Maybe you can’t take it with you, but with today’s portable digital devices you can come awfully close — from business documents to personal media collections. And with wireless connectivity to news and messages, it’s like you never left any of it behind.
So are you checking out portable devices for this holiday season? The Consumer Electronics Association (www.ce.org) hopes so, and its annual holiday survey of consumers shows that electronics continue to be hot with consumers.
Last year’s holiday season was clobbered by the collapsing economy, and the CEA sees consumers still being frugal, projecting that total spending on holiday gifts will rise about 4 percent this year, to $764 per household, still down from $882 in 2007. But 29 percent of that gift spending will be on consumer electronics products, up 8 percent from last year.
The CEA is projecting a 6-percent growth rate in CE unit sales for fourth quarter 2009, compared to the 6.3 percent loss last year. This growth will be driven by computers and audio/video equipment — especially portable devices.
The CE product holiday gift wish list — devices that people want to receive — is similar to last year’s, but with new portable devices entering the top 10 lists for both adults and teens. The wish list for adults: notebook PCs, portable media players, flat panel TVs, video game systems, digital cameras, E-readers, iPhones, Blu-ray disc players, desktop PCs, and smartphones.
The teen wish list has even more emphasis on portable devices, with portable media players at the top, mobile phones at number four, portable game devices at seven, and another new category, netbooks, at number nine.
Topping the list of CE products people are planning to give as gifts echoes these trends, so people might actually be getting the gifts they want.
The CEA reports that several trends have emerged for holiday shopping. There’s more focus on CE products at mass merchants (like Wal-Mart) instead of electronics stores, an effort to spread out the “Black Friday” peak with earlier and ongoing deals, and an attempt to raise consumer spending by offering low-end and higher-functionality products, as well as through aggressive bundling of related products.
E-Book readers and more. Portable media players and handheld gaming systems are fine for quick web browsing, but the three-inch screens are not great for extended viewing, especially if you are reading text. So E-Book readers like the Amazon Kindle feature six to nine-inch screens, closer to the experience of reading an old-fashioned paper book (www.amazon.com/ kindle).
The Kindle with the six-inch screen sells for $259 and holds some 1,500 books in the size of a tablet. The larger Kindle DX, for $489, has a 9.7-inch screen and holds 3,500 books.
The recently announced Barnes & Noble Nook is a bit thicker and heavier than the Kindle but adds a 3.5-inch color touchscreen display below the E-Ink screen for control and navigation, a microSD slot for expansion storage, and a replaceable battery. Selling for $259, it’s based on the Google Android platform (www.nook.com).
To expedite your purchase, and avoid the pain of having to sync books though a PC, the Kindle and the Nook include a built-in cellular modem (with Sprint and AT&T data service, respectively) that can connect directly to the bookstore servers to browse and download titles to preview and buy. The service comes with the device; there’s no additional monthly charge. The Nook also adds Wi-Fi for faster access, with free service at Barnes & Noble stores.
One drawback with E-Book readers, however, is the E-Ink “electronic paper” display, where the dark “ink” dots drawn on the page remain until the display is re-written — unlike LCD displays, which need power to remain lit and therefore are turned off when not in use. As a result, the Kindle can run on its battery for four days, or two weeks with the wireless turned off.
But once you have an intelligent portable device with a large display and wireless service, it can perform other useful functions. So while the Kindle and Nook are not suitable for motion video, action games, or color images, they do have some general player features, including displaying PDF files, playing audiobooks and music, and even basic web browsing, albeit best for text-centric sites.
Amazon reports that the Kindle is the bestselling item across all product categories on its website. But like songs and movies on iTunes and apps on the iPhone, the real action is in the online store. As of November Amazon offers more than 360,000 books in the U.S. Kindle Store, including 101 of 112 New York Times bestsellers, as well as more than 90 U.S. and international newspapers and magazines.
Barnes & Noble has more than a million titles available.
Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble are extending services from E-Book devices to PCs (and Macs) and other portable devices, including the iPhone, iPod touch, and BlackBerry. Amazon automatically syncs your bookmarks and last page read across devices so you can continue reading on what ever device is handy at the moment, and Barnes & Noble supports “digital lending” of titles to friends across the different platforms.
