CES 2008 Picks and Pans

We spent the whole year waiting for the world's greatest gadgetfest, and in the blink of an eye, it's already over. Though a lot of shiny toys were on display, one category stood out: There were more new HDTVs than people in Las Vegas this week. (And our favorite was only a concept model! Doh!) But we liked some other stuff, too, including high-fashion notebooks, cell phones that silence with a wave of your hand, and even a set of diving goggles with their own built-in camera. Here's more of what the PCW CES team loved and hated at this year's show.

Notebook en Fabrique: Even with bulky and hardened "ruggedized" laptops, you need to be careful. But I'm hoping Fujitsu's concept Fabric PC becomes a reality sometime soon. Fujitsu says the fabric-notebook concept uses a form of e-paper for the display, allowing designers to give the portable a soft, pliable outer shell. So not only does its fabric design makes it ultralight and rugged, but it can also double as a pillow. --Tom Spring

KURO Is the New Black: Pioneer unveiled a prototype of its newest infinite-contrast-ratio technology, which allows the company to produce some very impressive blacks on an HDTV. In a dark room, the image seemed to float in space as the black bezel on the TV merged seamlessly with the image on the screen. Unfortunately, we won't see this technology until at least 2009. I have a feeling it will be worth the wait. --Greg Adler

Talk to the Hand: Gesture control, which the Nintendo Wii has made famous, is undoubtedly going to become an important part of consumer electronics in the next few years. I especially liked JVC's prototype "snap and gesture" system for controlling a television, in which your hand is literally the remote control. This technology has a way to go, but the advantages are obvious--so long as you aren't forced to reprogram your hand. --Ramon G. McLeod

Forget the Clapper: Sony Ericsson's Z555 cell phone not only looks sharp, but it also has a motion sensor that will mute the handset when you make a gesture. A phone you can shut up that easily is definitely a keeper. --Yardena Arar

Super Spurs:Toshiba's booth featured demos of an upcoming Qosmio entertainment laptop featuring the SpursEngine, a media processor that's a simplified cousin of the potent Cell processor inside the Sony PlayStation 3. The chip lets the Qosmio perform such tricks as upscaling standard-definition video into pseudo high-def; creating animated avatars with real people's faces mapped onto them in real time; and allowing users to control a movie player by gesturing with their hand. --Harry McCracken

A New Way to Display: Curved displays from Alienware and NEC, flexible displays from LG-Philips, and a multitouch display also from LG-Philips are examples of interesting directions for monitors. It's about time. --Melissa J. Perenson

But What If It Rains? The Iqua Sun (BHS-603) claims to be the first solar-powered Bluetooth headset, capable of supporting up to 12 hours of talk time and retailing for $100. --Yardena Arar

Is It Live...?Sony's demo of the PlayStation 3 serving as a BD-Live, Internet-connected player was a welcome sight for two reasons. One, we got to see BD-Live in action--finally. Two, the demo ran on a PS3 with a modified, future firmware, which means PS3s everywhere will someday turn into BD-Live players. --Melissa J. Perenson

Solar-Powered Briefcase: My New Year's resolution is to ditch the grid. Well, as much as possible, anyway. Voltaic Systems' Generator laptop bag, which plugs into your laptop, has a solar panel built into its side. The panel connects to a battery pack, which charges up your laptop. It's about as heavy as a briefcase and about as expensive too ($599), but it's cool and gives you a reason to sit in the sunshine at lunch. --Narasu Rebbapragada

Fake Guitar Without the Fake Guitar: The upcoming Guitar Hero Air Guitar Rocker is a belt-buckle accessory that plays notes out loud as you strum and move your hand past the buckle's sensors. It comes with a small speaker that clips on your belt, but during the demo it was hooked up to a full-on amp. Finally, Guitar Hero players have an "instrument" they can feel superior to, just like guitarists who say playing Guitar Hero is nothing like the real deal. --Tim Moynihan

See Ya, SED: Among the highest-profile demos at CES 2006 and 2007 were those of prototype TVs that use SED, a technology from Canon and Toshiba that permits sharp images with pleasingly rich colors. I thought that CES 2008 might bring us SED TVs you could actually buy. Instead, the technology was a no-show as far as I could tell. --Harry McCracken

Look, Ma! No Hands!

