Consumer Electronics Show and Macworld
van Horn, Royal, Phi Delta Kappan
THE CONSUMER Electronics Show (CES) and Macworld, both held in January, are always a rich source of information about where the electronics industry is headed. Based on this year's shows, it appears that the future will be wireless, thin, high-definition, and chic.
One of the annual events at CES is the "last gadget standing," an informal contest sponsored by Yahoo. The winner of this year's competition was the Eye-Fi wireless SD (secure digital) card. The Eye-Fi card is a two-GB memory card with a built-in wireless Wi-Fi transmitter. With the software included, you can wirelessly transfer photos to your computer or even to an Internet photo-sharing site. The card is available from Wal-Mart and other retailers for about $100.
Speaking of wireless, several new technologies are becoming available that can help eliminate wires. Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0 has become the ubiquitous standard for computer interfaces. Now, there is Wireless USB. Wireless USB is essentially an "in-room" technology that creates a wireless interface between devices over a distance from 3 to 10 meters. At 3 meters, the data transfer rate is as high as 480 Mbps (megabits per second). At 10 meters, the transfer rate drops to 110 Mbps. These rates make it possible to connect printers and other peripherals and transfer photos and music, but they are not fast enough to transmit high-resolution video very well. If you hate wires, the under-$50 price tag is appealing. However, you will need an adapter for every device.
Recently an industry trade group formed called Certified Wireless USB. The group has an informative website at www.usb.org. Of course, before you buy any Wireless USB devices, it is wise to be sure the company has drivers for your computer's operating system and for your printers. Recent reports have come in that drivers are slow in coming for Microsoft Windows Vista.
Another industry trade group dedicated to developing wireless networks capable of streaming high-definition video and surround sound is called WirelessHD (WiHD). Members of the group include LG Electronics, Matsushita, NEC, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba. If you want to beam high-definition video (HDTV) with surround sound all through the house--something I have wanted to do for years--things get tricky. Beaming four streams of HDTV is ideal, since different people in different rooms could then watch different programming. But unlike Web browsing and other wireless uses, even small interruptions in a video stream are objectionable. This means that the gear used must have what is known as a QoS (quality of service) function that guarantees a certain throughput. By comparison to Wireless USB, WirelessHD has data transfer rates of between 2 and 5 Gbps (gigabits per second). WiHD is definitely an "in-room" technology, but that may be a benefit. You won't be beaming your video around the neighborhood.
If you are interested in learning more about WirelessHD, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org) has good explanations and comparisons of various approaches. I suspect that, by the end of 2008, both Wireless USB and WirelessHD will have become common.
They say that "thin is in," and in the IT world, thin was readily apparent at this year's shows. For example, LG previewed a super-thin 42" LCD HDTV that is only 1.7" thick. Not to be outdone, Sony unveiled an 11" television that is only 3 mm thick. Sony's super-thin TV uses an OLED (organic light emitting diode), a technology that requires very little power. By contrast, LCD and plasma displays consume a lot of electricity, so OLED is a step toward "greener" displays.
The ASUS Eee PC is a sub-notebook or ultra-compact PC that has received a lot of attention at CES and in the tech press. The Eee is the size of a hardback book and has a 7" diagonal screen with a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels. A distinguishing feature of the Eee is that it uses memory chips instead of a hard drive. This makes it more durable and allows it to use less power than computers with hard drives. A few of the other specifications include wireless Ethernet (802.11 b/g); SD card slot for memory cards; 2, 4, or 8 GB of built-in flash memory; built-in camera; and a wide variety of installed software that is mostly Open Source, such as Open Office. Prices range from about $299 for the 2-GB model to $499 for the 8-GB model.
Ever since Apple's Newton (remember?), educators have understood the many benefits of a small, compact PC. Using solid-state memory instead of a hard drive makes boot-up time very short and greatly extends battery life. A student can do a little writing, close up the computer, and reopen it exactly where he or she left off. No lost work.
And speaking of thin, the day before I sent this column to the Kappan, Steve Jobs delivered his annual Macworld presentation that featured the new MacBook Air. The Air is the thinnest laptop in the world at .78" thick. The Air had three features that intrigued me: no optical disk drive, an optional version with 64 GB of solid-state storage instead of a hard drive, and the fastest Wi-Fi format available (802.11n). For more information, see the MacBook Air video on the Apple website.
To me, the most revolutionary announcement Jobs made was the introduction of an 802.11n AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi Base Station with either 500 GB ($299) or 1 TB ($499) of drive space. Essentially this is a network storage device for the home, school, or small office. The pairing of the disk-free version of the MacBook Air and the huge drive in the Extreme Base Station is a stroke of genius. Incidentally, all the computers in a house, Mac or PC, can be backed up with Airport Extreme using the new Time Capsule software.
Jobs made several other interesting announcements. First, the iTunes store will now rent videos, and in two versions: standard definition and HD versions for a dollar more. Although Jobs did not portray the Extreme Base Station as a media server, I suspect it could be one. Second, in the past 200 days, Apple has sold 20,000 iPhones a day, for a total of 4 million sold to date. Third, unlike many of Apple's announced devices, for which users had to wait, the MacBook Air will begin shipping in two weeks.
The third device that integrates the wireless world is the Apple TV Take Two--a TIVO like appliance. The first Apple TV was not very successful, so the company totally redesigned the machine and its interface. The Take Two is a Wi-Fi station that connects your HDTV to the 802.11n network. Effectively, Apple has created the ideal wireless home computer and high-definition video network. This changes everything. The parts of your world are converging at last.
And remember that the iPod touch and iPhone are Wi-Fi-equipped so they can make use of this network and its resources as well. Jobs also previewed what he called the January updates for the iPod touch and iPhone consisting of Mail, Maps, Weather, Notes, and Stocks ($19.99 for all five). If you haven't heard, Apple recently opened up the iPhone and iPod touch operating systems so programmers can now create all kinds of new applications.
When Steve Jobs announced the first Macintosh in 1984, he said that Apple wanted to do something "insanely great." I think they did it again this year.
Google phonebook. There is a good chance that Google has your phone number. You can tell if they do by simply entering your number in a Google search window. If you can't remove your number, simply click on "Phonebook results for ..." then click on "Request" to have your number removed. A form will appear that warns you that removing your number is permanent and cannot be undone. Google then warns you that your number may also be in the following directories: Any-Who, Switchboard.com, Whitepages.com, Reverse Phone Directory, Phonenumber.com, and Smartpages.com. I suspect that totally removing yourself from everywhere on the Web will prove futile.
Upgrade cascade. After a love/hate relationship with the Archos 605 personal media player, described in the January column, I received an iPod touch for Christmas. I turned the touch on, and a white Apple logo appeared on the screen. But that is all it would do. Undaunted, I connected it to my computer and got the message: "This iPod is not compatible with your operating system OS 10.3.9 and requires OS 10.4.1 or newer." I searched the Web and found that to unlock the touch you hold down the On and Home buttons for six seconds. When that didn't work, I went to the Apple Store, where an employee held down the same two buttons for 10-12 seconds, and the touch sprang to life. When I inquired about OS 10.4, I learned that Apple no longer supplies it and that I would have to purchase 10.5 (Leopard) for $130. I didn't need or want Leopard and was afraid that it would require other upgrades, but I installed it anyway. So I've invented a new term, "upgrade cascade." In the end, the iPod touch was worth the effort and is a spectacular device with the best user interface I have ever used.
ROYAL VAN HORN is a professor of education at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville (e-mail: email@example.com; websites: www.electronicscholar.com and www.luckychild.us).…
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Publication information: Article title: Consumer Electronics Show and Macworld. Contributors: van Horn, Royal - Author. Journal title: Phi Delta Kappan. Volume: 89. Issue: 7 Publication date: March 2008. Page number: 471+. © 1999 Phi Delta Kappa, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.