Consumer Electronics Show highlights smart gadgets

In your networked home, which you'll be able to run remotely through a Web page, the Internet will bring an array of entertainment products to your stereo, DVD player, and cell phone, as well as your PC. Increasingly, it all will be wireless as well.

PC pioneers claim the core

Underscoring the PC's influence, a pair of PC stalwarts begin the gadget parade. Keynote speakers are Bill Gates, Microsoft chair and chief software architect, and Craig Barrett, Intel's chief executive officer. While Intel is best known for its stronghold in the PC processor market, Barrett will probably highlight some of his company's recent forays into the consumer electronics space. Most recently, Intel unveiled the Intel Pocket Concert Audio Player, an MP3 player and FM tuner.

Barrett is slated to speak on the "Extended PC Era," introducing the concept of an emerging consumer scenario that Intel calls PCX -- the PC to the power of X, according to Intel representatives.

Barrett will tout the PC as the center of a digital universe that is expanding. The home PC will be tasked to do even more, and consumers will be at the centre of their own Internet experiences. He predicts that in the near future one billion PCs will be connected to the Internet.

Like Intel, Microsoft has been making inroads into the consumer electronics space with a number of products designed to work with or complement the PC.

Gates is expected to show off a prototype of the Xbox gaming console, promised to be faster and better than Sony's competing PlayStation 2. But it isn't scheduled to be available until the second half of the year, priced at under $US500.

Microsoft is also boosting its Ultimate TV products and a series of wireless devices. Gates will probably also hit on features in the next release of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system that are designed to enhance the media abilities of the company's current and future device lines.

Cruising the wired road

While the old guard may dominate the start of CES, a bevy of vendors look to showcase their latest products and catch the public's eye. Here's a look at some of the technology expected to be on display in Las Vegas over the next four days.

Motorola is unveiling its IRadio system, a programmable vehicle entertainment service packaged like a car radio. You'll configure your IRadio through a Web page, and you can choose from a scale of service packages. One system supports multiple profiles for all the drivers in the family. Besides music and other entertainment, the IRadio provides location-based information, navigation references, emergency calling, and communication functions. It accepts voice commands and even supports a hands-free phone system. Motorola expects to begin consumer testing of the IRadio early this year, and to ship it in vehicles within 18 to 24 months.

Delphi Automotive Systems will announce the availability of its Communiport Rear-Seat Entertainment System. This portable system is targeted at automotive manufacturers and gives users access to DVD playing capabilities in the back seat of a car. In addition, you can hook gaming consoles up to the 7-inch flip-up color display. The unit costs $US1495 and will ship in February.

Even our homes are getting smarter, according to the hopeful prognosticators at CES. Both onsite and offsite exhibits herald networked appliances and utilities, usually controlled through a Web site. That scenario spawns a broad selection of home-management devices. Among them:

New Products Help You Manage Your Wired Home Simple Devices is showing its wireless home networking platform, SimplePad, which lets a desktop PC act as a wireless Web server and stream information to other wireless devices in a home. With Simple Devices' attachments, your PC can stream to your stereo (through SimpleFi) and to the company's Internet-connected alarm clock, SimpleClock. The devices are scheduled to ship mid-year.

BeAtHome is unveiling its product line, described as an Internet-based home automation system. You log on to a custom Web site to manage your wired home -- controlling lights or temperature, even viewing pictures. BeAtHome can notify you of designated triggers, such as smoke detection.

The Xanboo Internet home management system provides similar Web-based controls and is scheduled to be available to consumers this month through utility companies. A starter kit is priced at under $US200.

To manage the utility bills that are likely to rise with all that automation, Coactive Networks is unveiling the Coactive Energy Bundle, which runs with the company's Coactive Connector residential gateway. The software watches your power metre, thermostat, light switches, and major electrical appliances to help you manage and conserve your energy services. You can monitor (and control) it through a Web browser or WAP-enabled wireless phone.

Mosaic from Universal Electronics is described as a handheld, wireless, touch-screen device that lets you run multiple home entertainment and home automation systems and surf through your TV. Mosaic is already marketed under the name Director Advanced Touch Remote, an all-in-one remote control device.

Digital toys for a wired home

Of course, the CES stock in trade has long been consumer gadgets. Here's a sampling:

For the filmmakers out there, Applied Magic will introduce its new Sequel 20GB entry-level video editing appliance. The company designed Sequel as a PC-free video editor with a number of simplified editing tools directed toward the consumer market. The set-top box resembles a VCR and costs $US1995.

Samsung Electronics America will team up with DataPlay to deliver a series of devices with DataPlay's quarter-size 500MB non-erasable optical disks. In addition to their capability to store photographs and video, the disks can run in varying hardware, including personal digital assistants, cell phones, and music players. Samsung will incorporate the disk technology in several devices. Among the ones at CES are its Combi Yepp minisystem with a detachable, portable audio player; Yepp portable digital player, which holds more than 10 hours of music; and a PC Card.

Nokia plans to debut a series of new products designed for home use. The vendor will show users its Media Terminal infotainment centre. This device combines the Internet with digital broadcasting to give consumers a single place to organize and store their media. Nokia will also return to its mobile phone roots by introducing the 3390, 8200 Series, and 7190 Internet-enabled phones.

What's new under the hood

On the chip side of things, National Semiconductor will highlight some of its latest processors designed to handle the heavy requirements of multimedia applications. First up, the company plans to introduce its next-generation DVD-on-a-chip integrated processors. In addition, Internet appliances using the company's low-power Geode processor will be on display from Compaq, Philips Electronics, and 3Com.

E.Digital will showcase a variety of products based on its MicroCAM (compressed audio manager) operating system technology. E.Digital will display its MP2000 portable Internet music player design, a DataPlay-enabled digital audio player, and a DataPlay-enabled MP3 encoder design. E.Digital will also highlight its portable jukebox, which contains a 10GB hard drive in a device about the size of a deck of cards.

(Ashlee Vance of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.)

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PC World Staff

PC World

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