New netbooks, tablet computers, and eBook reader devices, as well as fresh developments in television and even a wireless tether to keep cell phones from getting lost, are among the technologies being unveiled this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas–technologies that might hold interest for schools and colleges as well.
Small and inexpensive netbooks have been among the most popular computers during the recession, wooing schools and consumers alike with their portability and prices that were often below $400. Now, with the economy improving, computer buyers will be asked to open their wallets to new styles of computers, including some costing a bit more.
Among the new offerings introduced at CES: lightweight, medium-sized laptops meant as a step above netbooks in price and performance, as well as a new category of device called the “smartbook,” a tiny computer that combines elements of netbooks and so-called smart phones.
That isn’t to say the netbook has reached the end of its line. PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Toshiba are demonstrating new netbook offerings with such features as touch screens and the latest Intel Atom processors, which offer improved performance over the earlier Atoms that fueled the initial run of netbooks.
But the netbook’s popularity has come at a price for the industry: slim profit margins for chipmaker Intel Corp. and the PC manufacturers.
For many PC makers, the rise of netbooks has meant falling revenue and profit from PC divisions. HP, the world’s largest computer maker, gets a third of its revenue from its PC business but just 15 percent of the company’s operating profit, numbers that are shrinking thanks to netbook sales and price cuts on other machines.
Ever since Taiwan-based AsusTek Computer Inc. got the netbook craze going with its 7-inch Eee PC in late 2007, schools and consumers have been gravitating to the devices. According to data from research company Gartner Inc., netbooks made up an estimated 10 percent of all PC shipments in 2009, up from 4 percent a year earlier.
These devices had small screens–generally 7 to 11 inches, compared with about 14 to 17 inches on a full-sized laptop–and often smaller-than-normal keyboards. PC makers kept prices down by avoiding extras such as DVD drives and Bluetooth wireless connectivity.
Netbooks were meant to be companion devices that could slip into a purse or backpack for on-the-go web surfing, though for many schools and consumers, netbooks were the only computer they bought in 2009.
Now, computer buyers can expect to see a number of devices that fit above and below the small laptops in price, size, and performance, as PC companies try to widen the market.
Lenovo Group Ltd. is banking on so-called “smartbooks,” which are meant to combine the constant internet connectivity and long battery life of a smart phone with a laptop’s classic shape.
The company announced its first smartbook, the Skylight, on Jan. 5. The skinny Skylight has a 10-inch screen, full-size keyboard, and 10 hours of battery life and weighs less than 2 pounds. It includes Wi-Fi connectivity, and users can use it over AT&T Inc.’s high-speed data network if they sign up for a data plan. If they do, the Skylight will be able to switch automatically between the two network types.
But under the hood, it’s less powerful than a netbook because it uses a weaker class of processors.
The Skylight is slated to be available in April at $499, though AT&T might subsidize the cost for users who also sign up for a data plan.
Computer makers also are coming out with devices that are thin and light like netbooks, but have more powerful processors and screens that are a bit larger, at 11 inches to 13 inches. The price tags are be a bit heftier, at $400 to $600.
Philip Osako, a director of product marketing for Japanese electronics company Toshiba Corp., said those laptops should resonate with consumers who want an affordable gadget that can do more than surf the web and check eMail on the go. As it is, netbooks aren’t good at demanding tasks such as viewing high-quality video.
“It’s the natural step up from the netbook,” he said. “It’s also a sweet spot relative to where full-size traditional notebooks are.”
At the same time, PC makers are releasing a new generation of improved netbooks.
Lenovo, a fairly early player in the netbook market, is showing the latest entrants to that line at CES, one of which has a 10-inch touch screen that swivels around to become a tablet.
The new S10-3t model, like Apple Inc.’s iPhone, will understand multiple finger gestures, allowing you to pinch the screen to zoom in and out of photos, for instance. It will have Intel’s latest Atom processor, which should consume less power and depict graphics better than an earlier version.
The S10-3t is expected to be available in January for $500, while a similar model without a swiveling touch screen will cost $350.
Toshiba, meanwhile, is demonstrating the mini NB305. It keeps the 10.1-inch screen and full-sized keyboard available on the company’s current mini NB205 model but adds the new Atom processor and 11 hours of battery life, two more hours than before. The netbook is expected to be available Jan. 12 with prices that start at $350.
New eBook readers
For the first time, eBook readers have their own section of the CES exhibit hall floor, with 23 exhibitors hoping to follow Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle to the cusp of the mainstream.
