CES 2006: Picks and Pans

Where can you find Justin Timberlake mixing with Bill Gates, and Snoop Dogg crossing paths with Donny Osmond? Why, it must be the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Consumer gadgets may still be the focus of this behemoth show, but technology companies of all makes and models--including Intel, Google, and Microsoft--are joining in the fun. They weren't the only ones: a team of PC World editors flocked to the show. Here's their take on the highlights and lowlights of CES 2006.

Let the Music Play: Saitek's new A-250 is a $129 wireless 2.1 speaker system that is intended to play music stored on the hard drive of your desktop PC or laptop. Although it might look a lot like a fancy boom box, it actually uses Class One Bluetooth technology that can wirelessly pick up a stream of music from up to 100 feet away and through walls. --Ramon G. McLeod

Radio Days: I have and love an XM Radio. But I'm still amazed at the degree to which satellite radio, from both XM and Sirius, was one of the driving technologies at the show. There were a slew of new products built around these services (including sleek portables that made my XM MyFi, which I bought just a year ago, look like an oversized antique). --Harry McCracken

See Your DVDs in HD: Well before the first Blu-ray Disc players come out, Toshiba's hot Qosmio notebook will debut with a built-in player using the rival HD-DVD format. This is the first laptop that will play HD-DVD discs and, even better, lets you use that box to play hi-def discs on your TV. Jack this baby via HDMI into a receiver and it'll support 1080p resolution. In effect, you can use this notebook as a high-end HD-DVD player. It will be available in March 2006, months before the first Blu-Ray boxes are due out. --Ramon G. McLeod

A Remote That Offers Real Control: Logitech's Harmony 890 Universal Remote is the company's first to use RF technology that allows owners to control consumer electronics located in other rooms and floors. It's a beauty of a device and intended for folks with home theater equipment and distributed sound systems who may not have direct line of sight to their gear. The product is about to ship priced at $399. --Ramon G. McLeod

Best Reason to Go Portable: I'm not a huge fan of portable video devices, but Samsung's new YM-P1 handheld DVR is a genuinely intriguing product. I love the fact that you can record TV directly to the unit's 20GB hard drive for later viewing on the unit's 4-inch screen or play back your shows to the TV. It'll come out in February and cost about $400. --Ramon G. McLeod

A Flashier Flash Player: SanDisk's 6GB flash player impressed not just because of its roomy capacity (for a flash drive)--it also boasts head-turning aesthetics and features, including video support. --Melissa J. Perenson

For Big Kids Everywhere: I was a huge fan of Legos as a kid and the company's next-generation Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics invention system will give me an excuse to prove my Lego chops all over again. Because the system's light, touch, and sound sensors have been improved and an ultrasonic sensor introduced to detect movement, you can now build your own walking robot. Step-by-step instructions for 18 robots will be provided when the kit launches for $250 in August. --Danny Allen

Lost But Not Forgotten: With fingertip-sized tags and a handheld tracker, the $100 loc8tor lets you find those keys or wallets you're always misplacing. I took it for a test run in a crowded CES showroom, and didn't have much trouble homing in on a tag by turning in a circle and then walking in the direction of the strongest signal. The $170 model also has an alert mode that tells you when a particular tag goes more than a certain distance from the handheld. This could be a nice way to keep tabs on my escape-artist dog. Available soon. --Erik Larkin

Ooh, I Wanna Try It: Perfect for avoiding deadlines--the $80 BladeRunner II radio-controlled helicopter. Also ideal for scaring the heck out of the dog. Watch a video of the helicopter almost bouncing off the head of a dopey PC World Contributing Editor. --Steve Bass

Hey, It's More Fun Than Working: Here's yet another digital distraction to help you avoid deadlines. First, you use the radio controller to move around the Vex Robotic robots and scoop up the racquetballs. Then you pop them into the bin and maybe you'll win something. Don't forget to occasionally look around to make sure your boss isn't watching. Check out the video to see how they work! --Steve Bass

Digital Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: As if the gadgets and gizmos weren't enough eye candy, an impressive celebrity corps flitted around the various booths and events at the show. Sightings included NFL football greats at Samsung's booth (I personally saw Boomer Esiason); DaVinci Code star Tom Hanks, director Ron Howard, and producer Brian Grazer at Sony Chairman Sir Howard Stringer's keynote; Tom Cruise and Ellen DeGeneres at Yahoo CEO Terry Semel's speech; Justin Timberlake joining Bill Gates on stage during the Microsoft exec's keynote; and Robin Williams at Google co-founder Larry Page's talk. Next year I'll have to bring my autograph book. --Yardena Arar

