

Mobile World Congress 2012: What to Expect

Once again I’m on the sidelines for Mobile World Congress. It may be better this way, though. From here in Seattle, I’ll get a broader perspective on what’s happening, seeing the news unfold in greater context since I’ll have the benefit of watching it all bubble up from a distance. That said, I’m reliant upon many friends that have feet on the ground, who will get both first looks and hands on experiences. If you’re looking for a play-by-play, follow RemotelyMobile.

For my friends that don’t have the slightest idea what Mobile World Congress is, it’s the place where all the mobile thinkers and doers come to influence, strike deals and play. From network operators and carriers to device makers and app developers, the mobile industry is descending upon Barcelona today for the event, which opens on Feb. 27th, attracting more than 60,000 attendees, including roughly 12,000 developers, 3,000 industry CEOs from 130 countries and over 1,500 media outlets.

So, it’s sort of a big deal, and it’s where an amazing number of business deals are born. It isn’t just about quad-core phones, 4G networks, and other mobile devices. It’s also about supporting consumers with apps, software, and the cloud that keep us mere mortals connected.

With the theme “Redefining Mobile,” I’m expecting to see a gazillion new ways to use mobile devices to interact with other devices and streamline consumer experiences.

More Devices Face Off with Apple: Be it internet-connected phones, tablets or PCs, device makers will come out of the woodwork to try and take down Apple. Frankly, it’s a monumental task. Apple has had the market cornered on devices, but new tech innovations, more powerful components and new pricing models will give other vendors the opportunity to give Apple a run for the money this year. In fact, Apple shares have eroded with the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Nokia’s Lumia and the coming Windows 8 devices, not to mention how well Samsung has penetrated its marketshare. You can bet Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Samsung to make considerable investments in this years’ MWC, priming the market for some very exciting devices expected to ship later this year.

Smart Devices:  For years we’ve been inching closer to the promise of connected experiences across devices, and we saw a big jump forward at CES 2012 where smartphones acted as controllers for a variety of other devices: Smart TVs, home security, garage doors and even refrigerators. We’ll see even more of these scenarios at MWC. Innovative connected devices will be unveiled in Barcelona to manage and monitor your home or to consume an explosion of digital content.

Connected Vehicles: Wait…what? Yes, vehicles are becoming the latest “devices” to invest in these big technology shows. Ford, for instance, had a big showing at CES 2012 in January showing off its latest in-dash technology, SYNC, developed in partnership with Microsoft. Expect to see Ford and others at MWC again, sporting their play for the connected consumer’s mindshare with technology that strikes the right balance of safety, convenience and infotainment.

Advanced Apps: Technology innovations centered on faster processers, faster connection speeds and small but mighty devices are all culminating to advance a new class of applications that are delivering on the connected experiences dream. Mobile apps for shopping, media, healthcare and mobile in the enterprise are increasing efficiencies and improving productivity. Whether a client app or cloud app, MWC will be a breeding ground for app developers and startups looking for a break to get noticed. Though harder to find these gems, this is the part that really excites me, and I’ll be watching the folks like Venture Beat and others who are looking for the same gems

Infrastructure Advancements: The explosion of data driven by the use of our mobile devices has put a significant strain on the networks and infrastructures to support our increasingly mobile lifestyles. I would expect to see a number of announcements at Mobile World Congress from mobile networks and carriers to address the volume of streaming video, high-res images and documents that we share on a daily basis to stay connected and to keep the networks from breaking down.

Windows 8: Last but not least, we should expect some noise from Microsoft. Though no keynote this year, Microsoft is expected to offer the first Windows 8 consumer preview, which is likely to build a lot of excitement for the range of devices Windows 8 will support when it ships. Microsoft’s decision to preview Windows 8 at Mobile World Congress is a signal revealing how important mobility is to the Windows franchise, and we’re as likely to see Intel-based Ultrabook PCs as we are Windows 8 tablets running on ARM. Of course, we’ll see a range of Windows Phones, as well—notably Nokia phones and if we’re lucky the next version of Windows Phones, dubbed Tango, which will run on low-end devices, expanding its footprint into emerging markets.

This is just scraping the surface. We’ve been hearing industry buzz about Android, LG, HTC, Nokia, Samsung, Sony and many other device makers on what they’ll do for weeks. New tablets, new pones, new apps—there all expected at Mobile World Congress next week. But if you’re looking for a rundown of what specific devices will be unveiled, check out Engadget for a comprehensive list.

What are you most excited about?

