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2001 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Reviewed

January 6-10, 2001 - Las Vegas, Nevada

I'd been to Vegas numerous times for Fall COMDEX but this is the first time I'd come for the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Despite the surface similarities, I haven't felt this out of the loop in a long time: At COMDEX, the show is dominated by Microsoft Corporation, whose ever-expanding presence seems to be overwhelming the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) more and more each year. At CES, however, Microsoft is but a bit player, and though the worlds of consumer electronics (annoyingly abbreviated to CE everywhere here) and computers are clearly integrating, Microsoft just doesn't have the cachet at CES that it does at PC-oriented shows. It made for an interesting experience.

As with COMDEX, cross-country travel to Las Vegas is fraught with the possibility of delays or cancellations due to storms. I ended up getting into Boston just ahead of a nasty little snowstorm, and my plane thankfully left Logan Airport before the snow began. Keith Furman wasn't so lucky: Trapped in Newark because of the storm, Keith ended up arriving a day late, on Saturday. I had arrived late Friday evening, and checked into the Luxor, which is about as far away as you can get from the Convention Center and still be inside city limits. One thing I noticed immediately was a change in attitude toward visitors: When the COMDEX crowd rolls through town, no one is very excited to see them come. But with the small CES show, cabbies were talkative and friendly, and the tram driver from the airport actually provided an entertaining tour of the city as he headed from hotel to hotel. Guess the CES people gamble a bit more than the el cheapo COMDEX crowd.

Once Keith did arrive, we headed over to pick up our press badges and assess the situation. Gates had gone on that morning and discussed a number of fairly exciting technologies, including the long-awaited Xbox (due this Fall) and Whistler's simplification features and digital media integration. The Whistler team had released its first post-Beta 1 build to testers just before the show, and though there's no sign of it here in Vegas, I've been able to install it and play with it, so I should have a mini-review ready by the time I get home later this week. But Microsoft was also showing off Windows Me, the Connected Home, and a cool DirectTV add-on called UltimateTV. We made a quick buzz through the Convention Center, vowing to return the next day for a longer look. That evening we met up with Joe Jones, and old friend from my Phoenix days who's now living in Seattle. Coincidentally, Joe was in Vegas for work and read that I was in town for the show; he sent along an email and then there we were, eating the biggest steaks we could get our hands on, just like the old days.

Sunday morning, Keith and I rolled out of the hotel at the crack of eleven and headed to the LVCC. First up was a meeting with Belkin, which makes a wide variety of consumer electronic devices, such as FireWire and USB cards, USB-based video dongles, cables, adapters, USB/FireWire hubs, and the like. Belkin makes good stuff, and I've always liked their products, but the stuff they've got coming down the pike is truly exciting. Available immediately is an amazing set of home networking kits which can be stitched together in a modular fashion, according to your needs. I'll be writing more about this in the near future.

After that, we made the rounds of the main convention hall, noting an amazing number of new-look PCs, most of which feature retro-chrome accented flat panels and small form-factors. Toshiba was showing off a number of exciting things, such as its NUON DVD players, which can connect with hand controllers and play video games, and a slew of Secure Digital (SD)-format devices. SD, which is the secure version of Multimedia Card, is one of two exciting data storage formats that are vying to dominate the portable data storage market and compete with the likes of Compact Flash, SmartMedia, and Sony's Memory Stick. Smaller than any of them, SD allows for amazingly small devices, and both Toshiba and Panasonic were showing off portable audio players that were about as big as three AAA batteries; simply amazing. Panasonic, like many companies, was showing off cool Internet terminal-like PCs which would be right at home in the kitchen or garage. Panasonic's unit, not surprisingly, was also SD-compatible. And so is the Nintendo GameCube, interestingly, which we got a quick look at. The GameCube looks much better in person than it does in any of the pictures I'd seen so far. Speaking of SD, Palm announced that its expansion strategy going forward revolves around SD: The company was showing off a variety of expansion devices--memory, digital cameras, GPS, MP3 players, and the like--that will grace its next-generation products due later this year. Looks like SD will be Palm's answer to the Handspring SpringBoard.

