Best of show: Our favorites from CES 2007

Did Apple steal a show it didn't even attend?

This year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was notable, in part, because much of the buzz heard on the show floor was generated by a company that wasn't present: Apple. Apple's iPhone and Apple TV media server announcements sparked a flurry of discussion on the floor. And, without doubt, many of the largest companies were showing products in response to Apple.

2007 International CES
2007 International CES: January 8-11, Las Vegas

That's not to say that this year's show was uninteresting. The size and scope of CES is hard to convey, but, as always, the show is huge with vendors ranging from the well-known usual suspects like Microsoft Corp. to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller, newer companies. Each put on its best face and many had fascinating products to show.

Here are our unofficial "awards" for this year's CES.

Theme of the Show

The most visible, overriding theme of CES was media in the home and the network required to distribute that media. True, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors displaying wares that had nothing to do with this theme, but you couldn't escape the fact that the most interesting products related to getting media into the home via the Internet, networking that media around the home and displaying it on new types of devices.

The most visible vendor pushing this theme was Microsoft. It was practically the only topic in its sprawling booth. Perhaps spurred on by the Apple TV announcement, Microsoft tried to make a big splash for its home media technology, particularly the Media Center capabilities built into some versions of Windows Vista. Just before the show, for instance, it introduced software for creating home servers that, among other things, collect and manage all types of media.

An unlikely vendor, Hewlett-Packard Co., pushed Microsoft's theme the hardest. It introduced not just a server based on Microsoft's technology but a line of MediaSmart televisions that, essentially, has built-in software that operates as the media brains behind the server. MediaSmart provides an easy graphical environment for distributing media from the Internet, aggregating it from multiple computers throughout the house and playing it. Like Apple TV, it's kind of like TiVo on steroids, although, in this case, you have to buy a whole TV to get that capability.

Then there was lots of networking equipment, such as the new generation of Wi-Fi equipment based on the still unratified 802.11n standard, which is tuned to handle streaming media better than the current generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11g. Samsung, for example, was showing a prototype of a Wi-Fi-enabled television that connects to Wi-Fi-enabled computers and other devices that store media.

Again, this was hardly the only type of product at the CES. But it undoubtedly was the topic area with the most juice, with the most vendors showing the largest number of products. That's not to say, of course, that you will have a connected, media-centric home in the next year or two. But it is to say that Microsoft, HP and hundreds of other vendors would like you to.

The Best Gadget

SanDisk's Sansa Connect Wi-Fi media player

SanDisk's Sansa Connect Wi-Fi media player Given the intense competition for best gadget award at an enormous show focused on gadgets, our choice is SanDisk's Sansa Connect Wi-Fi media player. But while some may find this a surprising choice, this little gadget does what Microsoft failed to do with its much-hyped Zune: It uses Wi-Fi wisely to help users collect more music. And it has an interface that goes Apple and its iPod one better.

Another reason this choice is surprising is that SanDisk has never been an out-on-the-edge creator of insanely great consumer products. But very quietly, this flash memory vendor has become the second-place media player vendor behind Apple. Sure, it lags far behind Apple, but it also is well ahead of more visible competitors such as Creative.

SanDisk's e200 series of devices released earlier this year were sweet. Reminiscent of but not as sexy as the iPod nano, it was fun and easy to use and very nice to hold in the hand. The Connect, which will be available in March, is a big step forward from there. A bit shorter than the e200, it sports a new interface with cute touches, such as animated icons, and is extremely self-obvious to use. And it will connect directly to at least one music subscription service -- for now, SanDisk is mum about which one -- so you can directly download music using Wi-Fi.

Bottom line: The Sansa Connect from SanDisk is a device that raises the bar even for Apple.

Most Intriguing Possibility

The Autonet in-car access system uses EV-DO cellular data access and Wi-Fi to deliver simple, fast in-car connectivity. The company said the impetus for this product, which will be released in March, was the success of in-car DVDs. They want to bring the home Internet experience to passengers in the car.