Pinterest: Mindless Inspiration for the Overwhelmed

My biggest complaint in the last two years? I don’t have enough time in the day. Like most moms, from the moment my eyes open (usually with a toddler staring back at me six inches from my nose) to the moment they close again for the night, I am in constant motion.

My husband and I scramble in the morning to get the kids fed, ourselves ready for work and kids dressed for school. I race through traffic to get into the office. My brain is on overdrive as soon as I sit down with my PC, rumaging through email and writing my first narrative of the day. I run from meeting to meeting not even stopping for lunch. And I rush out the door a few minutes before 5:00p to start the commute back home, picking up the boys from daycare/preschool along the way. I walk in the house and immediately whip something up for dinner, check my work email with a full tummy and then march upstairs with the boys to start bedtime routine (brushing teeth and reading books and sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow for the thousandth time). At 9:00p, I sit down to finish up a few work projects and then it happens. My brain finally shuts down. The only thing left to do is surf, and I start and end with Pinterest.

As if I had time to spend hours sitting, exploring images of often beautiful and sometimes rediculous furniture, gadgets, art/crafts, recipes and awesome places to visit, I do it. Mindless inspiration.

Here’s how it works: Users create digital “pinboards” and fill them with photos from around the web of the things they care about. They can follow other pinboards and users, and “repin” items that speak to them. Using the “Pin-It” gadget you install on a browser toolbar, users add to their boards from anywhere, saving us from uploading an image to a photo-sharing service. And the browser experience is ideal for the small attention spans of web readers (uh, that’s me!) — almost no text, almost all pictures.

Remodeling a home or looking for great finds, this site is ideal for keeping track of things you want to revisit. I use it for capturing images of kitchens, baths and furniture I love in preparation for the updates we’re planning for our home. I also use it as a wish list for my favorite gadgets, ideas for fun with the boys and saving recipes for the day when I might be adventurous. I even have a board that captures nothing but color palettes that I love.

Here are a few important tips:

  • Name your boards: Categorize each board that you create in your space so that you’re able to group similar objects and find them easily. I have a category for home inspiration, one for gadgets, one for food, one for the kids, etc.
  • Identify the images: Though automatically hyperlinked, be sure to include a description of the image and why you are pinning it. I didn’t do that when I started, and now I can’t remember what the inspiration was about in some cases.
  • Make notes: Give the images a caption that will remind you what you liked about the image. Love the color? Inspired by the overall look? Just say so.
  • Follow people: This easy little app not only connects you to the things you care about, but it also connects you to the people you care about.
  • Show who you are: The thing I love the most about Pinterest is that I can express who I am visually. If you follow people, you can get a really good sense for who they are, too.
  • Add a time limit: There are so many cool things to look at, that it can literally suck hours of your time. Don’t let it.

Though I have only been using it for my personal pleasure, there are some interesting and fun ways to use it to promote your business, too. Though still in its infancy, I can imagine some pretty creative marketing directors will find fun ways to link it to and/or be the center of brand campaigns. Can’t wait to see what these smart people will do with it

And, if you like Pinterest, you may also enjoy Houzz.com, a digital scrapbook for your home decorating inspiration. The user experience on this site is really, really good.

I really don’t have any extra time in my day to do anything but work and take care of the boys. Yet, I keep finding myself drawn to both of these sites at the end of my days, relaxed and feeling good. So what if the laundry continues to pile up!

Do you have a mindless inspiration site to share? I want to hear about how you recharge your batteries in the comments below.

That’s A Wrap! CES 2012, Smart and Connected

In spite of a lack of ground-breaking news, CES 2012 put a stake in the ground for the tech trends we’ll see in the coming year and beyondSyndicated on BlogHer.com

Smart this, smart that. Gadgets unveiled at this year’s big dance focused on one thing: connected. We want anywhere, anytime access to our digital lives, in and out of the home, so this year at the International Consumer Electronics Show, everything seemed to be billed as smart and connected.

With more than 20,000 products unveiled, most of them streamline the connected experience. New PCs, smartphones, and TVs were expected, but even new cars and appliances are smarter than ever, simplifying the way we live and creating unexpected efficiencies.

Women play a huge role in making the vision for the connected home come alive. According to new findings from international research firm Parks Associates, women today share more content online and download more movies and music than men. For example, women are 73% more likely than men to have watched a full-length TV show online in the past 30 days.

“Women are frequently the product buyers – and once she owns a CE product, she becomes a heavy user, most particularly for devices that allow sharing and uploading content and downloading TV programs,” said Tricia Parks, CEO, Parks Associates.

