A Mac user's look at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show

Every year Macintosh users make a pilgrimage to San Francisco's Moscone Center for the largest gathering of Mac products and programs anywhere, Macworld Expo. Covering both sides of the Moscone Center, the trade show offers a bountiful display of the Mac platform's possibilities, with hundreds of exhibitors displaying their wares.

Just a few hundred miles away against the backdrop of casinos and other Sin City attractions is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Held yearly at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, this show's schedule overlaps with Macworld Expo. CES has become the preeminent exhibition of electronic goodies. It is difficult to express exactly how large this show is, but suffice it to say that it has grown to fill the entirety of a convention center so massive that it could swallow Moscone and still have plenty of room for desert. This year, CES's organizers say that 129,000 attendees have come, or more than a third more than have attended Macworld Expos in record-setting years past.

Generally the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is a heavily PC event, but the Macintosh's status as a "digital hub" has made this an increasingly Mac-friendly show. While most peripherals are still driven by Window-only software, the wide range of cameras, camcorders and other similar devices work just fine -- and most would argue better -- on the Macintosh platform.

While it's impossible to see everything at CES, we set out to get a glimpse of the recent "up and coming" products, stopping at the booths that were particularly compelling to Mac users. Here is a glimpse of some of the trends and technologies on display at the expo.

The MP3 Revolution That Wasn't

Consumer electronics is for a large part a "monkey see, monkey do" sort of business. One would expect that the portable MP3 player would have followed in the footsteps of the venerable Walkman, the cell phone, and now the HDTV set with every vendor churning out uncompelling products just to fill the consumer need. Strangely though the halls were largely devoid of the stream of MP3 players expected to come on the heels of the iPod. While RCA, Creative and a few companies displayed new products there was a tangible lack of new personal audio devices.

Apple grabbed headlines, however, when it and computer giant HP announced plans to produce an HP-branded iPod device. HP will also install Apple's iTunes software -- and therefore provide direct access to iTunes Music Store -- on its desktop and laptop PCs. It's a major win for Apple, which is now going toe-to-toe with other PC-centric online music services and large-capacity MP3 players from a variety of manufacturers.

Creative had originally priced its new 2GB MP3/AAC player at US$299, but decided at CES to reduce the price to $199. It's an interesting alternative to Apple's own iPod mini, introduced to Macworld Expo showgoers last week and expected to hit store shelves in the coming month. The iPod mini carries twice the capacity for only $50 more than Creative's new offering, but has already been criticized for having too limited a capacity for the $50 price difference from Apple's 15GB "big" iPod.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Voice over IP, a technology that allows broadband users to place calls for next-to-nothing is starting to take off. Many companies already offer software that will work with the Mac, but an increasing number of vendors such as Vonage are taking a hardware based approach to the technology, offering handsets and cordless devices that either connect to a network or operate over WiFi.

The Tablet Is Dead, Long Live The Tablet

Tucked away on one side of one expo hall lay the Bluetooth and the Tablet PC pavilions. Designed to congregate vendors showcasing their technological innovations, these pavilions offer companies a way to display products alongside the competition. Strangely though, the Bluetooth pavilion had a greater number of products and a larger crowd gathered around.

The Tablet PC pavilion meanwhile had just a few scant offerings, and seemed to generate little buzz. This is in sharp contrast to previous CES expos where the Tablet PC and related products were the belle of the ball, the centerpiece of keynotes from both hardware manufacturers and Microsoft alike.

Steve Jobs has long said that the Tablet is a technology without a driving need, and it looks like he might be right.

More Products Than You Can Shake A Stick At

With thousands of vendors, CES is as much spectacle as it is tradeshow, a big display of how an entire industry is doing. There's a lot of great stuff out coming to market right now (and a lot of garbage) here's what caught our eye:

Lexar's new JumpDrive products flesh out the selection of USB based keychain sized storage devices offered by the company. These little dongles are great for transporting files from one device to another, eliminating the need to lug a laptop around between remote locations. The new 2GB Jump Drive, based on USB 2.0 ($999) seriously increases the amount of storage capacity in these units, and is an impressive bit of tech.

In the "Coming Soon To Mac" category is Lexar's new JumpDrive Traveller, which allows PC users to synch up files between their main computer and the jump drive, taking email settings and browser bookmarks with them. Plug the Traveller into a computer (be it laptop or Internet cafe) and settings are instantly copied to the machine, and then securely erased when the session is over. One erasure mode even writes over the data in seven passes for anonymous use.