Oddest Couple: Among the musicians who appeared at XM Radio's booth were Snoop Dogg and, an hour later, Donny Osmond. Wonder if they met--and if so, what they spoke about? --Harry McCracken

Most Useful Freebie:Vastercable decided to forego the typical big bowl of chocolates at its booth and instead fill it with Velcro cable wraps. The booth was mobbed. --Steve Bass

Checkmate!: I can't imagine a less inviting place to sit down to a game of chess than on the floor of a mobbed, noisy show like CES. But Russian chess grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk appeared at one booth to promote an electronic chess game that bears her name (and speaks in her voice), and at least one attendee sat down to face off against her. --Harry McCracken

Smartest Way to Save: Bring your notebook and headset, pay the hotel's $10 daily Internet access fee, and make all your calls using Skype. One marketing guy from Dolby saved $40 on a call to his wife in Australia. --Steve Bass

XXX Marks the Spot: As usual, Vegas was hosting both the workaday types attending CES and the rather different conventioneers attending an event for the "adult entertainment" industry. At times, especially at the Sands Expo Center (which hosted CES on one floor and the adult conference on the other), it felt a little as if you were attending the latter show whether you wanted to or not. (And one limo driver complained to me that adult entertainers were coming outside and slowing down traffic outside the Sands.) --Harry McCracken

A Show We Won't Be Staffing: Networking and convergence took on a whole new meaning this week at the Sands Convention Center, a secondary CES venue, because this year the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo took place in the same building. It probably explains why so many male editors, analysts, ad reps, and marketers had a lot of "last minute" vendor meetings at the Sands. --Ramon G. McLeod

Free Ride: One of the better freebies at CES this year was a free ride on the Monorail linking the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Strip. The ride was courtesy of Sprint and was given to anyone with a cell phone that supported text messaging. By either sending a text message to a special number or dialing a toll-free number (both helpfully displayed on signs outside the Convention Center station), you got back a text message with a code that you then showed to attendants who gave out free one-way tickets. It was by far the fastest way to get to a hotel near a station. --Yardena Arar

Road Rage: As a CES neophyte, I was well warned to expect long taxi queues and to allow plenty of time to get to vendor briefings. However, nothing prepared me for the chaos that ensued on the roads. A combination of this year's CES apparently being bigger than last year, other expos running simultaneously, and the great weather bringing out slow-moving tourists had a few of my taxi drivers pulling their hair out while we were stuck in gridlock on the strip. Points to Vegas for building pedestrian overpasses, though. --Danny Allen

A Lost Generation: Judging from the abundant GPS offerings at CES, I'm forced to conclude that we're a lost generation--as in, a generation of people who easily get lost and are eager to get directions from gadgets. Products I saw ranged from Garmin's pricey nuvi 350, Sony's first car navigation device, the $700 nav-u NV-U70 (due in mid February) and Fine Digital USA's FineDrive offerings, which are being sold at large retailers and online for prices in the $500-$600 range. Could 2006 be the year of the GPS? --Yardena Arar

Best Reason Not to Diet: Hewlett-Packard's R927 is the company's first 8-megapixel camera. Though it's probably rare that you'd need all that resolution for an enormous print enlargement, it gives you more leeway to crop down to a small portion of your photo. This compact camera packs in a lot of processing options for shutterbugs who are wont to do image editing on a PC, allowing you to add borders to your pics, give them a vintage look, or transform them into something like a watercolor painting or cartoon. The oddest effect is called slimming, which distorts the picture slightly to take a few pounds off self-conscious subjects. On the camera's big 3-inch LCD, the results are fun to look at. The R927 will arrive in the spring, and will cost $399. --Eric Butterfield

Really Low-Light Photography: Planet82's SMPD sensor chip could make digital cameras more sensitive to light than the naked eye. In very low light, the chip produced an image of objects that I could barely see; a camera with a CCD chip was unable to capture an image. The image was black and white, though company representatives say color support is on the way soon. If this chip proves capable of delivering high enough resolution and low noise, you may never use your flash again. --Eric Butterfield

Two Times Two: You have to hand it to NVidia in upping the ante on its SLI dual graphics card technology. Its new Quad SLI solution, as seen in Dell's snazzy XPS 600 Renegade PC, uses two 1GB graphics boards, each with two graphics processors. Cheekily, each card actually consists of two circuit boards that are connected with a video bridge and some screws. Quad SLI should become available more widely this spring and will allow gamers to play supported titles with smooth frame rates at high definition resolutions up to 2560 by 1600. --Danny Allen

Cutting the Cord: ViewSonic's super compact VJ106D projector may not see the light of day until later this year, but its size, battery operation, and widescreen aspect ratio support size drew quite a bit of attention during CES. No wall shall go unprojected, no matter where you are! --Danny Allen