I’m one of those women, and my device portfolio is growing rapidly, which is why CES interests me so much. But with so many new devices unveiled this year, it was impossible to see everything, though I still have a few favorites. Check them out below.


Personal Computing

Generally speaking, I expect a ton of new PCs to be shown at CES every year without fail. There were lots of PCs from the usual suspects this year, but only a few of them pleasantly surprised me.

Lenovo IdeaCentre A720: A great option for the family command center, the world’s slimmest 27-inch all-in-one IdeaCentre A720, with Windows 7, uniquely combines a frameless display supporting 10-point multitouch for greater accuracy with a widely adjustable screen angle (from -5 degrees to 90 degrees) that allows comfortable use in any position.

Samsung Series 5 ULTRA: Somewhere between the Series 9 and the Series 7 Chronos, the Samsung Series 5 ULTRA is an affordable, thin and light beauty. In your choice of a 13-inch or 14-inch display, this new laptop connects in just about any way you. Each version can be equipped with either a 128GB SSD or with a more spacious 500GB standard SATA hard drive and 16GB of ExpressCache memory. Starting price is $899 and its available later this month.

ViewSonic EXOdesk: Long rumored to be cooking up something special, this unusual setup supports an HTML5 interface running on top of Windows 7, Mac OS or Android, the ViewSonic EXOdesk transforms a 32- to 40-inch touchscreen monitor into a Surface-style desktop, supplementing your keyboard and mouse, and connecting to your main monitor. Fully customizable, the surface acts as the hub for casual games, productivity widgets (calendars, weather) and an app launcher, including Microsoft Office. You really have to see the demo to understand its full functionality.

Though a dozen or so tablets were on deck in another attempt to give the iPad a run for the money, CES 2012 was really about Ultrabooks, which were shown off by nearly every leading PC maker. Intel said it expects to see at least 75 Ultrabook PCs hit the market in 2012, characterized by an ultra-thin and light chassis and powerful processors with extremely fast boot-up times.

One that caught my attention was the HP Envy Spectre, which won a “Best of CES” award.  One word: GORGEOUS. Unique in that its lid and palm rest are forged from durable, scratch resistant Gorilla Glass, which we’ve seen across most smartphones. But its style isn’t just all that glass, its sleek lines and powerful computing capabilities make it one of the most attractive devices at CES this year. You’ll get an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD drive. Connectivity is easy with the latest options, including Near Field Communication (NFC), which is the first that I’m aware of for a laptop, but opening up all kinds of futuristic capabilities. Think about how easy NFC will make it for your laptop and smartphone to share information—just by the proximity of each other!

Another Ultrabook launching at CES that caught my attention was the Lenovo IdeaPad ”Yoga,” boasting a display that bends back into a tablet form factor, aptly fitting its name—though I’m not quite sure if it’s a tablet or Ultrabook. Either way, it’s pretty cool, and it took home nine awards from prominent industry publications, all highlighting its groundbreaking hybrid functionality, distinctive design and innovative engineering. Be sure to check it out.

If you’re an Internet multitasker—surf while you listen to music, check your email and social networking accounts, watch streaming videos, write a paper, work on a presentation, etc., your device portfolio is probably growing faster than your children. Expanding the portfolio, though, increases the power cords and a need for more ports. If this sounds like your household, you’ll be interested in this little gem:

The Toshiba dynadock USB 3.0 hub is a universal docking station that links all your electronic devices to your laptop with just one single USB 3.0 cable, enabling you to connect your computer to your large screen displays, stereo speakers, external hard drive, optical drive, printer, full-size keyboard and mouse. It has a built-in Gigabit Ethernet port for Internet connectivity and two 3.5mm jacks for headphones and a mic. The hub comes with a full HD video card built in, because of this feature the hub can support up to two additional monitors via its HDMI and DVI/VGA video ports. At about $180, look for it later this month. I’m not sure my family can live much longer without this gizmo!

Smartphones

Though most new phones will be announced next month at Mobile World Congress, there were still a few new ones shown at CES 2012. For me, the most notable were the two new Windows Phones nominated for cnet’s “best of CES” award:

HTC TITAN II  Available in the coming months to customers of AT&T in the U.S., the smartphone includes the largest display among Windows Phones, an advanced 16-megapixel digital camera, and access to AT&T’s 4G LTE speeds.