If, however, you are looking for a Nook for Christmas, you’re already too late. Barnes & Noble has sold out of the reader and will not ship them again until January 4.
Mobile broadband. As you become used to enjoying wireless connectivity, you’ll also become more aware of the limitations of Wi-Fi — fighting to hold on to a table at the coffee shop, or finding yourself desperately cruising through town looking for a hotspot.
If you want to be connected anywhere and anytime, you can instead take advantage of all those cellular phone towers scattered across the country and sign up for mobile broadband service. You basically are buying another cell phone with associated data services, except the cellular connection is embedded in a smartphone or laptop or other peripheral, such as a card for your laptop.
The best of both: Mobile Wi-Fi. The Novatel MiFi 2200, available from Verizon Wireless and Sprint, takes this idea one step further by converting cellular broadband service into a Wi-Fi hot spot (www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/mobilebroadband/?page=products_mifi). Just turn it on, and it serves as a Wi-Fi router, supporting up to five simultaneous wireless connections, including laptops and other portable devices. Getting online couldn’t be easier — any Wi-Fi device can now be connected anywhere.
The MiFi is tiny and light and is powered through the USB port, or its battery for up to four hours of active use, 40 hours on standby. It’s available from Verizon Wireless for $99 with a two-year service plan.
However, while the cellular carriers offer “unlimited” service plans for voice calls and even some smartphones, they are not thrilled about offering bottomless data service for computers — users could swamp the mobile network by watching streaming video or downloading files all day. As a result, the Verizon mobile broadband data plans for the MiFi have service caps, starting at $39.99 per month with a 250 MB monthly allowance (and then 10 cents per MB overage), or $59.99 a month with a 5 GB monthly allowance (5 cents per MB overage). Or you can pay as you go with a DayPass plan at $15 for 24-hour access.
Netbooks for mobile. Yet another approach to finding computer-like functionality in a relatively inexpensive portable device is, of course, to use a computer. But you pay a premium for squeezing high tech components into lightweight laptops like the Apple MacBook Air, which starts at $1,499 (www.apple.com/macbookair).
Instead, consumers are turning to a new category, the netbook, which is easy to carry and easy to connect to the Internet. They have larger screens than pocket devices plus a full keyboard, but trade for lower performance and capacity. Netbooks typically run Windows XP or Linux, with your favorite typical applications, and are great for basic document editing, web access, and E-mail. They’re also great for playing web videos but really are not designed for activities like 3D games or video editing.
Netbooks are typically a third to one half the size of traditional laptops, and weigh around two to four pounds. They have smaller displays, 7 to 10 inches, with adequate memory (1 GB) and storage (more like 10 to 100 GB). They typically use the Intel Atom processor, designed specifically for mobile use with low power, low heat, and lower speed ( www.intel.com).
But the “net” part of netbooks is about connectivity, so they have Wi-Fi built in and typically also support mobile broadband service. However, this requires yet another service contract with a cellular carrier. Some carriers offer discounted netbooks, like they discount other mobile phones, as long as you sign up for a long-term service plan.
Smartphones: Doing It All. If you still want to take it all with you in a pocket-potable device, then you really need a smartphone. But what is a smartphone? It’s phone plus Internet, connectivity and storage, text and multimedia, and more, all in one multi-tasking device.
These devices are no longer primarily defined as phones — neither the Apple iPhone nor the Verizon Droid have dedicated phone keys. Instead you place calls from your contacts list and answer on the touchscreen display.
More generally, smartphones are Internet communications devices, with text messaging, instant messaging, E-mail, and now visual voice mail. And they are PC replacements for Internet access, with more devices adding Wi-Fi for enhanced web browsing and downloads, plus built-in GPS for location-based maps and services.
Smartphones are expected to be media players — the iPhone through iTunes, and others in less integrated ways — as well as media recorders with cameras and microphones. Plus the Internet connection opens up streaming media playback and uploading your own media to share online.
However, some smartphones have less emphasis on serving as personal digital assistants, with less focus on features like managing tasks and notes, or integration with desktop Outlook data.
