Dust Settles on CES; What Major Trends Emerged?

Reporters trek out to the desert each January for the Consumer Electronics Show to feast their eyes upon all the new gear and gadgets. But there's another lure and it's not the $7.99 prime rib at an off-the-Vegas-Strip hotel. Rather CES offers the chance to get a glimpse at trends, the discernible directions in which the consumer electronics industry seems to be heading.

To that end, the refinement of existing technologies dominated the news at this year's show. Many of the consumer-electronics technologies featured at past CES gatherings--HDTV and Bluetooth, to name two--have already been out for several years; now that they've achieved mainstream acceptance, companies can target enhancements and usability.

As a result, electronics makers seem to be paying more attention to the design of their products--particularly how to make them fit in with consumers' decor and activities. Likewise, with the fundamentals nailed down, lower power consumption and more environmentally-friendly construction start to become not only desirable by consumers, but also feasible for vendors.

And so this year, the flat screens got thinner and bigger, the processors got faster and more efficient, and the connections between various gadgets got both more useful and more usable.

As we walked the floors, booths, and suites of the 2008 CES, here are some of the larger trends that stood out.

Convergence

If we had a nickel for every time someone touted the convergence concept at CES this past week, we wouldn't have needed to hit the slots. In the Mac universe, convergence already has a foothold--think of it as the "If it's in iTunes, I can sync it with my iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV, and play it on any other Mac in the house" mindset.

Sharp's Aquos Net mixes Internet and television by displaying widgets featuring news, weather, and traffic data.

But the idea here is for all your gear (or at least all of it from the same vendor) to be able to access the same content. For example, Samsung announced that many of its new products--TVs, video cameras, and more--will include WiFi and/or ethernet; the company's stated goal is to "bring different screens together."

The other side of convergence is making traditionally single-purpose products able to take on other tasks. We've seen this over the past year or two in the gaming market; all three of the big consoles (Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360) have Internet and media-playback features.

But a number of vendors displayed TVs with Internet features, such as RSS reading, as well as built-in media readers and USB ports for viewing your photos and movies without needing a separate component for playback. And let's not forget the refrigerators with built-in digital-photo frames and RSS readers.

"Lifestyle" Design

Another popular meme this year falls under the ubiquitous-in-press-conferences phrase "lifestyle design." The high-end audio market has used the term for years now, sometimes snidely, to classify products that include some degree of design aesthetic--in other words, products that don't look hideous and take up half your living room. But now the movement has gone mainstream, with TVs, speakers, and home-entertainment components that are both functional and attractive.

Gone are boxy, silver or black DVD players and TVs with hard edges and sharp corners, replaced by glossy-finished components in various hues and curved-edged TVs that blend into your decor--or, if you prefer, stand out for their more-modern design.

To Mac users, this approach likely makes sense--and sounds familiar--but it's finally hitting home with the electronics industry as a whole. And for good reason--according to Philips, consumer electronics is now a $200-billion business, with many purchases made with appearance in mind. (The manufacturer's market research further shows that both women and men are influenced by design these days, but women especially; women either make or heavily influence 61 percent of purchases in this market.)

Philips launched a series of Swarovski-encrusted USB thumb drives with what it termed "Active Crystals."

The lifestyle trend also brings devices that are fashion-friendly and integrate into the rest of your life. However, as with any idea, you can take things too far: we saw far, far too many crystal-encrusted electronics--phones, iPod cases, earbuds, and more. Somehow, we don't think the market for glittering thumb drives that double as runway-fashion necklaces is very big.

One other lifestyle trend that was everywhere was wireless. Not wireless as in phones and LANs, but wireless as in "I don't want to see wires anywhere in my house." Thanks to major improvements in wireless technology, this year brought high-end wireless speaker systems, wireless subwoofers that allow for optimal placement without bulky cables, and even wireless HD video. And a number of home theater systems shown at the show included Bluetooth for playing media from your computer, mobile phone, or portable player directly to your stereo.

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