Do-It-Yourself Bluetooth: Scosche's plug-into-your-car-lighter Bluetooth product is a clever approach to a problem a lot of folks are going to have very soon: In many states, it's becoming illegal to hold your cell phone for calls. I just hate wearing Bluetooth headsets for hands-free driving--they make me feel tethered to the darn phone. With this product, calls play through your car speakers, and a built-in microphone will pick up your responses. Very neat. --Ramon G. McLeod

Hands-Free Music, E-Mail, and Smileys: I went to a demo of Microsoft's Sync as a skeptic, and came away a believer. I want my next car to play Dark Side of the Moon when I tell it to--and read the smiley faces on my e-mail (even if it does sound pretty weird in a computer-generated voice). --Yardena Arar

Drive, He Said: At this point most people are used to being told what to do by their in-car GPS navigation systems. But with Garmin's Nuvi 880 GPS, you get to do the talking. Built-in voice recognition lets you, umm, navigate the Nuvi 880's screen selections without lifting your fingers from the wheel. Simply say "find nearest Starbucks," and it will direct you to the quickest caffeine fix. Due out in the second quarter, the Nuvi 880 will retail for $1000--more than most GPS systems. But at least it will give you something to talk about. --Dan Tynan

Armed and Dangerous:Samsung's 2263DX monitor is a slick-looking 22-inch LCD with a second 7-inch display attached to an articulating arm on the back of the monitor, which you can place above or to either side of the big screen. Why? Dunno. Maybe so you can use the big screen to get your computing done, and the little screen for...writing really short e-mail? Watching YouTube? Pretending you own a UMPC? It's a goofy idea, and if it catches on, I'll eat my video card. --Dan Tynan

Cell Phone Juicer: Even when I walk outside my house, I can't get a good cell phone signal, and that's been the case with different providers. So I'm interested in the $170 ZBoost zPersonal, which supposedly makes the problem go away by repeating and boosting the signal. The gizmo is about the size of a cable modem. You'll need to put it near a window and plug it into a power source. If you stay within 4 feet of the device, your cell phone's signal will get a kick in the pants. --Steve Bass

Clever Surge Protection: First there were Monster's portable power strips. This year, Targus introduced a portable, four-outlet surge protector. Finally, a way to handle the problem of having only one power outlet in your hotel room. --Melissa J. Perenson

Shaken, Not Stirred: Samsung UbiSync isn't a product, but a technology that lets you attach up to six screens to a single PC and control them all with a single keyboard and mouse. Impressive? Yes. Practical? Only if you're planning to become a Bond supervillain. But who isn't? --Dan Tynan

Snorkel and Shoot: Forget about waterproof digital cameras. The Underwater Digital Camera Mask lets you snorkel at up to 30 meters and grab 5-megapixel images at the same time. The mask, powered by two AAA batteries, has a lens right above the tempered-glass eyepieces (they double as a viewfinder embedded with crosshairs). --Steve Bass

Home Theater in a Laptop: Acer showed me the next generation of its mammoth, semitransportable notebook. This one is particularly focused on entertainment and features a 5.1 speaker system built right into the case. I didn't hear 'em, so I don't know if they transcend the tinny quality of most laptop sound systems--but that's still a lotta speakers. --Harry McCracken

Out of Our Pods:iPod listening has always been a decidedly nonsocial thing. Razor's new Jook connects to your iPod or Zune and broadcasts your iPod jams to other Jook users nearby, or vice versa. Jook might make the iPod era a little more sociable. --Mark Sullivan

The Anti-Clock-Radio Speaker: When it has a name like The ButtKicker, you know a sound system came to play. Guitammer's vibrating subwoofer installs under your couch or easy chair and turns it into a bass-fueled rumble seat. The company had some comfy chairs set up with ButtKickers installed under them, and I got to watch a few minutes of Transformers while feeling like I was sitting on the San Andreas Fault. Just be forewarned: You may feel an urge to sprint to the nearest restroom after a particularly big rumble, and the ButtKicker probably won't lend much excitement to romantic comedies. --Tim Moynihan

