Tech toys abound at CES 2009 in Las Vegas

Tech toys abound at CES 2009 in Las Vegas
You do a lot of walking at CES, so it's a good thing LG had these retro orb chairs to rest up in. Maybe they were a little too comfortable... Photo by Bill Roberson

I’ve just returned from sunny Las Vegas and the world’s biggest gadget geek-fest, commonly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES.

I was at the show as part of the crew for Digital Trends, an online consumer electronics review Web site based in Portland, Ore.

I and some other Digital Trends folks roamed the floors of the massive show, which occupies three convention halls at the Las Vegas Convention Center, much of the sprawling Hilton hotel and also takes up space at the Venetian Hotel. There were a lot of cab rides.

While there, I shot a number of videos with my cohorts Greg Nibler and Robin Winfield.

Day one of the show was filled with 45-minute press conferences from the major tech manufactures like Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Sharp. They did not disappoint.

But many attendees were also looking forward to news from some rising tech companies, such as LG and Samsung, both from South Korea. Another notable release came from Palm, the PDA makers. More from them in a bit.

The repeated theme from most of the big names above was two-fold: flat-panel TV’s are getting flatter, better, and less expensive. And everyone is going green in terms of less-harmful materials, more efficient manufacturing and newly designed plants. That was the good news.

The economy was on everyone’s mind and each company basically said that they were planning on seeing lower sales volume this year, but they remained hopeful. So not much bad news.

Once the teasing at the press conferences was over, our team hit the floor the next day along with 140,000 other attendees. The distractions were many and varied.

There were celebrities who were paid to be pitching products for their sponsors, amazing displays of new and prototype products, and lots of pretty women handing out swag (freebies) to the mostly male (and mostly nerdish) hordes plying the over 2 million square feet of exhibit space.

LG, a giant South Korean giant mega-corporation best known state-side for washers and dryers, had a huge, dynamic booth full of goodies, including one item that really had people talking: a cell phone built into a watch.

The working prototype device, which looked nearly ready for production, had a lot of buzz going into the show. At the press conference, a company big-wig took a call on the touch-screen watch phone, Dick Tracy-style. The rest of us will likely want to use a stereo Bluetooth headset lest we be forced to wear a pocket protector and black-rimmed glasses while taking calls.

The rather sleek watch phone, which was both stylish and had a slim profile, boasts a music player and built-in camera for video calls (all the rage in Asia I’m told). It’s going to Europe first (after Asia) according to an LG rep we talked to who was wearing one. No word on a price, but expect it to not be cheap. At all.

LG is also big into tiny video projectors, one of which they had built into a cell phone. Practical? Not really. Tech geek approval rating? About a 9.5.

Like I said earlier, Palm also had a big announcement: a Palm cell phone running a new operating system called WebOS. The phone is called the Pre and it looks like it could give Apple’s iPhone and T-Mobile’s G-1 (a.k.a. the Googlephone) a run when it comes out this year. But we shall see.

The new Palm OS was crisp and intuitive, and the phone has both a touch-screen and a slide-down QWERTY keyboard for text messaging and so forth. It was a very hot topic at the show. Price should be in line with competing smartphones.

Elsewhere, Sony, Panasonic and LG showed off 3-D HDTV screens, with glasses required for the Sony and Panasonic units and no glasses for the LG version, although it looked the worst of the three.

Will people be willing to watch movies and shows with some glasses on for a solid 3-D effect? I recently saw the computer-animated movie Bolt in 3-D at the theater wearing the “new” glasses (those old paper red/green nose cutters are long gone) and it was very impressive – and fun. After five minutes (heck, after the first 3-D preview), I forgot I had them on.

If you make can movie watching more fun or more beautiful, I think people would wear glasses, funny hats and clown shoes if need be. I can see people buying and using “fashionable” 3-D glasses (the lenses look ordinary) if 3-D migrates to cellphone screens and other video sources.  Do catch a 3-D movie if you get the chance – it’s worth it.

Back at the show, there was no shortage of new HDTV’s, both of the plasma and LCD variety. Thin was in, with the thinnest sets coming in at about a half-inch thick. LED backlighting is also the rage for LCD sets, as is 240hz refreshing of the screen to make action look clearer – a problem plasma sets don’t have. Still, the picture quality on the LCD sets was top-notch, including a 108-inch model from Sharp.

But no plasma or LCD TV could hold a candle to the few OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) sets on display. None were very big and Sony still makes the only one you can buy (an 11-inch set for $2,500), but the prototypes on display ranged from less than a millimeter thick at the Sony booth to sets not much thicker over at the LG display. Sony also had a new Walkman media player with an OLED screen that will be out soon.

Inside a bulletproof case at the Sony booth, there was a small working prototype of a flexible OLED screen that attracted the nerd herds like free beer at a rodeo. The possibilities seem infinite for such a technology. Flexible displays seem to be a hot technology of the near future.

Also endless were the vendors hawking the latest in computers. Hewlett/Packard dueled it out Toshiba and a bunch of other PC makers (Apple does not go to CES – but that may change), but the real action was at the booth for Asian computer makers like MSI and Asus.

These companies are locked in a battle over who can make the best tiny laptop, known as a netbook. Some of the models run Windows but many run Linux, and sport no disc drive. They specialize in small size, light weight, extensive wireless connectivity, long battery life and a low price, usually around $300 to $500..

Now, the big players like HP, Dell and others are getting on the netbook bandwagon. But they have a ways to go to catch up to the slick offerings from smaller makers like Asus and MSI.

Outside of that, there was no shortage of iPod accessory makers, cell phone case purveyors and companies making a solution to every tech fantasy you can dream up.

And if you dream up something that wasn’t there this year, chances are it will be in 2010.