While the consumer electronics industry continues to enjoy its summer nap, the outdoor tech world has managed to get itself into a dust-up — and onto the leader board for our picks of the week.
Get this: The beacons used to locate your sorry lost self in an outdoor emergency are undergoing some controversial changes. Elsewhere in the strange new world of tech, there are rumblings of — gasp! — a shortage in liquid crystal displays for the coming holiday season and traditional gaming platforms take on the popular Nintendo Wii.
Here, then, are our picks for top tech stories of the week:
When Is a Personal Locator Beacon Not a Personal Locator Beacon?
It sounds like something from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie: a portable gizmo that alerts parajumpers to come fetch you when you're stuck in a canyon or lost at sea. Actually, such personal locator beacons do exist. Made by companies including ACR Electronics and McMurdo, they use a slick combination of satellites, Global Positioning Systems and radio beacons to forward your location to authorities in an emergency.
We love personal locator beacons; they are a must for serious outdoor adventurers. But the price and the clunk factor are definite turnoffs. Better units can cost nearly $700 and are the size of a very, very, very large cell phone.
An Australian company called TracMe is taking a new tack. It is making a simple $150 beacon that can fit easily in your pocket. The TracMe cannot compete with a true personal locator beacon in terms of features because it has no satellite connectivity or GPS. The unit simply emits an audio signal with a range of a few miles on the radio bands found in most consumer walkie-talkies. So rescuers need to know roughly where you are to come and find you. And although experts could locate a TracMe with any radio that used the frequencies, most rescue teams would need a proprietary direction finder. So that can limit effectiveness.
Purists in the search-and-rescue business say TracMe gives a false sense of security and should not be allowed to be labeled a "personal locator beacon." And it is true that there is the whiff of marketing spin with this product. But we think the TracMe's low price and ease of use can only help in an emergency. And it doesn't hurt that the unit can send a signal for about a week.
Remember that guy who cut off his arm with a pocket knife when he got stuck under a boulder in Colorado? The TracMe probably would have saved him a whole lot of fuss. And whole lot of blood.
Are LCDs Getting Scarce?
It looks like the age of steadily dropping prices for liquid crystal display TVs may be coming to an end. After about a decade of steady discounting, the supply of LCDs seems to be tightening. TV trade rag This Week in Consumer Electronics is reporting that both LCD TVs and digital picture frames are getting scarce in certain sizes.
The culprit here is offshore manufacturing that is — to the ultimate shame of the American technology media — still beyond our ability to predict, or even fact check. So we're frankly not sure what is going on here. The speculation is panel makers are tightening production to stabilize pricing. And there is a concern that the price of LCDs may actually rise for the first time this holiday season.
Supposed LCD shortages are nothing new. The technosphere loves to stir up concern, and demand, by whispering about potential short runs in supply. Usually we ignore such talk. But this time, the concept carries weight. After last year's TV debacle, when Wal-Mart knocked the daylights out of the flat-panel market with nutzo discounting that sent both Best Buy and Circuit City to the earnings woodshed, the fact that TV makers are moving to tighten supply makes grim sense.
So, should consumers run out and buy an LCD now? Probably not. There are still many excellent sets due out in stores for the holidays, and if price increases do come they will certainly be modest. But the big change in the market is that shoppers should start questioning the assumption that TVs will always get cheaper. We probably are at the cheapest they are going to get, at least for this holiday season.
Summer: Sports Video Games' Big Season
Quick: Where is Michael Vick utterly above the law? In the virtual world of video games, that's where. And summer is when the year's fresh crop of sports game titles hits the stores.
In late June we saw the arcade-style "The Bigs" from 2K Sports. In mid-July, EA Sports hit the market with its strong college football game, "NCAA 08", complete with Dynasty and Superstar modes. And there is also a new NASCAR game from EA Sports.
But the big news this summer will be "Madden 08", due out Tuesday. Yes, Vick will almost certainly be playing. It's the third year of "Madden" on the Xbox 360, but the first time the game really has the new features of the next-gen platform built into the software.
All of these titles will have more effects, better graphics and better playability due to new tools like the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. And in our "testing" — one of us (Evans) set the all-time passing record in "NCAA 08" — the games look ridiculously good. If traditional platforms hope to find traction against the super-hot Nintendo Wii, they will have to do it with sexy advanced games like "Madden" and "NBA Live."
In a sense, Sony's future rests on whether gamers will pay for an ever-more-realistic Michael Vick.