Finally, the JumpDrive Secure provides encrypted file storage that works on both Macs and PCs (and allows documents to be used on both platforms). Also USB 2.0 the Jump Drive Secure is available in 128MB, 256MB and 512MB models.

Another product soon to come to the Mac is SecuriKey, another USB dongle designed to secure data, only this product takes a different approach. Once installed, it's impossible to access a computer unless the SecuriKey is present. Instead of logging out of a computer each time a user walks away, simply remove the key. When the key is reinserted in the USB port the user is able to log back in. Two keys come with the SecuriKey bundle, and in the event that both keys are lost, the company can recreate the keys with information provided during registration.

Speaking of keeping data safe. Norazza's Data Destroyer is a $49 device that looks just like a laminator, but takes CDs and DVDs and destroys the surface with a series of pin holes. A better solution for data destruction than shattering an optical disk, the device renders the content useless.

Based on declassified military technology, a new satellite based Internet service called Databahn promises to bring T1 speed connectivity anywhere in the country, and deploys thanks to GPS in under a minute. Designed for agencies who need to deploy remote operations centers at the drop of a hat, the $3,995 dish folds into a piece of transportable luggage, and provides 3Mb/sec downstream connectivity and 500K/sec upstream anywhere in the US with a clear view of the sky. Service is $79 a month, and includes 10 voice lines and DirectTV television signals as well.

For the Bluetooth phone user, Plantronics' new Bluetooth headset adds a new twist to noise canceling technology. Most systems designed to improve headset audio quality do so only on the user's microphone, but the new M3500 uses Digital Signal Processing to sharpen and improve the sound heard through the earpiece as well.

It's not clear yet how well it will catch on, but DVD Audio has finally arrived. Leveraging the audio features of the DVD video format, the new audio discs offer music with full 5.1 surround sound as well as high-res stereo. Most offer bonus selections.

Uber-Gamers will want to take a look at the GameDeck, a $5000-$6000 chair (depending on configuration) designed to be used both as a work station and as the most killer gaming platform around. Arms swivel into place moving controls into reach, and can be set up with racing, flying, or fragging peripherals. Foot pedals, speaker attachments, and a comfortable chair round out the high-quality aluminum drool-fest.

Taking the digital hub concept to the extreme, Epson showed off an uncharacteristically ambitious entertainment idea. Their new Livingstation LCD HDTV set (720p in 16:9) offers an ultra-crisp picture, sure, but so do lots of LCD sets. What the others don't have though is an integrated media reader, CD/RW burner, and color printer. View the snapshots on the high-resolution television (it's hard to express how much better this looks in HDTV than on a standard television), burn them to disc, and then give viewers prints to take home. The 47" model will retail for $3,499 while the 57" will cost $3,999.

If you'd rather take your entertainment with you, check out Skullcandy's new backpacks with integrated speakers/speakerphone. The new line is similar in idea to the company's Link system, which couples a cell phone and a portable audio player via a single controller with integrated microphone. The Link system offers units with connections for all the common phone manufacturers, and a stereo mini jack like that used on the iPod. Plug them both into the Link and chat with people while listening to your favorite tunes.

The new backpack extends this, combining both functions into the integrated speakers on the straps of the pack. A hydration system model is also coming, allowing the snowboarder, cyclist, or other adventure sports fans to take their music with them, and answer calls safely.

For the perversely paranoid, or anyone who works in a germ-infested location such as a doctor's office or with a group of programmers, Fellows has introduced a keyboard and mouse with anti-microbial coating. We didn't get close enough to check out the price, figuring the only people would stop to play with the keyboard would be contagious.

The most interesting digital photographic product on the floor had to be the Sony Cyber-shot F828 which -- while announced months ago -- took its first steps at CES. The 8 megapixel prosumer camera offers 3360x2460dpi output carries a price tag well below $1500, and offers a resulting image larger than that of many pro digital camera bodies.

Finally, one of the more useful Mac products at the show doesn't even plug in to anything. Cableclamp takes the profanity out of cable management. A reusable handcuff-like cable holder, the Cablecuff comes in three sizes and is found at a variety of home improvement centers. The medium and large size have a space for a label maker's sticker, and the large size has a ring to allow tethering directly to the cables they are meant to control. The company also provides customization for bulk orders.

This story, "A Mac user's look at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show" was originally published by PCWorld.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon