Saturday, May 13, 2006

Hot wired: Blazing the entertainment trail

High-tech consumer gadgetry gets shown off around the world each year in the first weeks of January, so trail-blazing electronics manufacturers don't get much of a New Year's break.

A four-day trade show in Las Vegas sounds like a bit of a high-life doddle, but this year's record-breaking Consumer Electronics Show (CES) attracted 2500 exhibitors and 150,000 punters.

Needless to say, heaps of hotels and exhibition centres are needed to accommodate all those people. The Samsung booth alone covered 2500sq m.

At CES, both market leaders and lesser companies get to show off their innovations. Bill Gates and Larry Page are regulars, and this year Hollywood stars including Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres and Tom Cruise helped get the big-business message out.

Morgan Freeman was there as a spokesman for services that will soon be delivering first-run movies to people's homes via the internet while the movies play in theatres. ClickStar, a joint venture between his production company and Intel, will this year release a movie starring Freeman called 10 Items or Less that will be downloadable two weeks after it is released.

There was disappointingly little in the way of revolutionary new home-theatre products at CES.

Toshiba was one company to show off new television technology. Its prototype flat-panel SED (surface-conduction electron-emitter display) screens greatly impressed, and the picture quality was rated superior to LCD or plasma screens. Toshiba expects to release this new SED line late this year with screen sizes starting at 55in.

Toshiba's new Gigabeat S Series portable video player was also acclaimed - and was even talked up as a challenger to the iPod.

The brand also showed some of the first HD-DVD players, expected to be on sale in the US by April. They can upscale standard DVD images to 720p or 1080i, making things look even better if you have an HDTV standing idle.

Panasonic is committed to plasma, and asserted that biggest is best with a 103in plasma TV screen - out-gunning rival Samsung by a whole inch.

Both home-entertainment giants had high-definition Blu-ray disc players on display. These units look to offer lots of advantages over standard or even HD-DVD players including much greater hard-disc capacity, but will be several months away and will break new cost frontiers.

For LCD-screen advocates, Westinghouse showed a 56in display with eight megapixels - four times the standard 1080 pixel count. Targeted at those needing ultra-high resolution like medical imaging, it is nonetheless a pointer to LCDs' flexibility.

And in case those choices aren't enough to confuse, Philips Electronics was talking up 3D TV, saying it hoped to introduce a high-definition television that can play 3D content in about two years.

By Richard Thorne