Smartphones have also outperformed mobile phones even in this difficult economy. According to research from Canalys, global smartphone shipments grew 4 percent over the year, to 41.4 million units (www.canalys.com).
Yet while there’s a lot of cheerleading about “battles” between different platforms, these products are actually clearly differentiated for different target markets. Each has significant lock-in that will not make it easy for users to switch platforms on a whim.
At a high-level view:
— The iPhone syncs with your desktop iTunes media library and is moving online with MobileMe;
— The Windows Mobile platform syncs with the familiar Windows desktop environment and is getting more touch-friendly;
— The BlackBerry integrates with enterprise back-end business systems and is adding multimedia for more personal uses;
— The Android platform syncs with the Google online “cloud” services and is adding business support;
— The new Palm Pre/WebOS platform is a re-think of the smartphone interface, and helps users bridge and integrate across multiple online services.
These mobile devices are also developer platforms, so the push for signing up developers to build third-party application software has now extended from the desktop (remember Windows vs. Macintosh?) to portable environments. The next step in convergence is all about the “apps.”
Apple’s strength is not just in the sexy hardware. Its products also come with dual ecosystems around the iPhone and iPod touch, the desktop integration with the iTunes Store to organize and purchase music, movies, and TV shows, plus the wireless integration with the iPhone App Store to download free and inexpensive software applications to customize your device (www.apple.com/iphone/appstore).
Apple already has more than 100,000 applications available. More than 50 million iPhone and iPod touch users have downloaded more than 2 billion apps. Competitors like Microsoft, Google, and Palm are developing their own app stores but are far behind.
So the Apple iPhone continues to define the category for smartphones. It was upgraded in June to the iPhone 3GS, with improved speed and performance, hands-free voice control, and a higher-res 3 megapixel autofocus camera that now records video. It’s a little bigger then the iPod touch and is available with 16 GB for $199 and 32 GB for $299.
Microsoft also updated its smartphone platform in October to Windows Mobile 6.5, now rebranded as Windows Phone in case the PC connection was not clear enough (www.windowsphone. com). Windows Phone is available on a wide variety of hardware designs from many manufacturers, with tools like Office Mobile to edit your documents, Media Player Mobile for playing music and video, and Internet Explorer Mobile for web browsing.
In addition, the new Microsoft My Phone service syncs your phone data to the web so it is backed up and accessible if you lose your phone or upgrade to a new model (http://myphone.microsoft.com). Plus, you can use it to find a misplaced phone, forcing it to ring, locating it on a map, or even wiping it remotely if it is truly lost.
While Windows Mobile 6.5 is a step toward making the Windows Phone platform more touch-friendly, the underlying tools still retain the Windows desktop feel with small menus and controls, so the phones still include a stylus.
The latest innovation in the smartphone market, however, is the Verizon Wireless Droid smartphone from Motorola, which shipped in November (www.droiddoes.com). This is the first phone based on the updated Google Android 2.0 mobile phone software platform (www.android.com). It’s priced at $199 from Verizon, with a new two-year agreement.
The Droid is a thicker, heavier phone designed as a slider phone with a full QWERTY keyboard, a large 3.7-inch display at significantly higher resolution. There also is a 5 megapixel camera with LED flash.
Droid includes integrated Wi-Fi for fast communications and browsing and GPS for location-aware searching and mapping — including free real-time turn-by-turn Google Maps Navigation. The Android 2.0 platform also supports fully integrated voice search and real multi-tasking. For example, applications download quietly in the background as you continue using the device.
The Android platform is focused on sync-ing to your life online in the Google cloud, with Gmail and Google Contacts and Calendar. Version 2.0 also extends to more traditional business uses (multiple accounts, Exchange support).
However, the Droid is missing common functionality that will be expected by people interested in switching from PDA phone platforms like Windows Mobile and Palm. Particularly glaring are the absence of out-of-the-box support for sync-ing desktop data and files (as in Outlook and Office documents), and limited media player support, with no built-in support for managing and sync-ing media as we’re used to from iTunes.
