‘Tis the season for family and friends and holiday giving, although this year brings even more focus on nesting — or even cocooning — close to home. While consumers are retrenching from the current economic turmoil, the same conditions are pressuring prices down this holiday season. So while this isn’t a time for extravagant spending, it is a time to remember that today’s tech gadgets are more useful than ever, and can make those winter nights or long trips more pleasant and even enjoyable — as well as a low-cost alternative to a movie and popcorn, not to mention a weekend in Aspen.
In its market research and consumer surveys, the Consumer Electronics Association (www.ce.org) sees total holiday spending per household declining this year by 14 percent to $1,437, versus $1,671 in 2007 (this is all seasonal spending, including gifts, food, decorations, travel, clothing).
Consumers report that they expect to start reducing their spending in categories including sporting goods, furniture/home decor, and vacations before they cut into home entertainment (CD, DVD, digital) and consumer electronic products. Consumers expect to spend some 28 percent of their holiday budgets on electronic products and services.
As a result, the CEA actually expects spending for electronic goodies products to grow 3.5 percent for the fourth quarter versus last year (which grew 7 percent). And 28 percent of consumers reported that they are were looking forward to going out on Black Friday shopping for bargains.
So what do consumers want? The CEA’s Holiday CE Gift Wish List top 10 for 2008: notebook PC, TV, mobile phone, portable MP3/digital media player, video game system, DVD player, digital camera, GPS, camcorder, and DVR. It’s all about entertainment nesting at home, and portability on the go.
But what gifts do consumers actually expect to be giving? The CEA Holiday CE Gift Giving top 10 list for 2008 is similar, but adjusted by budget concerns: video game system, digital camera, portable MP3/digital media player, DVD player/recorder, notebook PC, portable game device, television, tabletop or clock radio, portable CD or MP3 boom box, and external storage device.
So let’s look at some of the interesting new products currently available across the consumer electronics world, focusing on portable devices that also help illustrate developing trends you can look for in the year ahead.
Smartphones Get Interesting. Cell phones have become ubiquitous over almost all the planet, but once you have a tiny device in your pocket, why not use it for more than phone calls and texting? Add a larger screen, a keyboard (or touchscreen), more processing power, and a high-speed Internet connection, and you have a smartphone — a quite reasonable replacement for a laptop computer when you’re on the go.
Smartphone are still a communications device at the core — with phone, texting, picture and video messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, and Twittering (sending a short instant message to let friends know what you’re up to this very minute) and blog posting.
The smartphones are also personal digital assistants, PDAs — with integrated address book, calendar, to-do list, and other productivity applications.
Even more, they are portable wireless computers. You can check and send E-mail, including attachments, and browse the Web and download files. You can do office work, view and edit documents, including word processing files, spreadsheets, and presentation slides. And with GPS navigation, you can view live maps and search and track directions to near-by stores.
Smartphones are also wireless media players, allowing users to download and play music, read audio books, watch TV shows and movies, and buy and download directly from the device. They are also cameras. You can shoot and browse your own photos and videos, and upload and download photos and clips to share on online sites and even on your desktop.
After taking some photos, tracking your hike, sending E-mail, editing a presentation or two, watching last night’s 30 Rock episode, and, oh yes, making a phone call or two, you can use your smartphone to browse media on the Web — including viewing YouTube videos. You can even watch live TV.
Products in the smartphone market include the Palm Treo and Centro for consumers (www.palm.com), the RIM BlackBerry, which is more for business use (www.blackberry.com), as well as a variety of Microsoft Windows Mobile devices (www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile). But the smartphone category was not making much headway in the broad market compared to the avalanche of simple and inexpensive cell phones — until the Apple iPhone.
While U.S. cell phone market growth slowed to 3 percent in the third quarter according to Canalys, an international company that analyzes technology data, the smartphone market grew 28 percent from the previous year to 40 million phones. In the third quarter, the iPhone sailed past the BlackBerry to become number two in the smartphone market, both still trailing Symbian, the operating system used by Nokia, Panasonic, Ericsson, Samsung, and others, and ahead of Windows Mobile.
Even more impressive, NPD Group, a Port Washington, New York, consumer marketing research firm, reports that the iPhone 3G passed the Motorola RAZR V3 to become the most popular selling individual phone model during the third quarter, followed by the Blackberry and LG smartphones. Apple shipped almost 7 million iPhones in the third quarter.
The Apple iPhone is just a beautiful design, hardware and software, with an entrancing touch-screen interface, well-integrated features, easy desktop syncing with Apple’s iTunes for music and videos, and full-page Web browsing starting at $199 (www.apple.com/iphone). With the combination of its elegant design and the iPod ecosystem, the iPhone made carrying the slightly larger bulk of a smartphone not just attractive, but also cool.