Just Shoot Me: TN Gaming's 3rd Space gaming vest and helmet use little compressed air chambers to give you a tactile jolt in the chest, stomach, back, or head when you are shot or punched in a video game. It's an interesting concept, but to me the feeling seemed disconnected from the action of the game. Distracting, even. --Mark Sullivan

Video Specs: My personal award for "most hyped product" probably goes to MyVu, a pair of glasses that connects to your iPod and lets you watch a virtual video screen floating in front of your eyes. I tried it at the demo station located right outside the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall, and was intrigued even though I had to jam it on over my own eyeglasses. --Harry McCracken

Not So Spectacular: The idea of wearable video monitors has been little more than a novelty for a long time, and judging by MyVu's uncomfortable and too-small Crystal 701 3D glasses, the idea still isn't ready for prime time. Maybe next year. --Mark Sullivan

I'll Never Be in Pictures: I'm impressed by the technology Motorola packs into its upcoming Z10 camcorder phone, which not only captures 30-frames-per-second video but also gives you tools to edit the footage into a mini-movie. But I'm not sure I want to spend that much time on my handset--or fritter away the battery life to become the next Steven Soderbergh. --Yardena Arar

Podcast With Your iPod: Belkin's Podcast Studio ($100, available in June) is a sleeve for your iPod with internal microphones, inputs for external microphones, and lots of controls for tweaking the sound you're recording. If you want to podcast on the go, this looks like a convenient and inexpensive way to do so. --Edward N. Albro

A Cold Idea: LG Appliances combined a refrigerator with a PC five years ago, and it was a bomb. So why in the world is Whirlpool trying to follow a similar path? Hanging a laptop off the front of an icebox won't work. The company might have better luck with people using its new Centralpark system to hang a digital photo frame on the fridge, but the laptop part of the concept is just silly. --Ramon G. McLeod

Products for Paranoid Parents: Zoombak pitched its GPS and cellular-based car locator ($300 plus $10 a month for the first six months and $15 a month thereafter) as a way for parents to make sure teens aren't driving where they shouldn't be. And eAgency's Radar cell phone technology (available at mymobilewatchdog.com) forwards a copy of every text message and photo sent or received, as well as voice-call logs. Are kids really that untrustworthy nowadays? --Yardena Arar

GeoPics From Your GPS: The Mio C720t ($599, available now) is a full-featured GPS navigation system that also includes a digital camera. Take a picture, and it tags the image with the exact geographic coordinates. If you upload the shots to a service such as Picasa, you can then show exactly where you took the shot on Google Earth. You can see the C720t in action in our video. I'm not certain how often I'd pop my navigation system out to take pics, but it's a neat idea. --Edward N. Albro

Everybody's Doing It

Fly the HD Skies: The "wirelessly streaming HDTV demo" has become a CES cliché, along with cheesy booth infotainers and glitches in Bill Gates's keynotes. But Belkin's FlyWire might actually fly. Plug your Blu-ray player, cable or satellite feed, or other HD video source into the FlyWire box, and it will stream 1.5 gigabits per second of uncompressed 1080p video up to 50 feet away. How does it work? The secret sauce is in how the box prioritizes bits, says Yoav Nissan-Cohen, CEO of Amimon, whose technology Belkin has licensed. We'll have to wait until late summer to see just how well the $599 FlyWire pulls this off. --Dan Tynan

TV in the Air: We saw lots of wireless video streaming going on at CES this year. Netgear gets it right with its new HD/Gaming 5 GHz Wireless-N Networking Kit, which brings video from the PC to the TV with no jitter or pixelation. --Mark Sullivan

Flash Me: The best innovation, one that may finally cause consumers to take notice of camcorders, is the move toward flash memory, both built in and taking the form of SD Card media. Most of the major companies are getting involved, and that portends much smaller and lighter camcorders. Expect models based on hard drives and other media to fade over the next couple of years. Flash is the future. --Ramon G. McLeod

Too Much Wireless High-Def Cable Replacement Tech: Everybody and their brother wants to replace the slew of cables required to hook up an HDTV to the various video sources in your home entertainment center (set-top boxes, media players, game consoles, and so on). But with all the various ultra-wideband contenders--which include the WiMedia Alliance's Certified Wireless USB standard, Pulse-Link's CWave, Amimon's WHDI (used in Belkin's FlyWire), and SiMedia's WirelessHD--what's a poor consumer to do? Help! --Yardena Arar 