Samsung, the leading maker of phones and TVs for the U.S. market, is launching eBook readers early this year, it announced at CES–joining a host of manufacturers who hope to capitalize on the shift away from paper books.
Samsung will be launching two models with 6-inch and 10-inch “electronic ink” screens, similar to the sizes of Amazon’s Kindle models. Users of the devices will be able to download public-domain books from Google Inc. via Wi-Fi, and the e-readers will come with styluses so users can write on the screen.
The models will cost $399 and $699, respectively, Samsung didn’t say who would provide for-pay eBooks for the devices.
Also, Sprint Nextel Corp. said it has made a multiyear deal with a startup called Skiff for a thin eBook reader that operates over Sprint’s high-speed 3G network, as well as over Wi-Fi.
The Skiff Reader will have an 11.5-inch screen, larger than those on competing devices such as the Kindle, Sony Corp.’s Reader, and Barnes & Noble Inc.’s Nook.
Sprint and Skiff tout the device as the thinnest to date, at just over a quarter of an inch thick. The e-reader’s entire page will be a touch screen, unlike the Kindle, which uses physical buttons for navigation, or the Nook, which has a small built-in touch screen separate from the book page.
The Skiff Reader will connect to its own online content store. Skiff said it’s also working with other electronics manufacturers to put its technology into a variety of devices. Pricing and availability had not been disclosed as of press time.
New tablet devices
Delivering Microsoft Corp.’s customary keynote on the eve of the show’s opening Jan. 6, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer demonstrated a new touch-screen, tablet-style computer from Hewlett-Packard Co., the first of several such devices expected to be unveiled this month.
The tablet–also known as a slate, a one-piece portable computer without a physical keyboard–was one of several new PCs Ballmer demonstrated. During his speech, Ballmer said the HP tablet will be available later this year. He also gave a glimpse of two similar devices from Archos and Pegatron Corp.
Tablet-style computers that run Windows have been available for a decade, but HP’s new machine is bound to draw extra attention thanks to expectations that Apple Inc. will launch a similar device later this month.
Apple, notoriously secretive about upcoming products, has not commented on the matter. But given the iPhone’s success, which propelled competitors to come out with copycat touch-screen phones and centralized “app” stores to sell add-on software, all eyes are on Apple to define what a slate or tablet-style computer should look like and how it will be used.
Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, announced that Natal, new technology that lets video game players control the action by moving their whole bodies instead of using a joystick, will go on sale for the Xbox console in time for the holiday shopping season in late 2010.
Bach said in an interview with the Associated Press that devices built for touch, gestures, and other so-called natural user interfaces will become much more mainstream in the next few years. While Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has for years said the same thing, Bach says computer science and hardware technology are now sophisticated enough to support Gates’ and other visionaries’ big ideas.
Microsoft also said it forged a new search distribution deal with HP that will make the company’s Bing search site and MSN.com content portal the default search engine and web home page on new HP computers sold in 42 countries.
The software maker has signed similar deals in the past, including one with HP in 2008 that made Live Search, Bing’s predecessor technology, the default on computers sold in the U.S. and Canada. People who buy such computers can still change their preferred search engine to something else.
Ballmer also announced a new version of Mediaroom, its technology that delivers TV over the internet on such services as AT&T Inc.’s U-verse system. The newest version of Mediaroom will let subscribers watch live and recorded TV and video-on-demand on Windows computers and phones and through Xbox 360 consoles, in addition to a set-top box. It will work over regular broadband, not just special fiber connections.
Other TV-related news
In other TV-related news from CES, the prospect of watching live, local TV shows on mobile phones and other portable devices is getting closer, as manufacturers showed off gadgets that can receive a new type of digital TV transmissions.
”Mobile DTV” gadgets will be available this spring for consumers in the Washington, D.C., area to try. The devices include a cell phone made by Samsung and a Dell Inc. laptop. There’s also the Tivit, a device about the size of a deck of cards that receives a TV signal, then rebroadcasts it over Wi-Fi so it can be received by an iPhone or BlackBerry.
Conventional digital TV broadcasts are designed for stationary antennas. So devices that are moving–because someone’s carrying them, or because they’re in a car–have a hard time getting a picture. The Mobile DTV technology gets around that problem, letting broadcasters add a secondary signal to the towers they use for sending TV signals to homes. About 30 stations have done so in the last year, hoping to reach viewers on the go as gadgets such as smart phones gain in prominence.
So far, only prototype devices have been able to receive these new signals. Cell phones, particularly ones with large screens, would be natural devices for Mobile DTV reception, but U.S. carriers have shown little interest in the technology. The two largest ones, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless, sell phones that are compatible with a rival broadcasting system, FLO TV, run by Qualcomm Inc. It provides 10 channels for $15 per month.
Mobile DTV differs from FLO TV by providing local channels with traffic, weather, and sports content, and by being free, at least for some channels. One of the goals of the consumer trial is to figure out how willing consumers will be to pay, according to the Open Mobile Video Coalition, an industry group that represents both broadcasters and equipment makers.
The new Samsung phone is a version of the already available Moment, with an added telescoping antenna for TV reception. It has a screen made of organic light-emitting diodes, providing eye-popping color saturation. Samsung spokesman John Godfrey said about 300 of them will be in consumers’ hands in the D.C. area in the first few months of the year.
Phone service will be provided by Sprint Nextel Corp., which doesn’t have a deal with FLO TV. But the extent of Sprint’s support doesn’t yet go very far: It hasn’t said it will sell Mobile DTV phones.
The Tivit approaches the phone market differently: It’s a separate device that can beam a TV signal to most Wi-Fi-capable phones. It thus bypasses the cellular carriers. It was originally designed to provide TV viewing to the iPhone in Japan, where TV reception is considered a must for phones. Valups, the Korean company behind the device, said the Tivit will go on sale this spring for about $120.
LG Electronics Inc., which like Samsung has helped develop the Mobile DTV technology, has said it will introduce a portable DVD player that will also tune in Mobile DTV. It will be available later this year for $249, it said.
Dell will be supplying hundreds of small laptops for the trial in Washington, and the computer maker believes it will be able to sell Mobile DTV tuners as upgrades for its laptops, said spokesman James Clardy. Dell already sells laptops with the option of a built-in receiver for standard digital TV, for about $50.
This also is supposedly the year 3-D television becomes the hot new thing: Updated sets and disc players are coming out, and 3-D cable channels are in the works. But it’s not clear the idea will reach out and grab mainstream viewers.
Besides having to spring for expensive new TVs, users would have to put on special glasses to give the picture the illusion of depth. Unfazed by the potential hang-ups, however, the biggest TV makers began revealing their 3-D models Jan. 6 before the official opening of CES.
Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics’ consumer division, said in an interview with AP that 10 to 14 percent of the roughly 35 million TVs sold in the U.S. this year will be 3-D-capable.
Samsung is determined to make 3-D a big feature on its more expensive TVs this year. And Panasonic Corp. said it will debut four 3-D sets this spring, but they won’t be LCD sets, the most common type of flat panel. Instead, Panasonic is using plasma panels, saying the viewing quality will be superior to 3-D on LCDs.
Sony Corp. said its 3-D sets will be out this summer. Some will come with glasses, while others will be “3-D ready,” which means that buyers will have to complement with a separate plug-in device and glasses for 3-D viewing.
LG Electronics Inc. said it will introduce 47-inch and 55-inch flat-panel TVs with 3-D capabilities in May. LG didn’t announce exact prices for its new sets. But Tim Alessi, director of product development at LG Electronics USA, said 3-D TV sets will likely cost $200 to $300 more than comparable flat-panel sets without 3-D capabilities, which already run more than $1,000.
Manufacturers aren’t counting on 3-D to take over instantly. Color TV and high definition caught on over many years. Like those earlier advances, 3-D programming requires upgrades throughout the TV and movie infrastructure, from shooting to editing to distribution. But as the technology evolves, and as more 3-D content becomes available, 3-D TVs could become technologies that schools might consider, too.
New cell phone tether
Losing a cell phone can be exasperating and expensive, something that could easily challenge already tight school budgets–but what if your phone could call out to you, letting you know it was about to be left behind?
Zomm, a newly minted consumer electronics company from Tulsa, Okla., believes this would cut down on disappearing handsets. At CES, the company showed off a small device that does just that.
The company’s device, also called Zomm, connects wirelessly with your phone via Bluetooth and sets off an alarm if you walk away from it.
The Zomm, which is about the size of an Oreo cookie, also includes a personal alarm that users can activate and a button that will call emergency services with your phone. It acts as a speaker phone and alerts users of incoming calls as well.
The product includes a rechargeable battery that can last for three days per charge and is expected to be available this summer for $80.
Laurie Penix, co-founder and president of Zomm, came up with the idea for the gadget earlier this year after a friend’s husband lost his third iPhone. She started the company with her husband, Henry Penix, who is also its CEO.