The Nokia Lumia 900:  This phone took cnet’s “Best of CES—Phones” award, and is the first of Nokia’s Windows phones to arrive in the United States exclusively to AT&T in spring, feature high-speed 4G LTE connectivity in a colorful cyan and matte black. With Nokia’s largest display at 4.3 inches, the Nokia Lumia 900 balances speed, power and size for a rich content experience in a phone that still fits easily in your hand.

Connected Entertainment

As in years past, televisions were amongst the stars of the show, with skinny flat screens, Internet connectivity and delivering rich picture quality. LG, Samsung and Toshiba were probably the “TV stars” of CES 2012, arguably stealing the show from Ultrabooks.

LG and Samsung both unveiled skinny OLED 55-inch HDTVs, including Internet connectivity with streaming capabilities and integrated social media features.  Samsung announced its Smart Interaction technology, which is similar to Microsoft’s Kinect, supporting face, voice and gesture recognition. You can expect these smart TVs to be very expensive, so if you can wait, LG predicts that by 2016, it will be able to deliver OLED TVs at the same cost as LCDs. For the most part, Google TV was the operating system of choice, which allows users to surf TV listings and the Internet using Google’s Chrome browser and a variety of apps, but a few other interesting products surfaced that enable you to stream content from the Internet directly to your TV.

Other Streaming Devices

Simple.TV is a next-gen digital video recorder (DVR), which might push you to finally cut the cable subscription. It allows you to access over-the-air TV programs, either live or stored on your connected hard drive, then streams it to a number of supported devices already on your home network, including Roku, Google TV, Boxee, and your iPad.

Roku Streaming stick: If you’re looking for a Smart TV alternative, then you’ll probably want to learn more about this tiny gadget. Looking a lot like an ordinary USB flash drive, the Roku Streaming Stick is a wireless, all-in-one power and HDMI streaming-media tool, offering tons of video content, supporting over 400 channels, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, Pandora, MLB.TV, HBO Go, MOG, and Rdio. It connects to the back of your HDTV, but it requires an MHL port, a relatively new mobile audio/video interface standard for directly connecting portable devices to hi-def displays (cnet has a great primer on this new connectivity port). That said, adapters are available for HDMI to MHL, which may work here. Expected to ship later this year, pricing isn’t available, but I suspect it will be between $50 and $100, considerably less than a new Smart TV.

Connected Home

While Whirlpool, Samsung and LG demonstrated smart washing machines that can alert you remotely when it’s time to put clothes in the dryer, what I was really watching for were the genius appliances, and LG delivered. The new LG appliances are focused on savings in energy, time and expense—the trinity for busy moms. But their latest appliances go further with new features, allowing homeowners to manage refrigerators, washing machines, ovens and robotic vacuum cleaners across a smart network, enabling them to talk to each other, to LG Repair and to you.

At $3200, the ThinQ Smart refrigerator will be available this summer, along with it,

a smart oven, and smart washer and drier. Imagine, with a smartphone, tablet or PC, you could see how much longer your food has to cook, or check the temperature and contents of the refrigerator without ever having to open the door. In addition, with its drag and drop icons, built-in camera, and voice recognition functions, LG makes it easy to keep track of where everything is in the refrigerator, when it all expires and it delivers grocery lists and recipes based on what you have inside—to your smartphone. Upping the ante further, its “blast chiller” can cool a bottle of wine in just eight minutes, and a can of beer within five minutes.

Connected Cars

We usually think of PC companion devices as smartphones, netbooks or tablets, but at CES 2012, a new companion was introduced: your car. Carmakers have been delivering enhanced entertainment systems, navigation tools and safety features that are controlled from the dashboard by the driver’s voice for a few years now. But more and more carmakers are boasting apps, touchscreens, and personal assistant capabilities to set themselves apart, transforming them from a vehicle to a companion and entertainment hub.

Ford has had a long and fruitful partnership with Microsoft for its Ford Sync software. Taking it a step further at CES and partnering again with Microsoft, Healthrageous and BlueMetal Architects, Ford announced an alliance to research technology to help people monitor and maintain health and wellness while on the move. Ford boasts that it is building a “car that cares,” hoping the new technology will not only improve drivers’ health, but also foster a more intimate bond between vehicle and driver.

Mercedes-Benz unveiled its mbrace2, billed as a “digital lifestyle” solution which can function as a “personal concierge,” continuously streams navigation information to the car, and enables connectivity to social media sites such as Facebook, and will send real-time automotive diagnostics back to the dealer. For us moms, the mbrace2 will allow parents to track what our kids are doing with the car and perform other common connected activities, including a variety of safety-focused functions.

