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?

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.

 


 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.