Why Bother With Wireless?: Marantz' ZR6001SP is a great take on a networking idea that's been around awhile: using a home's existing wiring to distribute music around the house. The system consists of two parts: the ZR6001 Audio/Video receiver, and the ZC4001 Client, a self-powered all-in-one box that includes two stereo speakers. Great idea, and no flaky wireless streaming issues to deal with. The system will be out in the spring and cost about $1300. --Ramon G. McLeod

Paperback Ridder?:Sony's Reader, while pricey, certainly represents a quantum leap in electronic book design. I especially like it for its enlargeable fonts (a boon for my mom) and for getting rid of glare (a boon for me, when I read in bed and my husband's asleep). But I'm not sure I'm as excited about the iTunes-esque distribution model. Will Sony Connect really carry all my favorite trashy romances and whodunnits? --Yardena Arar

But Seriously, Can It Do Cartwheels?: M-Audio, recently acquired by AVID, packs two studio condenser microphones, a two-channel mic preamp, all cables, and podcasting software into a box and calls it Podcast Factory Deluxe. The software can also record voice over IP (VoIP) phone interviews and do cartwheels (kidding on that last part). It costs $300 and will be available in February. --Narasu Rebbapragada

Why Do It Yourself When Someone Else Will Do It For You?: The "Do it For Me" award goes to RipDigital's conversion service. Send them 50 CDs and for about a buck each, they'll convert them into MP3s burned onto a DVD. --Steve Bass

It's a Monitor! It's a Tablet!: The Samsung SyncMaster 720TD tablet monitor comes with a pen-size stylus in a separate stand. To activate tablet mode, you press buttons on the stylus and the bezel. Then you can draw right on the screen. --Laura Blackwell

Wipeout: I'm tired of seeing inkjet printable media smudge. Imation's announcement of its forthcoming waterproof inkjet printable media is a welcome one. --Melissa J. Perenson

Stable, but Flexible: Ergotron's LX-Dual monitor stand can securely hold any two monitors that have the VESA FPMI mounting interface. It saves desktop space and feels sturdy. The fingertip-sensitive height adjustment responds readily--but once the adjustment is set, it stays put. --Laura Blackwell

RAID For All: Maxtor's OneTouch III Turbo Edition backup drive lets users configure the two drives inside the uber-designed case as RAID 0 or RAID 1. The software helps users understand the tradeoff between RAID 0 (fast data transfer with no data redundancy) and RAID 1 (slower data transfer but data redundancy). The 600GB model costs $550 and the 1-terabyte model costs $900 and should be available soon. --Narasu Rebbapragada

Calculator Nostalgia: HP announced a slew of new computers, cameras, and other products--but it also celebrated the 25th anniversary of its 12-C calculator, a popular old-timer which, amazingly, is still on the market. How many electronics products of any kind from 1981 are still ringing up sales? --Harry McCracken

You Can Never Be Too Small:Camerbright's little light attaches to your cell phone so you can take pictures in the dark. --Steve Bass

Two, Two, Two Screens in One: Of all the technology demos at the show, the one that most impressed me was Sharp's two-way LCD. A screen that shows one image when viewed from one direction and another when viewed from the opposite side seems like a great way to save on digital signage. --Yardena Arar

Video Scrapbooks Made Easy: Now you can share your videos like you do your photos. The Snapfish Home Movie Service lets you upload videos like you do photos at snapfish.com. You put an unlimited number of videos alongside your photos in the same album for $2.99 a month. No software downloads or plug-ins are required. --Eric Butterfield

The Skype's the Limit: It's fascinating to track all the ways that VoIP is pushing further into everyday use. One of those ways is through the host of USB phones showcased at CES that hook into Skype. British company VoIPVoice just announced a $60 Cyberphone-W phone, coming soon, with a better speaker and microphone than normal analog phones to preserve the wideband sound that Skype uses. --Erik Larkin

Where, Oh Where Have the Consumer Electronics Gone?: Sure, over at the Sands Expo, you could still find some of the offbeat electronic consumer gadgets that typically debuted at CES. But this year's show felt as if those products made way for something else . . . --Melissa J. Perenson

The Year of Convergence: Comdex may be in (seemingly permanent) hiatus, which explains why this is the year traditional PC-oriented vendors flocked to Vegas. Whether you were looking at the gargantuan Microsoft or Intel booths, or the array of vendors in the South Hall of the convention center . . . or even checking out the displays at traditional CE companies, you couldn't help but note the overlap. --Melissa J. Perenson