And with the opening of the Apple App Store, iPhone users can add additional applications including games, business, news, sports, health, and travel (www.apple.com/iphone/appstore).
The iPhone is a coveted gift, but gift givers need to be aware that it is necessary to sign up for a two-year AT&T contract to get one. Also, the $199 price is only for people who are switching from other cell phone providers, and often paying an early expiration fee to do so, and for AT&T customers who are due for an upgrade. (Generally, customers are eligible for a phone upgrade every two years.) For those who don’t fall into one of these categories, the price is $400.
An alternative for anyone who does not want to sign up for a two-year AT&T contract is the iTouch, an Apple multi-media device that looks exactly like the iPhone, does most of what the iPhone does, including connecting to the Internet through WiFi networks, but is not a phone. The iTouch retails for $229.
The highly-anticipated iPhone competitor, the Google Android smartphone design (www.android.com), first released as the T-Mobile G1 starting at $179 (www.t-mobileg1.com), made its debut in October.
The corporate styles of Apple and Google are reflected in very different design approaches to these devices. The iPhone started as an iPod phone, with a closed architecture that permits tight integration (and yet misses features like global search and cut and paste), plus desktop synching to Apple’s iTunes Store profit center. The new Apple MobileMe Internet service does add online synching, and the App Store opens up the iPhone to third-party software, but only as regulated and approved by Apple.
The G1/Google phone, on the other hand, starts with a more open hardware design — touch screen (but not multi-touch with a zoom like the iPhone) plus a slide-out full QWERTY keyboard (not the iPod’s sometimes-tricky touch-screen keyboards). There’s a higher-res camera, a removable battery, and expanded storage with microSD memory cards (the sexy iPhone case is not sullied with such slots). And the software is open too, focused around Google’s online services including Google Search, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Maps, and YouTube.
But there are also obvious omissions, including no built-in desktop sync, and no built-in video recording. No problem — the platform is open too, so Google expects a flowering of third-party applications to be made available through the Android Market, with no gatekeeper controlling access (www.android.com/market).
Meanwhile, the RIM BlackBerry has expanded from its roots in business communication to become a full-fledged Web browsing, media playing multi-purpose smartphone. The new BlackBerry Storm from Verizon Wireless features a touch screen with a physical “click” feel and multi-touch gesture controls (www.verizonwireless.com/storm). The Storm also multi-tasks while you are on the phone, so you can simultaneously check E-mail, browse the Web, update GPS navigation, or even shoot and upload photos.
The Storm syncs as on organizer on your desktop and allows you to transfer media files including music from iTunes. A big plus for travelers is that the Storm is a global phone, with the addition of GSM support for outside the U.S. The Storm sells for $199.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate.
Portable Media Players. If you want a music player separate from your phone you will be looking for an iPod, not an iPhone. Apple continues to dominate the portable media market with more than 70 percent market share, with the SanDisk Sansa line hanging in at under 10 percent, and the Microsoft Zune at under 3 percent.
Both the iPod and Zune lines were refreshed in September, essentially doubling capacity at the same price. The new Apple iPod Nano with landscape orientation offers 8 or 16 GB of flash memory (so it’s very light at 1.3 oz.), for $149 and $199. The iPod classic with more hard disk storage (and at five ounces, more heft) comes with 120 GB for $249 (www.apple.com/ipod). Both are beautiful designs that sync cleanly with iTunes for music, photos, TV series, games, podcasts, and movies.
The Microsoft Zune also comes with capacities including 8 or 16 GB of flash memory for the same $149 and $199, and 120 GB hard drive for $249 (www.zune.net). The Zune features Wi-Fi wireless networking, originally to share music with other Zunes, and now expanded to access the Zune Marketplace to discover and download music (but not for general Web browsing). Microsoft is pushing software updates to develop the Zune platform to encourage music discovery, sharing, and online social communities.
Even with this excitement about digital music, and with sales of pre-recorded music albums on CD sinking, the industry still has not given up on selling music in physical format. Since round discs won’t fit into today’s tiny cell phones and media players, maybe it’s time to switch to small memory cards.
So SanDisk has just introduced the new slotMusic format in cooperation with major record labels (www.slotmusic.org). These are preloaded music “albums” stored on microSD cards — about 12 songs on a 1 GB card for around $14.99. To play the music, just slip the card into any of the zillions of devices with memory card slots — including mobile phones, media players, car audio systems, and even PCs (the cards are bundled with a USB adapter). The audio is stored in the ubiquitous MP3 format, as plain old non-copy-protected files, so you can move them to other devices, or add your own material to the slotMusic cards. More than 40 albums will be available for the holidays.
