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This article by Douglas Dixon was prepared for the November 27, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Manifest Technology: As Gifts, Digital Can Be Dazzling
Another holiday season, and another cornucopia of multi-function
electronic gadgets and gizmos — mobile phones are a-ringing, and
also taking photos. Portable audio devices are a-playing, and also
displaying your address book and calendar. Digital cameras are a-filming,
and also playing music as we consumers are all walking in a techno-wonderland.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), more than
three-quarters of U.S. households are likely to purchase at least
one consumer electronics product as a gift during the holiday shopping
season. U.S. adult consumers named 13 consumer electronics products
among the 30 top items they would like to receive as gifts this year,
including DVD players and digital cameras, as well as home theater
and home stereo, big screen televisions, and camcorders.
We are in the midst of a whirlwind of convergence, as consumer electronics
companies desperately mix and match different product categories to
try to figure out what will be interesting to us. Even in these uncertain
times, companies are flooding the market with new products. After
all, it’s not like the consumer electronics industry can just shut
down and stop cranking out new stuff.
The new world is digital, so if you have one of those pathetically
old-fashioned analog mobile phones, or film cameras, or analog video
camcorders, or video cassette tape recorders, well then you really
need to step up to the new generation. The new digital stuff is so
much cooler, and has so many features that you may never even know
that many of them exist. But, more important, digital is incredibly
smaller and lighter.
While this continued assault of new products does risk instant obsolesce,
it also drives down prices nicely, and means an interesting holiday
shopping season for both enthusiasts and people who just want to get
started. So let’s take a look at some of the more interesting trends
and gadgets for the season. Remember, though, it’s up to you to find
convincing logical explanations why they are really necessary in your
The great hope of the consumer electronics industry
for the new millennium was supposed to be digital television, and
especially high-definition TV. However, HDTV has not caught fire except
for home theater aficionados and sports addicts. The broadcasters
have been behind schedule in getting shows on the air, the large displays
are bulky and expensive, and the market has been muddled by the complexity
in choosing formats and interconnecting components. There even is
a lingering threat of future incompatibilities created by government-imposed
mandatory content protection systems.
To resolve this chicken and egg situation, the government has been
pushing broadcasters to get digital signals on the air, and to add
more HD shows to their schedules. The broadcasters started with their
flagship prime time shows, and are adding special events, sports,
and the late night talk shows.
Meanwhile, digital television (DTV without the HD) has been rolling
out in other forms. DVD fans can enjoy enhanced-definition display
on digital TV sets. Satellite TV and digital cable are delivering
digital programming, and digital video is arriving on the set-top
in the form of DVD movies, digital video recorders, and DV camcorders.
But the most interesting development in television is
the display, and the dramatic improvements (and price reductions)
in flat-screen displays. Getting a big picture no longer requires
a humongous set that requires a fork-lift to install in your home.
Now you even can hang your TV display on the wall, and then connect
it to a separate tuner.
LCD displays have been become commonplace on portable TVs, and are
starting to become popular for computer displays to reclaim desk space
in crowded offices. For example, the new Apple iMac line has the computer
in a half-shell base supporting an integrated flat-screen monitor.
While a good 17-inch CRT computer monitor now costs around $150, a
15-inch LCD monitor (with only one inch less viewing area) is around
$350, and a 17-inch LCD is around $650. This is not a huge premium
for the better clarity and reduction in size and weight. For the next
step up to a 19-inch monitor the price jumps to around $1250.
While "flat-screen" TVs with picture tubes are getting slimmer,
true flat-panel LCD TV sets are becoming more interesting. These follow
the same kind of cost profile as the computer displays, with 15-inch
sets starting at around $700, and ranging up to $1,300 for widescreen
enhanced-definition capability. Again, the next step is a big jump,
to around $3,000 for 22-inch sets for watching widescreen movies.
Beyond LCD, the manufacturers use plasma technology for even larger-screen
flat-panel displays, 40 inches and beyond. Besides sounding cooler,
plasma provides a wider viewing angle for a crowd in front of the
set. For these HDTV-capable sets, you’re talking $5,000 and up for
a 42-inch plasma monitor, and over $10,000 for a 50-inch display.
But even these large displays are about four inches deep and weigh
If that’s still a bit steep for you, the good news is that LCD display
technology is moving rapidly, as the manufacturers are rolling out
LCD sets at more than 40 inches. (A 40-inch LCD costs about $7,000.)
Where once we hid the television inside a piece of furniture, now
we can hang the display on the wall. It’s easy to hang, at a couple
inches thick and not much more than 10 pounds. And while the TV is
off you can also use it as a frame to display your favorite photos,
as some displays have a memory card slot to accept photos from a digital
While HDTV has not turned out to be the savior of the
consumer electronics industry, a new champion has emerged in the blow-out
success of DVD. According to the Consumer Electronics Association,
DVD has become the "fastest growing consumer electronics product
of all time." By the end of 2001, DVD players were being used
in nearly one-third of American households, a feat that took the VCR
twice as long to achieve, and sales of DVD players had outgrown VCRs.
The trend has continued in 2002, as the CES reports that DVD sales
during the first nine months of 2002 increased 40 percent from the
same period in 2001.
You also can see the growth of DVD from the expanding shelf space
in video rental stores and video dealers. DVD just provides a much
more interesting movie-watching experience than videotape. DVD begins
with better picture and sound, even widescreen and surround-sound
if you upgrade to home theater equipment. DVD menus provide the ability
to easily move around in a movie, and to quickly jump around to watch
your favorite part again. Movies on DVD typically also include alternate
audio tracks and subtitles in several languages, so you can practice
your language skills by listening in French and reading Spanish subtitles.
Movies on DVD often include a director’s commentary that you can listen
to while watching the movie. You can get some interesting insights
into the creative process this way. For example, it’s clear that the
director of Ronin, the 1998 action/mystery movie starring Robert De
Niro, really loved fast cars. The movie finds several excuses for
wild car chases through narrow European city streets, and even a high-speed
chase driving the wrong way on a highway. To get the "real"
feel, the director put DeNiro in the car, and had him speeding on
a highway full of stunt drivers coming in the other direction —
and in a car with the door removed for the interior shots!
The Hollywood studios really like DVD because they can add these additional
features that encourage you to buy the movie instead of just renting
it. DVD releases typically include a variety of additional material,
such as movie trailers, "making of" documentaries, behind
the scenes footage, storyboards, deleted scenes, and alternate endings.
Some include two copies of the film, both widescreen and standard
definition ("pan and scan" to crop for television). If that’s
not enough, DVDs also can include additional content that can be accessed
on a computer, such as more information on the movie, games, and access
to special material over the Web. If you still only rent the movie,
the studios will later release an enhanced "collector’s edition"
DVD with even more goodies to tempt you further.
You even could argue that consumer spending on DVD is keeping the
American economy afloat, as people continue to spend on equipment
and content for entertainment at home. To help even more, DVD is appearing
in the living room in other forms. Set-top DVD video recorders are
now available for under $1,000, combining the best of digital video
recorders (fast recording and access without waiting for tapes to
rewind) with the removable media of VCRs (to save shows to watch later,
and even to transfer your home videos to DVD).
Similarly, DVD recorder drives are becoming quite affordable for computers.
The computer industry also is looking to DVD recording to drive its
holiday sales, with drive prices dropping under $300 at the end of
this year, and beginning to become available for laptops. A wide variety
of software tools are available to capture and edit digital video
on Macs and PCs, and then burn your own productions to DVD, complete
with custom menu graphics and navigation.
DVD Authoring," on November 20. More information on the book is
Digital cameras and video camcorders also are very popular,
especially for people who are already playing with images or video
on computers. The primary hurdle is getting the computer, camera,
and software to all talk to each other, but this capability is now
built into new Macs and Windows XP machines, especially using the
hot-pluggable USB (Universal Serial Bus) interface.
Digital cameras give you much more freedom to take, use, and share
photos. You can archive your photos on your computer so they are much
easier to access. You can share them over the Internet by E-mail and
through Web-based services such as DotPhoto (www.dotphoto.com, 800
Sylvia Street, Ewing). You can improve them by editing to correct
the exposure and remove red-eye. Most of all, you can be free to experiment
and shoot lots of pictures without worrying about wasting film.
You can pick up a reasonable 2 megapixel digital camera starting at
around $150 that is great for computer and Web photos and standard-size
prints. And you can step up to 3 or even 4 megapixels for around $250
and $500. At these resolutions, you can print beautiful photo-quality
enlargements on glossy paper, or have a Web photo service print them
Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-F717 digital camera offers professional features
and 5 megapixel resolution up to 2560 x 1920 at around $1,000. Just
remember that these higher resolutions are too much for sharing photos
over the Internet, so please reduce your photos before you try to
You don’t even need a computer to print digital photos: you can plug
a memory card into a digital photo printer like the Sony DPP-SV77
for around $800, and print borderless 4" x 6" photos in 90 seconds,
even with a laminated coating. You even can view, edit and enlarge
images on the fold-up touch-screen LCD display. Beyond printing, the
DPP-SV88 for around $800 can archive your photos to CD-R/RW discs,
and can display photos on a television through a video connection.
These digital cameras are getting dramatically smaller, so much that
they no longer have room for many dedicated buttons, and instead are
controlled more from menus on the LCD display. Actually, smaller is
not a strong enough word, we’re now in the range of tiny, as in the
size of a credit card. The Casio EXILIM cameras weigh only 3 ounces,
are less than a half inch thick, and measure 3.5 by 2.2 inches. Yes,
that’s a credit card; we’ve now moved from pocket-size gear to wallet-size!
The Casio EXILIM EX-S2 is a full 2 megapixel digital camera for $299,
including an optical viewfinder, a 1.6 inch LCD display, and flash,
albeit with no optical zoom capability. It shoots up to 1600 x 1200
resolution stills, and movies, and has an external memory card slot.
If that’s not enough, the EX-M2 for $399 adds a built-in MP3 player,
voice recorder, and movies with sound, at the cost of only another
0.05 inches of thickness and 0.1 ounces of weight.
We’re getting close to the day that we can have a camera at hand whenever
we need one. Of course, it’s still better to bring a higher-resolution
camera to special events, especially with a zoom lens, but these tiny
cameras can shoot quite reasonable photos, and even small and short
While camcorders have not quite miniaturized down to
a credit card size, the smaller camcorders now can literally fit in
at least some pockets. While a variety of analog VHS-C and 8mm camcorders
are still available starting at under $300, digital camcorders also
have dropped under $400. Since these camcorders record digitally on
magnetic tape, you can transfer your video directly to your computer,
edit it, and even burn it to DVD, all at full quality.
The first digital camcorders were based on the same DV (digital video)
format used in professional equipment, using a small MiniDV cassette
about the same size as an audio tape. Sony then introduced the Digital8
format, which recorded the same high-quality digital data on 8mm video
tapes. Digital8 camcorders are slightly larger, and can play older
analog 8mm tapes.
The smaller MiniDV camcorders can be squeezed to around 4.5 by 2 inches
by 3.5 inches deep, and to weigh as little as 14 ounces, although
there is a cost premium for miniaturization to around $1,000 or more.
But compared to other digital goodies, even MiniDV camcorders are
still too big. So Sony developed the MicroMV format, fitting the video
on an even smaller cassette by using more aggressive MPEG-2 video
compression. For example, for about $1,200 the Sony MicroMV DCR-IP5
is 4 by 2 inches, around 3 inches thick, and weighs just 12 ounces.
It includes a 2.5 inch swiveling color LCD display, speaker, 10X optical
zoom, and a FireWire (also called IEEE 1394 or i.Link) interface to
transfer video to a computer. This really is pocket size — like
an extra thick wallet.
These cameras and players are fun, but we are also in
the wired age, and need to be connected (wirelessly) anywhere we go.
We have reached the next step in convergence, to carry a phone, and
a camera, and a handheld computer, all combined into one unit that
is smaller and lighter than your wallet. This really is different
— no more belt holders for the cell phone, or camera bag strapped
around the neck, or laptop computer in a "steal me" shoulder
bag. Instead, you can get at least a 90 percent solution for all of
these devices in a single gizmo that you actually can carry in a pocket.
Just make sure that you have regular eye exams so you can focus in
on the teeny controls and displays.
The promise of the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) as a multi-function
device is demonstrated by the new Sony CLI handheld, the PEG-NX70V,
a Palm-based PDA complete with a swivel display and QWERTY keyboard.
It has a 200 MHz processor, 320 x 480 color display, and 32 MB of
memory, all of which is not bad for a computer that costs $599.
Of course the CLI also serves as a MP3 audio player, and as a voice
recorder, so you can save approximately nine hours of audio on 128
MB Memory Stick expansion cards ($89). Oh, and the CLI has a built-in
digital camera at 640 x 480 resolution, which can be used for recording
both still images and video sequences.