There are some concerns, though, not the least of which is safety. Distracted driving, such as talking on the phone while behind the wheel, is already a serious risk, and checking e-mail while driving could only be a greater danger. Also, the company doesn't have its pricing and distribution down yet. At $399 for the unit and $49 a month, it's hardly an impulse purchase, particularly for families that already have been overcharged for in-car DVDs.

Still, in-car access seems a natural. Ultimately, besides providing access to content (hopefully only by passengers), this also will help us program our cars on the fly and create new applications like real-time road condition reports added to navigation systems (something that's already available but still fairly crude).

Bottom line: We don't know if Autonet will succeed, but it opens the door to some intriguing possibilities.

Comeback Player of the Year

HomePlug technology creates home networks by using existing in-wall electrical wires. Introduced several years ago, it was overwhelmed by Wi-Fi -- why spend the same amount of money (or more) to use HomePlug when you can be wireless? Plus, until recently, HomePlug was slow.

But two developments mean that HomePlug -- and similar in-wall technologies -- are making a comeback. First, the latest HomePlug standard is fast -- network speeds are 200 Mbit/sec., far faster than current Wi-Fi standards and about as fast as the forthcoming 802.11n products. Second, with all the talk of distributing home media, a lot of companies, including some Wi-Fi vendors and big vendors like Sharp, don't think the wireless technology is up to the task because of its still-unstandardized quality of service and other forms of interference that can occur.

The result: Even Wi-Fi stalwarts like Netgear and D-Link are selling in-wall networking products, which consist of gadgets that you plug into the wall and then your equipment plugs into the gadgets.

Bottom line: HomePlug networking products still will never become huge best-sellers, but given up for dead by many observers, HomePlug is making a comeback as a solid niche player in the emerging home networking and media market.

The Mine Is Bigger Award

A standing joke at last year's CES was how three companies -- Samsung, Panasonic and LG -- all claimed to have the largest plasma TV in the world. The problem was, all three TVs were different sizes.

This year, the Mine Is Bigger Award has a clear winner: Sharp's 108-inch LCD. LCD televisions have the reputation of not scaling up to larger sizes well, but the image quality of this TV, two of which were on display at Sharp's booth, was truly astonishing.

The TV is not for sale yet, but a Sharp employee told me it will be by the end of the year. There will be two problems, though. First will be the price, which wasn't disclosed but that surely will be high. The second will be that few people have a room big enough to house it.

But both problems are surmountable with enough money.

Bottom line: Buy the TV, then build a new house to go with it.

Most Important Product You May Never See

One of the best-selling smart phones in the world was at the show, but chances are you'll never be able to buy it. Motorola was showing off its Ming, a Linux device that is selling like hot cakes in China and was recently introduced in Brazil.

The phone has a clamshell design that, when folded, is about half the height and width of the Motorola Q, which is pretty svelte in its own right. The touch-screen is surprisingly bright, it has strong media capabilities and a lot of the standard smart phone features, such as syncing with desktop data. It also employs handwriting recognition, which turns notes you write on the screen with a stylus into digital text.

I was told it's remotely possible the Ming will appear in the U.S., but so far no carrier has expressed interest, a person in Motorola's booth told me. If that changes, the Ming could be a big seller here, too.

Bottom line: The Ming could be a big hit in the U.S. if Motorola decides to sell it here.

Sexiest Product

Sexiness, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder. But if we take it as a given that it has nothing to do with need or practicality, our nomination for sexiest looking gadget at the show is the OJO picture phone.

Bob Fair

The Ojo Picture Phone

Picture phones are a fantasy from the 1950s, and the fantasy grew with the popularity of the '60s futuristic cartoon show The Jetsons. And while videoconferencing is a business staple, it's still debatable years later whether consumers really would buy these devices in significant numbers. After all, do we really want our friends and family to see us in our dingy PJs? And what if there's food between our teeth? Plus, it's a chicken-and-egg thing: Picture phones are only attractive to purchase if a lot of other people have them.

But, hey, this is about sexy, not practical, and the OJO looks quite sexy, in a Space Age, Jetson-y sort of way.

Bottom line: Not many people will need it, but it sure looks nice.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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