For simple playback, the new SanDisk Sansa slotMusic Player is about as basic as you can get (www.sansa.com). It just plays music from a microSD card — there’s no display, and no build-in memory — just transfer your music to a card to play. A 16 GB card can hold some 4,000 MP3 songs, which should keep you busy for a while. The player is tiny, under 2 ounces, at around $19.
Games — And More. If you want a highly flexible media player to keep you (or the kids) busy on a long trip, check out the latest update to the Sony PlayStation Portable line, the PSP-3000 (www.us.playstation.com/PSP). It’s a game machine, of course, and a movie player with films sold in Sony’s proprietary UMD disc format, but it is also a general purpose media player on which you can download and view your own music, photos, and videos. The new model adds an enhanced display and built-in microphone, for around $200.
The PSP has Wi-Fi wireless networking to browse the Web, including Flash content. Flash is what powers much of the video on the Internet, and it is still missing from many other popular devices, including the iPhone. The PSP also lets users listen to Internet radio, access RSS feeds (with streaming audio and video), make Skype phone calls, and even watch live TV with the separate Sony LocationFree product.
Personal Audio: Headsets and Earphones. Whether you have a tiny cell phone or a larger smart phone, you have found out that these devices really are not designed for comfort when holding them up to your face during extended conversations. Instead, Bluetooth wireless headsets let you talk using a small device in your ear while your phone stays safe in your pocket or bag. The best thing is that this Bluetooth technology pretty much just works — depending on the device, you can answer and even originate calls, and switch between the phone and listening to music. And today’s Bluetooth headsets include impressive noise-reduction technology so your calls are clear even in a noisy environment.
A good example of bluetooth at its best is the new model of the amazing Aliph Jawbone Bluetooth Headset. Just half the size of the previous model, it still has impressive noise reduction, and has better intelligibility, so voices sound human and not robotic (www.jawbone.com).
The Jawbone comes with interchangeable earbuds and earloops to customize the fit. It’s also a classy design, with a seamless textured surface, available for around $100 in colors including black, silver, and rose gold.
Another good choice is the Plantronics Discovery 925, which is positioned as a designer Bluetooth headset, with a colorful base and a boom that extends towards the mouth, available for around $89 in metallic and jewel tone colors: onyx black, alchemy gold, cerise pink (www.plantronics.com). It features noise reduction, and supports switching between two active phones. It includes a hard carrying case with a built-in rechargeable battery for more talk time on the go.
Bluetooth headsets are great for phone calls, but for listening to music on the go you’ll want wired earphones that deliver the sound in full stereo, and also help block outside noise.
For easy listening, the inexpensive and colorful JVC Gumy Earbuds have been very popular (www.jvc.com). The Gumy Air Earbuds are only $15, and are available in white, violet, green, pink, blue, black, and red.
Or step up to the V-MODA VIBE line for a more fashion-conscious style and audio-enthusiast sound with a minimalist design (www.v-moda.com). The V-MODA VIBE Duo combines a noise-isolating earphone with a hands-free microphone for headset use. It’s available for around $100 in chrome or gunmetal/rouge.
For a more customized sound, the Sleek Audio SA6 earphones are acoustically adjustable (www.sleek-audio.com). They include small plugs that insert in the earphones to tune the sound, so you can adjust the bass and treble independently (neutral, plus, minus) for sustained high frequency or smoother response with less upper high end. They sell for just under $200.
But for really stunning sound, the Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 Pro Personal Earphones actually incorporate three individual speakers — low-end for bass, mid-range for vocals, and high for treble (www.ultimateears.com). The result is sound like listening to personal monitors, so the instructions warn you to not listen to loud sounds for too long, and recommend not listening for more than an hour a day. Expect to pay about $325.
Personal Content: Cameras and Camcorders. This is a great year for digital cameras, with more megapixels of resolution than you’ll need and amazing technology to shoot good photos by finding faces and even smiles. And digital camcorders are getting lighter and even moving up to HD resolution. But cell phones really are today’s ubiquitous camera/camcorder devices, although they do shoot in lower resolution than dedicated cameras with higher-quality lenses.
The biggest news with camcorders is the development of a new product category — “pocket camcorders.” These are small, light, inexpensive, and dead simple devices that still shoot good video quality. These flash-based cams turn on in a second, start recording in one press, and make video that’s not only great for YouTube, but also looks good when burned to DVD. They’re easy to carry everywhere, and the main problem is that they’re so light you need to be careful to brace them to avoid jittery video. They include video connectors to play directly to your TV, a built-in pop-out USB connector to plug right in to your computer with no extra cables, and preloaded software to transfer the clips and upload online.
