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Reporter's Notebook

First Impressions on CES 2005

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2005; 11:24 AM

LAS VEGAS -- I'm surrounded by anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 of the country's top minds in the computing and consumer-electronics industries, but I still couldn't find a decent WiFi connection in the convention center yesterday or Wednesday. I don't mean to whine, but, really, if we can put a man on the moon, can't we put one lousy reporter on the Internet for more than a few minutes?

At least this technological breakdown isn't directed at me alone. Bill Gates found himself in a similar boat at his keynote speech Wednesday night, when a some Microsoft-developed products failed to work on command. The climax was an Xbox game crashing in mid-demo, by far the largest blue screen of death I've ever witnessed. (Perhaps inspired by this, my previously reliable ThinkPad crumpled into its own blue screens of death twice Thursday, and has since been generally acting as if it's trying and failing to pass a gallstone.)

The Post's Rob Pegoraro sits in a new musical chair that rumbles and grumbles to the beat of music and video games. Pyramat plans to begin selling the chair in the next three months. (Leslie Walker - The Washington Post)

This is the eighth consecutive year that I've covered the immensely informative but exhausting Consumer Electronics Show. This feat should make me eligible for a commemorative T-shirt, therapy or both. The scale of the show is ludicrous; according to the map I was issued with my registration, the booth numbers run from 100 all the way to 71,999 (Not every intermediate number is used, but still...).

Traffic in the convention center resembles Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan on the weekend before Christmas -- to get anywhere in a hurry, you have to dodge oncoming attendees as if you were a wide receiver threading a line through to the end zone. Traffic outside is pretty lousy too, although Las Vegas's new monorail system has been a huge help, giving people a fast, clean, comfortable alternative. (Now if only they'd learn how to really stuff people on trains, the wait for one after the show yesterday might have been shorter.)

Overbooking and missed appointments are chronic. Wednesday night, I realized that my handheld organizer's week-at-a-glance view, which diagrams events as rectangular blocks of time, looked like a game of Tetris I was about to lose.

When I book these appointments, I try to make sure I touch base with all the usual suspects: Sony, Microsoft, Panasonic, RCA, Philips, Intel and so on. They always make plenty of news at the show, and their actions will have a huge effect on what we'll all see in stores in the coming months.

The two big topics this year seem to be digital television and high-definition DVDs, both of which I'll be covering in my column Sunday. To give you a quick advance on that, I'm seeing continued, impressive progress on lowering still-high digital-TV prices. But the future of high-def movie discs isn't much clearer than before -- even if reasonably priced consumer hardware does show up in 2005, the presence of two competing standards makes this year look like a good time to sit this whole market out.

I'm also seeing many competing proposals to connect the libraries of music, photos and videos on our computers with the stereos and TVs in our living room (including some surprising moves by Microsoft. Somebody will get this right, and that somebody will likely be making a lot of money for their trouble.

As I engage in this intelligence gathering, I've been doing my own follow-up testing on some of the wireless and portable gadgets I've used and reviewed. Some results:

* When it comes to entering lots of text, a Treo 650's miniaturized keyboard is far more effective than a Tungsten E's Graffiti 2 handwriting-recognition software.

* Because WiFi has been so thoroughly and inexplicably unreliable here, I have been really wishing my laptop had Bluetooth wireless to allow me to use that Treo 650 as an external modem over cell phone network. (Well, assuming Sprint had actually enabled that particular function on the Treo, which it hasn't yet. This is probably the first time I've pined for Bluetooth in this way.

* While I'm at it, a Verizon Wireless EV-DO broadband-data card would have come in handy as well. (Then again, look at the conditions my colleagues in Iraq labor under. So I'll just shut up already about this.)

* One of the most underrated features on IBM ThinkPads has to be the little LED keyboard light hidden atop the screen, without which you'll have a hard time typing in darkened rooms. Why haven't other manufacturers imitated this sensible imitation (which has to be a bit cheaper than the internally illuminated keyboards on some PowerBooks)?

Lastly, I've found some interesting —- or just odd -- material among the more obscure firms hawking their wares here.

In the "most likely to get coverage for the reasons its founders won't like" category, I'd submit the $249 box that Sling Media plans to sell. It will stream a video signal to any computer in your house or on the Internet -- the kind of feature has earned TiVo no end of grief from the Motion Picture Association of America and the NFL, which worry about rampant file sharing.

And in the "least likely to show up in my mom's house" category, I would nominate Pyramat's upcoming $699 sofa. This compact white piece includes an embedded subwoofer, placed behind the small of your back, that rumbles in time to the bass track of music. I sampled this (see the photo of me above, taken by The Post's Leslie Walker) and couldn't decide it was odd or relaxing. Maybe I just wasn't prepared to feel jazz buzzing through my bones in that way, as if it were being played by Metallica instead of Miles Davis.

On the other hand, if these guys could move that sofa's subwoofer up a little higher, I could have gotten a decent shoulder massage out of it. That would feel pretty good right now.

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