The Year of Skype: At last year's CES, iPod accessories were ubiquitous. This year, the breakout accessory category is Skype (and, by extension, VoIP). Skype-specific handsets, adapters, software, and other gadgetry were in abundance at the show. --Melissa J. Perenson

Google Does Vegas: For several years, the world of personal technology has been blurry enough that CES might more accurately be called The Consumer Electronics and PC Show. This year, it was really The Consumer Electronics, PC, and Web Show--and the company with the most buzz on the show floor seemed to be Google, which announced a video store and a free software bundle called the Google Pack. (I skipped the Google keynote at which these were announced, alas--several people told me that Robin Williams' appearance there was a highlight of the whole week.) --Harry McCracken

HD Everywhere: From Blu-Ray and HD-DVD-related hardware to a bevy of HDTVs from manufacturers large and small to HD radio, there was plenty of evidence that 2006 may be the year a significant percentage of the world's entertainment goes high-definition. --Harry McCracken

Wider is Better: A gaggle of manufacturers showed off an array of new notebooks at the show--and it was hard to find a single model that didn't feature a wide screen. --Harry McCracken

Sneak Peek: Toshiba's gigantic booth had an intriguing section with demos of new technologies that may not reach the market for years, including notebooks running off of fuel-cell technology and a Tablet PC with a detachable, wireless screen. The latter product--vaguely reminiscent of Microsoft's failed Smart Displays, but more elegant--lets you leave the computer in place while you wander around your office or home with the pen-enabled screen. --Harry McCracken

Bragging Rights: Welcome to the ongoing battle of the big screens. Samsung's booth showed the world's first 102-inch plasma TV. LG Electronics called its 102-inch plasma screen, also on display at CES, the world's largest. A few more booths over, Panasonic claimed the same title with its 103-incher. The flat-panels are all gorgeous, and they all drew the crowds. But when you think of all the money and research that goes into these one-off products, you can't help wondering: Wouldn't these vendors get even bigger crowds if they'd put their resources into something we could really use, like price reductions on the plasmas that are for sale? --Laura Blackwell

Faster, Faster, Faster--Yeah, Right: Seems like the latest games of specs up-manship in the display industry aren't about size or contrast ratio, but LCD response time. Sharp and Viewsonic were touting screens with 4-millisecond response times, and BenQ was even promoting its 2-ms LCDs. Give it a rest, guys--we all know there are many ways to measure response time to make your products look faster on paper. Read my colleague Laura Blackwell's report on this numbers game and let's get real about this spec. --Yardena Arar

Whither the Recorders?: After the dust settled from the swirl of Blu-ray announcements, a disturbing trend emerged: All of the products announced so far for the living room are players, not recorders--as the Blu-ray Disc Association originally posited. --Melissa J. Perenson

But What Kind of Gas Mileage Does It Get?: I just hate, and I mean hate, the pimped-out cars you find in the Convention Center's North Hall. Bleh. But, the waterfall car truly takes the cake for bizarre obnoxiousness. Not only was the Toyota Celica loaded with the usual trunk-mounted subs and speakers, but it also had a waterfall cascading from the open trunk lid to a catch basin in the bumper. Give me a break, please! --Ramon G. McLeod

Goofiest Product I Don't Want to Try: If you're exercising and watching TV, don't even think of slacking off. You do and the $100 EnterTrainer lowers your TV's volume and even shuts it off after a minute. But when a single annoyed nudge of the foot can point it away from the TV and completely shut this trainer up, will it be real incentive for inveterate couch potatoes?The video says it all... --Steve Bass and Erik Larkin

The Crap Master: The Universal Laser Systems VersaLaser might be a pick for some trade shows, but not this one. This $7695 (and up!) behemoth stands some 3 feet high and laser-etches images that you scan onto wood, marble, cloth, paper, and virtually any other material, according to the company. The next time you go to Hawaii and see surfboards and hula girls embedded in tchochkes, you'll know how they got there. --Narasu Rebbapragada

Really Useless Product Award: Nite Ize's Illuminated Flying Disc takes the prize. Imagine a Frisbee with LEDs that costs $20. Now if it only came with a built-in MP3 player... --Steve Bass

We're at the Wrong Show Award:Wind Spinners have nothing to do with electronics, but they're sure eye-catching. Who knows, maybe next year they'll have an MP3 version. Not sure what a Wind Spinner is? Watch a video of them in action. --Steve Bass

NDAs 'til PMA: We saw quite a few new and upcoming digital cameras and printers at CES 2006, but unfortunately aren't able to let you know about all of them. Many products were shown under nondisclosure agreements until they're officially unveiled in late February at the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) tradeshow. Tune in then! --Danny Allen