The Pure Digital Flip has led this market with especially clean and simple designs and has become the top selling camcorder in the U.S. (http://theflip.com). The Flip Video Mino is 3.3 ounces, packaged in a smooth case with backlit touch-sensitive controls and no removable battery or memory slot. It works great in environments from indoor parties to night football games to bright beaches (although watch out for wind noise). It’s around $179 in black or white, with a free customization service to design your own case.
Flip has just announced the Flip MinoHD — the same size, design, and features as the Mino, but now shooting in HD — recording up to 60 minutes of 720p HD video, for around $229.
The RCA Small Wonder line adds more features in slightly larger units, including flip-out screens, additional memory card storage, removable batteries, and more rugged cases. (www.rcaaudiovideo.com). Expect to pay about $179.
The Kodak Zi6 HD Pocket Video Camera is a bit bigger, but also shoots high-def video (720p) and 3 megapixel photos (www.kodak.com). It also adds a close-up lens mode, and fun slow-motion playback speeds, for around $179 in black or pink.
Portable Printers and Projectors. With all this attention on personal devices for different uses — cellphones and portable players and cameras/camcorders — we end up with our photos and videos locked up in the storage on these different devices, so we can’t easily share them, especially our home or office. What we need are more portable devices to display our stuff on the go.
For immediate gratification in accessing photos from your cell phone or a digital camera, the Polaroid PoGo Instant Mobile Photo Printer prints images in about one minute (http://polaroid.com/pogo/us). You can print direct from your cell phone wirelessly using Bluetooth, or you can print from a digital camera with a USB cable.
The PoGo uses the new ZINK (Zero-Ink) printing technology with no ink cartridges or ribbons (www.zink.com) to print color 2 x 3 inch (business card) borderless prints that are dry to the touch, smudge-proof, water-resistant, and virtually tear-proof. The photos have a peel-off sticky back to make instant stickers. The PoGo costs about $150, in black and red, and the photos run around 33 to 40 cents per print.
Similarly, stop trying to share a video by crowding around a tiny iPod screen. Instead, there’s a new category of palm-size video projector that can throw the display against a wall (or the ceiling in a restaurant) to enlarge it 50 to 60 times. The 3M MPro110 Handheld Digital Projector has just started shipping ($359, www.3mmpro.com), and the Optoma PK-101 Pico Pocket Projector is due out this month ($399 with DLP mirror technology, www.optomausa.com/pico.asp).
These projectors are 4 1/2 x 2 x 1 inches, and weigh from 5 to 7 ounces. They use AC power or charge though USB, and can run off batteries for an hour or so. They use a LED light source, rated for 10,000+ hours, so you don’t need to replace bulbs, and they’re very quiet — no noisy fan.
Sharing Media Within The Home. While all these portable devices are individual islands of content, they also have become more interconnected. So when you bring these devices into the home, they become part of an even richer media environment with multiple sources of content.
As a result, the home is becoming a nexus of shared media — from set-top TV and movies on the big widesceen flat-panel display, to desktop music libraries and Internet video sites on the PC monitor, to handheld media on phones and portable players. Manufacturers are eagerly developing technologies and products to enable all this potential interconnection, which has led to a profusion of options that bridge content between these worlds, especially as Internet video comes to the living room and TV comes to the PC.
On the set-top, high-end TVs are becoming Internet connected to access media servers in the home and to display pop-up windows of news and weather information. Blu-ray players not only play HD movies on disc, but also connect to the Internet to access new movie extras and information on upcoming sequels. Digital Video Recorders share saved programs to other devices and displays across the home network.
On the PC, the Web offers video content from short amateur clips on YouTube to full-length TV series and even movies on Hulu.com. And there’s a profusion of streaming video from special events like the Olympics and streaming audio from Internet radio stations and music services.
Or you can bridge the set-top to the desktop to the Internet with devices like the Sony PlayStation 3 game console, which plays media stored on your home network and lets you browse the Web from your TV (www.us.playstation.com). It sells for $399. A more limited device, the Apple TV set-top box, which sells for $229, accesses iTunes clips stored on your computer to play on your TV (www.apple.com/appletv).
Beyond your home network, the VUDU box, at $299, brings movies on demand over the Internet (www.vudu.com), and Netflix subscribers can use its on demand service to instantly watch some 12,000 movies and TV episodes on a PC over the Internet.