Little Red Laptop: Lenovo's U110 has an 11-inch screen, weighs about 2 pounds, and sports a stylish, decorative design that doesn't look as if a PC company was merely trying to slap some bling on a business PC. You can choose a 64GB solid-state drive or a 120GB hard drive. The one deal breaker for some people is that it doesn't come with an optical drive; you'll have to buy an external USB option. The U110 comes out in March, but pricing has not yet been set. --Narasu Rebbapragada

A Cintiq for the Rest of Us: Graphics tablet king Wacom showed its new Cintiq 12WX, a pen tablet with a built-in display that gives artists pen-and-paper-like functionality. And the new model isn't just half the price of previous Cintiqs--it's also far sleeker and lighter. --Harry McCracken

The Skinny on HDTVs:Hitachi unveiled its new line of plasma HDTVs that are only 1.5 inches thick. Being a lover of sexy-looking technology, I had to wipe the drool off the side of my mouth. The best part: These aren't prototypes, and you'll see them on the shelves in the spring. I already have my name on a preorder. --Greg Adler

Golden Gigs: A glass case at the LaCie booth held the Golden Disk, an external hard drive housed in a shiny metallic enclosure that looks like a million bucks. The product goes for a reasonable $189, so I'm guessing that's not real gold. --Harry McCracken

Fashion Don't: A lot of things look good in gold. Hard-disk storage isn't one of them. While I'm sure that LaCie's USB 2.0 Golden Disk ($189 for 500GB and $500 for 1TB) works fine, paying an extra $50 over the average price of a 500GB drive--and up to $300 over the price of a 1TB drive--to see my reflection in a backup device isn't my idea of money well spent. --Narasu Rebbapragada

Holey Phone Cases! One manufacturer of cell-phone accessories showed Crocs phone cases, inspired by the inexplicably trendy shoes. The cases are just as ugly, plasticky, and rife with little holes as the footwear is. But someone liked them.--Harry McCracken

Gave Us That Warm Fuzzy Feeling

Free HDTV Calibration: All of Sharp's new Aquos HDTVs that are 42 inches or larger will come with free calibration. The best part is, you don't need to wait at home all day for a TV guru to show up at your house: The sets each have an ethernet port that Sharp's customer service can use to calibrate your TV via the Internet. A tip of the hat to Sharp for making our lives easier. --Greg Adler

Intel Hearts AMD:Intel representatives showed me the company's first motherboards that support CrossFire, the two-graphics-card setup devised by AMD's ATI group, and explained that they worked closely with AMD engineers to implement the feature. Okay, so the two companies may still be fierce archrivals, but it's nice to see they cooperated to enable something that a lot of gamers might want in their next PC. --Harry McCracken

Blu-ray Surges Ahead: The Blu-ray Disc format has been on a roll all week long, starting with Warner Brothers' preshow announcement that it would back Blu-ray exclusively and ending with word that Universal is doing the same. The buzz around Blu-ray stayed strong in between, with big excitement surrounding Sony's demo of copying a movie from a Blu-ray Disc to a PlayStation Portable. --Melissa J. Perenson

CES Goes Green... This year, event organizers announced that CES was "going green" by reducing the show's carbon footprint, and they promised to promote energy-efficient practices. To offset the event's 20,000-ton carbon footprint, the Consumer Electronics Association said it would make donations to tree-planting organizations and other eco-friendly causes. --Tom Spring

...Or Does It? Kudos for the green practices, but I'm skeptical. The largest U.S. trade show aims to offset carbon by investing in environmental projects through Carbonfund.org. That's 20,000 tons, people! Exactly what projects will measurably do that on an annual basis? Let's be honest: CES is meant to be a huge, ostentatious light show. It's Vegas! Why make the empty claim? I'd like to see the CEA make a more serious effort to cut down on the excessive amount of paper and nonrecyclable swag at the event, and encourage members to lengthen product life cycles and employ reusable materials so we don't have to recycle as much. That would be more meaningful. --Narasu Rebbapragada

See PC World's ongoing coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show at our CES InfoCenter.