After that, we headed over to Microsoft's booth, where the company had set up a number of display "rooms" in its "Connected Home." Each room depicted a typical room in a family's home--such as the kitchen, children's bedroom, and living room--and showed off ways in which Microsoft's software could integrate digital devices into daily life. It was a pretty impressive display, even if we had to chuckle at the notion of anyone buying a Windows 2000 Server to stitch it all together. Perhaps they could come out with a Home Server version. One cool thing: The front-end interface for controlling all of this automation was a set of Web-based Activity Centers. The company was also showing off its Windows CE for Automotive products inside of a nice BMW sports utility vehicle. Windows Powered, indeed.

One interesting product the company was touting is UltimateTV, its DirectTV add-on that provides interactive capabilities. UltimateTV sports two tuners so you can watch two shows simultaneously, tape one live show while watching another, or even tape two live shows simultaneously. We spent a bunch of time with the UltimateTV folks and came away rather impressed; I'll be writing more about this in the near future as well.

The big Microsoft news at CES, of course, was Xbox. Gates showed off the design of the box itself and the controllers at his keynote address Saturday morning, along with three prototype games. During the show itself, the Xbox was nowhere to be seen; instead the company was showing it to the press behind closed doors. My initial take is that the device is attractive looking, but huge. It's almost twice as big as a Sony PlayStation 2. I got to test a cool Hitachi "wearable" PC that features a Borg-like headset with a virtual 13" screen. It didn't seem that big to me, but then I had glasses on at the time and would probably end up walking into walls and whatnot until I got used to it. Instead of a mouse, you use an awkward little hand controller and I didn't like that much either.

We soon ran into SD's main competitor, a cool little optical storage device called DataPlay. DataPlay looks like a little CD disk encased in color plastic, and the company says that they hold 500 MB of storage, which is one-write only. Doesn't sound so great until you hear the kicker: The little disks are going to cost only $5 to $10 a piece. Like SD, DataPlay will be winding up in a variety of devices this fall. Good stuff.

In Sony's somewhat off-site booth, we took a look at the recently announced eVilla (no relation to Bob Vila), an amazing BeOS-based Internet terminal that features a beautiful portrait-oriented display, a gorgeous interface, email, news, and Web capabilities, and a Memory Stick-based mouse. The unit, which will cost about $500, will connect to the Internet via modem or Ethernet. It's going to be huge. Sony was also showing off its wide range of consumer electronics devices, such as a portable MP3 CD player, a cable TV set-top box, it's UltimateTV device (which we preferred over the RCA unit), TIVO, it's lines of digital video cameras and multimedia-integrated PCs, XM-based radios (for receiving radio broadcasts via satellite) and its X-PLODE car audio products.

Sunday night, we hopped on the Microsoft bandwagon and attended an exclusive event at the Mandalay Bay's House of Blues, which features Big Voodoo Daddy, comedian Dennis Miller, and the Goo Goo Dolls. Miller was unbelievable, and though I can't relay many of his jokes here, we laughed so hard we were crying. The Goo Goo Dolls were also surprisingly good, and we ended up staying for the entire event, which doesn't happen all that often.

CES News reports

  • CES: Bill Gates ushers in new era of consumer electronics
  • CES: Microsoft announces UltimateTV
  • CES: Windows Media expands to new devices
  • CES: New Windows CE devices touted
  • CES: Microsoft unveils Microsoft Car.NET
  • CES: Intel CEO touts Extended PC era

      Scenes from CES 2001
    This plucky dancing robot was greeting CES-goers on the way into the Convention Center.

    Paul checks out Hitachi's wearable PC in the Microsoft booth.

    Cool, retro-looking PC designs were all everywhere, including this one from a no-name Tawainese company.

    Toshiba's upcoming personal audio player uses SD to attain its small size.

    To get an idea of how small SD is, check out these examples.

    This is DataPlay, a one-write 500MB optical disk that will compete with SD late this year.

    Nintendo's GameCube is much nicer in person than it is in photographs. Here's one of three units we saw.

    Based on the BeOS and selling for only $500, Sony's eVilla is simply beautiful.
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