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Subtlety Is Not in CES Vocabulary

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2004; 12:13 PM

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 9 -- The advice I'd give to any reporter making a first trip to the Consumer Electronics Show would be, "Bring the most comfortable shoes you own, no matter how ugly they look, and carry lots of $10 and $20 bills for cab fare."

The logistics of this show are just awful. The Las Vegas Convention Center's 3.2 million square feet of space have you marching in circles all day -- the location of the press room in a corridor atop the far-off South Hall doesn't help -- and at the end of the day the longest cab and bus lines in history await. Then you can count on running up and down the Strip and often beyond to various off-site events. (The city's new monorail system, scheduled to open in March, could not be more needed.)


The 2,000 lucky souls who managed to get a seat for Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates's keynote speech got to see him onstage with "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, at left. (Jeff Christensen - Reuters)

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Monday, 2 p.m. ET: Rob Pegoraro will be online to talk about his latest columns on Verizon Wireless's BroadbandAccess service and e-mail technology.
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Audio: Rob Pegoraro reports on CES from Las Vegas
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Rob Pegoraro From Macworld: The Post's personal technology columnist reports from the floor of the Macworld Expo in San Franscisco. (Jan. 6, 2004)
Leslie Walker From CES: The .com columnists discusses the digital entertainment gadgets on display at this year's expo. (Jan. 8, 2004)
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CES aggravation reaches a climax of sorts with Bill Gates's keynote speech. Just about every year, the Microsoft founder's address is held in the Las Vegas Hilton's theater, with under 2,000 seats -- to judge from the lines, about 10,000 too few for the occasion. But the speech is also not aired on any of the thousands of television sets scattered throughout the convention center. Nor is it Webcast.

Nor is any video recording of it available on Microsoft's site, just a text transcript. Fortunately, my colleague Leslie Walker did line up early enough to see the keynote; by the time I got over to the Hilton Theater after Sony's press conference, a burly security guy was standing outside the roped-off entrance telling a moderately frustrated crowd words to this effect: "You're not going to get in. Leave."

Most PR efforts at CES are much harder to miss. Korean manufacturer LG, for example, wrapped ads for its cell phones and televisions around 11 stories of a Marriott a few blocks from the convention center.

And inside the center, Pioneer hung two race cars from the ceiling, noses pointed towards a row of seats underneath in its sprawling booth.

But while the headlines at CES may consist of the high-profile deals and flashy new products promotions, the more important developments can be far less obvious: a dozen companies adding the same feature to their DVD players; a previously high-end item like hard-disk video recorders showing up in enough new boxes to indicate that it just might transform into a commodity product next year; the kinds of hardware the keenly cost-conscious Chinese manufacturers in the "international pavilion" think will sell.

My full assessment of CES comes in Sunday's paper, but in the meantime I can report on a few particularly interesting products. I'm not sure which side of that hype-vs.-reality line the following products will fall, but they all help to explain why CES can be such an intriguing show, in spite of all the annoyances.

* The "mine is bigger" arms race continued in the field of plasma TVs. First LG touted its 76-inch model, then Samsung unveiled an 80-incher, both of which made the plentiful 60-inch plasma sets around them look comparatively modest. Sets this size seem likely to create a secondary boom in interior-design services -- it might take folks a while to clear out enough space on any one wall.

* Sony's LocationFree tablet, with its 12-inch LCD, allows you to browse your store of photos, music and videos, view Web sites and check your e-mail throughout the house. It looks exactly like the Airboard tablet the company showed at CES a few years back, but now Sony says it will ship by the end of the year for an undisclosed price. Can Sony make this concept work when earlier attempts -- for example, Microsoft's ill-fated "Smart Displays," now on hold -- have panned out so badly?

* LocationFree's most unexpected competition may not be the "Portable Media Center" handhelds that various Microsoft licensees are showing off (these tiny gadgets, with 3 or 4-inch LCDs, simply let you take the media libraries of a Media Center PC with you). No, the real competition is likely to come from OQO's "ultra personal computer." This paperback-sized device appears to consist largely of an LCD, but hides a slide-out keyboard and a tiny, low-power processor built by Transmeta Corp. What can you do with it? Whatever you want, since it is, in fact, a regular computer running a standard edition of Windows XP, just in a very small package. It's also due in the fall at an undisclosed price.

* SnapStream's BeyondTV add-on for PCs, which records television broadcasts to the computer's hard drive, can stream these recordings over the Internet -- to anybody with your Internet Protocol address. The limited amount of upstream bandwidth on any home Internet connection underscore's SnapStream's contention that it's only offering a simple way for you to watch your recordings from outside the home, or to send a recording to a friend or family member. But will the Motion Picture Association of America buy its argument?

* Two different manufacturers are using Bluetooth wireless communications in a way I hadn't thought possible -- as a substitute for speaker cable. Samsung showed off a surround-sound system that uses a digital Bluetooth link to replace the wires normally needed to connect the rear-channel speakers. And Rio's upcoming Karma2 player will include a Bluetooth transmitter to send music to Bluetooth-equipped cars (don't laugh; this is available on such cars as the Toyota Prius and Acura TL, although it's usually presented as a way to use a cell phone hands-free).

* Philips's HeartStart portable defibrillator: I just might need this if I have to lug my laptop across that convention-center floor any more times ...

Watch for my column on Sunday for more on CES 2004.


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