All this in a true handheld device, measuring 5 1/2 inches high by
2 7/8 wide by 11/16 thick, and weighing approximately eight ounces
("with stylus" notes Sony). OK, that’s a bit taller than my
wallet, but also narrower, and about the same thickness and weight.
So let’s see — it’s a PDA, a voice recorder, a portable audio
player, a digital camera, and a video camera. And did I mention that
you can plug in a $149 wireless networking card, to connect to your
E-mail and surf the Web, if you are in the range of an 802.11b wireless
network. Sony even offers a $39 game controller for thumb dexterity
The other big convergence play is between mobile phones
and PDAs. It’s not clear which should be added to the other, whether
we want a phone that is bulked up to be like a PDA, or a PDA that
you can dial and talk from. In one case, you end up trying to interface
to a computer through a numeric keypad, and in the other you can look
really stupid holding a handheld computer display to your ear.
As an example of a bulked-up phone, Verizon Wireless kindly loaned
me a Motorola T720 color handset with the "Get It Now" download
service ($299 with service agreement). The phone itself uses a flip
design, measuring 3.6 by 2 by 1 inches, and weighing 4 oz with the
standard battery. It has a bright 256 color display, and 64 MB memory.
The Motorola phone also supports a detachable camera with a 180-degree
This puppy has so many features that it requires a 192-page handbook.
Of course, it supports the latest phone features such as two-way text
messaging. Expanding towards a PDA, it has a built-in alphanumeric
phonebook that stores 500 entries and can be synced with your computer.
It includes a calculator and a currency converter. It records voice
notes, and also can serve as a FM stereo radio with an optional headset.
Beyond audio, it includes a picture viewer for images and animations
that "you can use as wallpaper and screensaver images." Yes,
these phones now turn on like computers, with an extended boot-up
sequence and start-up sound.
These days it’s expected that the phone has a micro-browser for surfing
the Web. However, this is still nothing like surfing on a desktop
and clicking on text and graphics links. The phone browser uses a
more limited interface with a nine-line display. You can scroll through
menus and text on the display, or select more quickly using the numeric
keypad. And then wait for the next page to be transferred.
The new wrinkle with the Verizon Get It Now service is the ability
to purchase and download new features and applications directly to
your phone. These applications are downloaded and purchased through
your wireless carrier, using the Qualcomm BREW runtime environment.
Many offer a free trial demo, and then can be purchased for a limited
period, or on a subscription basis.
With Get Tones you can download custom ring tones, and Get Games offers
dozens of games, from solitaire to baseball. Get Going offers a variety
of travel services, including airline flight information, restaurant
guides, and expense reporting. Get Fun offers entertainment goodies,
including music event information, horoscopes, and drink recipes.
To keep in touch, Get Mail provides an E-mail application, and Get
Pix provides tools to view and share digital photos.
Handspring, a provider of handheld computing products, even has gone
as far as focusing the company on Palm-based PDA communicators. The
Treo line has a flip top cover and earpiece over a color PDA screen,
with a backlit keyboard, and 16 MB memory for $499. And the Microsoft
PocketPC phone platform is rolling out in similar products in Europe
from several manufacturers.
Some people would argue that these devices are just
toys, that they pull us further from the real world of sunbeams in
the window, wind in the leaves, and rain in our shoes. But these days,
what is more real and more important than having a mobile phone to
keep in touch with your family, or having an easy-to-use camera at
hand to capture those special moments and share them with friends?
Don’t forget, film cameras require icky chemicals, and do you really
want to go back to home movie cameras and threading film on a projector?
After all, wasn’t film itself an abomination of "real" art.
Similarly, for today’s just-in-time, same-day-delivery business in
a globalized economy, it’s not hard to see the return on investment
from being able to solve a problem on the spot by immediately contacting
the right person, or to resolve a confusion by sending a digital photo
flying across the Internet.
This season’s digital devices have reached a new threshold in pocket-size
portability, and have become dramatically more affordable with their
growing popularity. Connecting to computers is getting easier with
standard USB and FireWire interfaces, and a plethora of software applications
are available to import, organize, edit, and share.
And if you don’t have a nearby computer expert to help you get up
to speed, you can take a class. For example, the Digital Photography
class is one of the most popular courses at the Ewing SeniorNet Computer
A word of warning: These devices require serious study of the manual
to go beyond basic operations. And they may challenge the farsighted
and the bifocal crowd. With their teeny buttons and even tinier displays,
new users may be more frustrated than pleased.
Corrections or additions?
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