Digital Television

Flat-Screen Displays

Movies on DVD

Digital Cameras

Digital Video Cameras

Digital Convergence

Phones and PDAs

Reality Check

Corrections or additions?

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

life.

Top Of Page
Digital Television

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.

Top Of Page
Flat-Screen Displays

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

70-something pounds.

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

camera.

Top Of Page
Movies on DVD

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.

Editor’s Note: U.S. 1 covered Doug Dixon’s new book, "Desktop

DVD Authoring," on November 20. More information on the book is

at www.manifest-tech.com

Top Of Page
Digital Cameras

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

for you.

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

E-mail them.

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

video clips.

Top Of Page
Digital Video Cameras

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.

Top Of Page
Digital Convergence

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

training.

Top Of Page
Phones and PDAs

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

rotating lens.

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.

Top Of Page
Reality Check

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

Literacy Center.

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.


Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments