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Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro
Consumer Electronics Show

Friday, January 14, 2000 at 1 p.m.

Rob Pegoraro
Rob Pegoraro

Last week, Rob Pegoraro toured the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the industry's annual product showcase. The buzzword this year was "digital": digital TV, digital radio, digital video disk, digital music downloads and so on. It's a confusing time for the business, as manufacturers try to promote technologies nobody's ever tried before, and for which a market may not actually exist. (Weirdest moment: Right after seeing a demonstration of a $3,300, DVD-equipped AutoPC, a Microsoft rep asked "So, would you want to buy something like this for your car?") Fortunately, you all don't have to sit through the product demonstrations or read through the press releases; Rob has already suffered through those tasks for you. Instead, bring your questions to Friday's discussion, or submit them here ahead of time.

Rob Pegoraro: Hello again, gang. I spent last week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, sitting through rigged demos, listening to manufacturer spiels, soaking up industry receptions--all so you don't have to. As a result, I'm now moderately well-equipped to answer any possible question y'all might have on the audio/video/computer universe. So: bring it on...

Frederick MD.: Hi Rob, I am thinking about getting a DVD player,any thoughts on what brand? and when do you think a recordable type will be available. Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: One easy question and one hard one from Frederick.

1) DVD players are kind of like CD players at this point; the quality of the output doesn't vary that much. What does is features and price. Look for a player with S-video and component video outs; if you've got a really nice TV or are planning to upgrade, these can improve the picture a bit. Otherwise, don't pay more than $300. And try to get one from the same company that makes your receiver, so you can (hopefully) cut down on remote-control pollution of the coffee table.

Videophile note: If you're planning to get a digital TV soon (there aren't good reasons to do that, IMHO) a "progressive-scan" DVD player will, I'm told, soup up the picture remarkably.

2) The answer on recordable is somewhere between "I don't know" and "never." The industry has to agree on a standard and on a way to make the entertainment business confident that its products won't be pirated with the new equipment; these guys have a pathetic track record at meeting either goal in a timely fashion.

Washington, DC: So, Rob- What's the latest on secure digital music? I'm not exactly worried that my Rio is going to be obsolete -any day now- as it seemed the recording industry was threatening for most of last year... but is SDMI really in the "Where are they now" file for good?

Rob Pegoraro: And speaking of piracy fears... SDMI (Secure Digital Music Initiative) is not quite in the "where are they now" file, but it's moving that way. The recording industry hoped to have a finalized standard in time for the holiday season just passed, but not starting this effort until last January pretty much sank their chances of ever pulling that off.

So while this complicated, multiple-level specification wends its way through committees, people are continuing to download and trade MP3s. The hardware people see a market here and so are coming out with all sorts of new MP3 players and storage devices--expect some much more vigorous price competition before long. Your Rio isn't obsolete, but it's probably going to seem overpriced by this summer.

Washington DC: Which consumer electronics outfit threw the best party in Vegas? Were there any tech celebrities -or, less-likely, any real celebrities- at the show?

Rob Pegoraro: Hate to sound like a loser here, but I probably missed some of the better goings-on by not arriving in Vegas until late Wednesday night. (Note to Vegas airport management: What were you smoking when you decided to put one person per cab at the taxi stand?)

Celebrities... well, Jensen had Megadeth at its booth. Pamela Anderson Lee was around somewhere. But I missed both of them. Thing is, CES isn't a really "glamorous" show like E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo). A lot of it still involves guys in bad suits who go to town to try to get a good deal on speaker cables or mono VCRs.

Columbia, Md: I'm excited about the HandSpring Visor, but not ready to commit. Have you tried it? Are people satisfied? Also, have you seen or tried any of the Springboard attachments -MP3, GPS, etc.-? I keep reading that they are on the way, but, well, that means nothing to me. What's the deal?

Rob Pegoraro: Hey Columbia - have not tried out a Visor firsthand, but I know a couple of friends who either have one or have ordered one. The big flaw with the product is simply getting it in the first place; Handspring royally botched its ordering and shipping operations, to the point where these folks are probably still digging their way out of the pre-Xmas order backlog.