Convergence. This year all that talk about “convergence” has really come to fruition in portable devices, but at an entirely new level: the introduction of apps — hundreds of thousands of them, available to customize your device, many even for free. Your portable device could be a stand-alone multi-function powerhouse, but it’s actually being more entangled with integration with other data and services and app marketplaces.
This is good news for consumers in terms of choosing and customizing the one device that can do it all. And it’s good for manufacturers and service providers, encouraging you to lock-in to their platforms as you become more enamored with specific apps and connected to their services.
The lock-in is further strengthened to the extent that you buy copy-protected content, from E-books to music to videos, that might be no longer accessible on your future platforms.
So it’s no longer just a question of which device, it’s also a question of which services — which ecosystems — make sense for you.
Desktop sync-ing with Outlook / Exchange, media management and purchases through iTunes, and/or interfacing online with the Google cloud? It’s your data, your life, your interests, that you can organize, carry, and access wherever and whenever you need them.
Wireless Internet for personal media players. Clearly, portable media players have retained their broad popularity, as they have extended from MP3 music players, to video players, to even more multi-function devices. And portable devices are going wireless with Wi-Fi connectivity, with more open support for accessing information and media over the Internet, instead of having to download and sync from a PC.
The Apple iPod Nano is the exemplar of a small video player, in an amazingly sleek and colorful package. But the new Nano, introduced in September, breaks Apple’s image of simplicity by piling on advanced features previous found only in competitive products (www.apple.com/ipodnano).
This fifth-generation update adds a slightly larger screen (from 2 inches to 2.2) with 8 GB of storage for $149, or 16 GB for $179. But then Apple pours in more functions — somehow squeezing in a microphone and speakers, FM radio, a video (but not photo) camera, and even a pedometer.
You can’t ask for much more in a small player, but with a slightly larger package you can get a bigger and more readable screen, trade in the dedicated control pad for a touch-screen interface, and add Wi-Fi wireless connectivity to access and download online content.
For example, the new Microsoft Zune HD, introduced in October, features a bright 3.3-inch touchscreen OLED display, with a new full-screen Internet browser (www.zune.net/zunehd). You also can download and stream music over Wi-Fi, and download games and other applications.
The new Zune now supports digital HD Radio. However, the “HD” in the name actually is for the new support for downloading HD video — although viewing the video in full HD requires a separate AV Dock accessory connected to your HDTV. The new Zune is a bit bigger and heavier and is available with 16 GB for $219 and 32 GB for $289.
And there’s the Apple iPod Touch, also refreshed in September to its third generation. This is basically an iPhone without the phone (or camera), with a 3.5-inch touchscreen display good for browsing the web over Wi-Fi (www.apple.com/ipodtouch). It’s still pocket-sized, with 8 GB for $199, 32 GB for $299, and the new 64 GB for $399.
Once you’re using these devices for significant web browsing, a larger display can help replace your laptop, at least on some trips. For example, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet, introduced in November, has a 4.8-inch touchscreen display, so you get a much better view of web pages (www.archos.com/products/imt/archos_5it). It’s available with 32 GB of flash memory for $379, and with a hard drive with 160 GB for $399 or up to 500 GB for $499.
Handheld Game Systems. While media players have evolved into wireless web devices and are adding downloadable applications for fun and gaming, there is another class of devices that is converging from a different direction — portable game systems like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP families that are also portable media players with wireless access.
The new Sony PSPgo has a 3.8-inch display that slides to access the PSP gaming controls, in a smaller size than the previous PlayStation Portable designs. It’s priced at $249 (www.us.playstation.com/PSP).
The dual-screen Nintendo DSi is smaller than the PSPgo, but features two 3.2-inch screens plus two low-res cameras, and is priced at $169 (www.nintendodsi.com).
These systems have built-in Wi-Fi and support web access, but are obviously more focused on wireless gaming with others. But the real value in wireless is to link you with the associated Sony and Nintendo online stores for buying media and games.
Handheld game systems are for more than just the kids — if you’re an gamer dreading a long plane flight, these devices go beyond media players to offer commercial game titles and dedicated gaming controls that can make your trip pass much more quickly.