Behind the showstoppers, other quirky devices were also introduced at CES, including motorized shoes, a laser system that will turn your car’s windshield into a see-through digital map (think Minority Report) and contact lenses that display images, text or other augmented reality information to the wearer. But from my vantage point, both LG and Samsung stole the show with their smart, connected devices with screens that range in size from 4 inches to 80 inches and appliances that communicate with each other and YOU.

This is just a sampling of the cool new consumer devices revealed at CES 2012, which was a hotbed for great topics to write on, and I’m not able to cover all of it here.  So, I’ll be showcasing lots more connected experiences from CES 2012 in the coming weeks, including more apps, more on the connected car and more devices that deliver on the connected home.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What got you most excited from CES 2012?

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.

Is Your Living Room Connected?


Yesterday, my 4-year old and I had a very active and sweat inducing game of Fruit Ninja with Kinect for Xbox 360. Slashing fruit and dodging bombs, he was having a great time, and I was getting a great workout. But we’ve only recently introduced our kids to the world of connected devices, and have limited their exposure to traditional video games in favor of toys and games that don’t have flashing lights or sounds. That said, Xbox rules our living room and keeps us connected to our entertainment and the people we care about.

Last year, Kinect for Xbox 360 introduced controller-free entertainment by letting you use your body and voice to play your favorite games and access entertainment, turning you into the controller. This amazing innovation changed my view of the gaming world and consoles, seeing that Xbox isn’t just for gaming anymore. In our household, it’s our entertainment hub, enabling us to access new release movies exclusive for Xbox, our Netflix video library, see live concerts and access our favorite television shows, as well as a growing library of family friendly gaming. And we use the device for live video chat with family and friends in other time zones and on different continents.

In fact, we’re so connected that our family was “forced” to invest in two consoles (one for the Man Cave and one for the family room) to prevent the boys from arguing, and by boys, I mean my husband and our 2- and 4-year old kids.

And now I’m getting in the game. Microsoft just launched perhaps its biggest software upgrade for Xbox 360, refreshing the interface, deeper voice integration, stronger social capabilities and more robust integration across devices. With these updates, we’ll get more TV programing, more movies, more music and of course more games across new third-party applications, expanding our entertainment options. And Microsoft is further enhancing the connected experience by broadly integrating Kinect with Bing search technology across the Xbox Live dashboard for smooth and seamless navigation using voice and gestures to simplify search for content and services. With Bing on Xbox, your voice becomes the ultimate remote control to find the games, movies, TV shows and music you’re looking for. Though voice control isn’t new, the deeper integration with Bing creates a completely new experience. Tell that to my kids, though. My 4-year old son already speaks to Xbox and waves his hands around, commanding it to launch Dinosaur Train, and my 2-year old skips Xbox altogether, commanding the TV to launch Team Umizoomi. Now we’ll see our devices actually respond to them!

For me, the story is about the updates that push our connected experiences further, and devices are central to this scenario. Though using my voice as a controller sounds like a fun option, it won’t always be practical. So Microsoft has also released a mobile app exclusively for the Windows Phone that enables it to control the console, services and content. The free Xbox Companion app uses Bing to search for content, access and launch programing, and turns your smartphone into a wireless remote control for media playback and for purchase transactions. I can’t wait to try it out.

Another cool feature is how Xbox leverages the cloud to create a more seamless experience across our device portfolios, including other Xbox 360 consoles. Got to run out before finishing your game or movie? This new feature will allow us to log into any Xbox 360, then play our saved games or watch our in-progress movies from other consoles. This update enables us to take our entertainment with us when we’re on the go. Parents rejoice!

Though some of the major network and entertainment partners won’t be ready to launch their content this week (see GeekWire for a complete rundown of who, what, when), you can bet my family will be bundling all our digital content and subscriptions through this one device, simplifying our experiences.

If you’re intrigued and want all the details, the folks at Engadget have a super solid review of the new features and functionality. So check it out.

What do you have to say? Do you think Xbox 360 is on the right track regarding the future of connected entertainment? What are the barriers to drive this concept forward?

UPDATE: The updates are live in many households this morning, and I see that Microsoft has updated a variety of parental controls, which will likely be of interest here. I’m told that parents can manage their child’s console activity, sharing on social networking sites as well as regulate access to games, movies, television, and music. Additionally, the update brings enhanced navigation to Xbox 360 Family Settings to better integrate with Kinect. I’ll check those updates out and report back. For more reading, check out Microsoft Xbox and Kinect Newsroom