Nobody I know has bought any of the Springboard modules, nor have I read much about them. Should be neat, though; it seems like Legos for grownups. (This one company, InnoGear, I think, will be selling a "six-pack," with a voice recorder, landline modem, cell modem, memory expansion, silent alarm, and blinking LED. Kewl!)

The difficult part there will be resisting the "collect 'em all" mentality and the resulting Batman's utility belt of modules you'd have to carry around.

Washington DC: I am thinking about getting a mobile MP3 player. Which is the best value out there right now?

Rob Pegoraro: The best value at the moment is probably the Rio 500, if you can get a sufficient discount on it. Creative's Nomad II seems like it might take the lead, though; it's got a good buzz around it. Worst value, by contrast, would probably be the Sony digital-music players, which carry too much of a price premium for Sony's name and industrial design--and are also saddled with some SDMI-induced complexity.

We're talking short-term leads, though; the category seems to be evolving very rapidly.

McLean, VA: Rob,

I've decided to break down and get a Palm Pilot. I don't need email or internet, so I'm thinking Palm IIIe or IIIx. What's the difference between the two? And do you recommend something else?

Rob Pegoraro: The IIIx has more memory than the IIIe, plus software to synch with Outlook. Otherwise, there's no real difference, and if you're not about to install a lot of extra software you might as well save your cash. Also consider either Handspring Visor model, if you can afford to wait a little while (the Handspring site quotes a four-week shipping time). Note that if you use a new Mac, the Visor is a much better choice by virtue of coming with a USB-equipped cradle.

My hunch--which is only based on gleaning the trade press and industry gossip--is that Palm is due to unveil some new models. The company's been shipping the same basic product matrix since last summer, which is a very long time in the biz.

Washington DC: Is Ballmer going to be anywhere near as much fun for you columnists to rail on as Bill Gates was-is??

Rob Pegoraro: I've never met Steve Ballmer, so I can't say for sure. However, he does sound like, well... let's say vociferous and boisterous. I'm not just talking about the "to heck with Janet Reno" quote (why do I think he may have used alternate vocabulary). The story is that he works up the troops at meetings by leading a chant of "Windows! Windows! Windows!" until he's red in the face.

I'm not sure what an appropriate response to that sort of thing, but quivering in fear might be it.

Columbia, Md: How far away are we from the day when I can have one device that will hold maybe 50 to 100 CDs -compressed- and work as my portable player, in my car, and with my home stereo? AND, of course, for a reasonable price - say 300 bucks. Should I be getting my hopes up?

Rob Pegoraro: Not as far as you might think, Columbia. See our video clip on the Nomad Jukebox: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/mmedia/business/business6.htm . It's a six-gig hard drive in a saucer-shaped device, like a thick portable CD player. That should give you, oh, 80 hours or so of listening time. (At that point, you'll still need to bring along the CD case, but to hold batteries, not music!) The people there wouldn't say much about price, but something around $600 seems in store.

On a side note: I asked the guy at the booth about the "SDMI compliant" line in the product description. He said that, *if you wanted,* you could upgrade the firmware in the jukebox to be SDMI compliant, nobody would be forced to. Doesn't sound like very aggressive support to me...

Alexandria, Va: I noticed in your column today you mentioned security becoming more of a problem; what about the IRS requesting that more returns be filed online, tax returns reveal almost everything personal about a person and
if the security is breached the blackmail potential is horrific. What is the IRS doing to guarantee confidencially?

Rob Pegoraro: Good question, Alexandria. The IRS--or Merrill Lynch or Visa or your bank--can't do much to keep somebody from hacking into your own computer, so it's critically important that you keep that secure. That means make sure that file sharing is off unless you absolutely need it, in which case you need to take a bunch of other precautions. Tricky stuff.

What all these financial and government institutions are doing is using strong encryption to secure these transactions as they take place across the Internet (this is the same kind of stuff that the gummint just OKed for export after years of trying to quash its sale abroad). This "128-bit" encryption will keep other folks from snooping on your transactions; what you then need to worry about is what happens to the data on their computer and on yours.

Rob Pegoraro: That's all the news we have time for today, as the saying goes. I'll be back in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime if I missed a question or your query comes to mind 15 minutes from now, post it in our discussion area and I'll get to it there. Or e-mail me at rob@twp.com.


- Rob

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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