As portable devices get smarter, sharing options extend to phones and players and game machines as well. For example, the Sling Media Slingbox line of set-top devices, selling for about $179, moves media in both directions: to play PC/Internet content on your TV, or to ship live TV to your computer or portable device (www.slingmedia.com). You can also access both Internet content and your own personal libraries of media files through connected devices around the home like the Sony PlayStation 3 game console or Sony PSP handheld player (www.us.playstation.com).
How to choose among all these options? It depends on what kind of content you want to watch, when, and where. The bottom line is this all is just going to be messy and confusing for a while, as all of these products and options compete in the market to make sense and be useful for consumers.
TV on PC. The big news in television for this holiday season is the impending “analog sunset” — over-the-air analog television broadcasts will be turned off on Tuesday, February 17 (see Digital TV Transition, www.dtv.gov). This is not a big deal for the main household television connected to cable TV, but will be an issue for older TVs around the house still using rabbit ear antennas. In order to get a signal on the old unconnected TV in the garage or the kitchen, you’ll need a newer digital TV or a separate digital converter box for your old set.
Instead of a second or third TV set, you can watch digital broadcast TV on your computer, using a small USB dongle, an adapter that attaches to a PC card in a laptop at one end and an Ethernet cable on the other end, to tune the stations. Pinnacle (www.pinnaclesys.com) and Diamond/ATI (www.diamondmm.com) offer several such products.
So now you don’t need a dedicated TV for your home office or dorm room, or even when traveling, instead you can watch TV, including full-screen HDTV, on your computer. The Pinnacle PCTV HD mini Stick is tiny, yet includes a mini remote control, plus software to schedule recordings, timeshift live TV (pause / rewind), and even record direct to DVD (around $120).
Meanwhile, for a simpler way to transfer videos from the set-top to portable devices, try the Pinnacle Video Transfer (www.pinnaclesys.com/pvt). Plug it in to an analog signal (from your TV or VCR), and it saves a video file, or even transfers directly to an Apple iPod or Sony PSP (around $130).
InternetAudio.Transfering video around the house by marrying the computer and the PC is still pretty complicated. In contrast, accessing Internet audio in the home is a snap.
There are thousands of Internet radio stations, often traditional radio broadcasters that also provide their feeds over the Internet. There are also a variety of subscription music services with channels that can be accessed over the Internet, including Rhapsody and SIRIUS.
Even better, sites like Pandora and Slacker offer free music (with ads) that stream to a PC or portable device just like a traditional radio broadcast — but highly customizable, so you can design your own channel programmed just for you.
At Slacker.com, for example, you first choose a genre, which starts playing an associated playlist. But you then can add or subtract specific artists, to customize your own virtual channel (all Celine Dion, all the time!). Pandora works much the same way.
Or just turn on the Logitech Squeezebox Boom, which brings networked audio to the tabletop like any other portable radio with built-in speakers .The Squeezebox Boom is connected to wired Ethernet or wireless Wi-Fi to access Internet radio and music services over the Web, as well as your own personal music library over your home network.
Personal Surveillance. For the ultimate in live video within the home, you can set up your own home monitoring/security system with the Logitech WiLife Surveillance System (www.wilife.com).
You can set up to 6 cameras — indoors or out — and then connect them with HomePlug power line, networking over your existing electrical wires (no special network cabling or configuration required). The software then monitors the cameras for motion, generating alerts, sending E-mail, and recording the video to disk. The technology lets you watch for intruders, whether burglars or racoons, while you’re away.
There’s also a wide-angle lens option, and infrared lens with IR night illumination. The basic kit with one camera costs about $299.
And, of course, you can access your cameras over the Internet to monitor your home or small business remotely while you’re away. You can even turn an innocent looking staple like a clock radio into a camera.
A Merry Electronic Holiday. Connectivity has become embedded in our devices. The Internet is no longer a destination that you explicitly go to, instead we’ve grown to expect it to be always present and connected.
Whether at home or on the go, or with large devices or small, we’re more and more able to access and share both commercial and personal content whenever, wherever, and however we want it.
For this holiday season there are so many gifts that use all of this connectivity to bring new fun to music, home movies, games, and Internet browsing.
Many are inexpensive, and all carry the ability to enrich as they bring far-flung families and friends closer together through everything from a shared game of Monopoly on the ‘Net, to a face-to-face greeting via the Internet, to junior-feeds-the-reindeer photos instantly sent to relatives all around the globe.
Editor’s Note: See Douglas Dixon’s Manifest Technology website and blog, www.manifest-tech.com, for more on digital media and devices.