Viva Las Vegas — The Hardware Story

by Gerry Blackwell

In Vegas, it's not all dollar slots and Texas Hold 'Em. At least not when the Consumer Electronics Show comes to town. Here's a look at some of the latest products that could help small businesses rake in the chips.

The Consumer Electronics Show, held every January in lovely Las Vegas, Nevada, is no longer just about TVs, stereos and car radios. CES is also a coming out party for new computer and mobile communications gear. In fact, it's the coming out party.

It's the biggest trade show in North America, with exhibition halls the size of football fields, crammed this year with an estimated 140,000 attendees. But while others were ogling Sharp's 108-inch LCD TV — the biggest ever — or jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with crowds at the Microsoft booth, your correspondent trolled the show floor looking for useful tools that might lighten the load for small business owners.

Sure, Microsoft was showing off Windows Vista (again), and there were new laptops and printers with slightly better specifications than the models released a few months ago. But it was the smaller, less glitzy items that caught my attention.

Tiny Computers
Intel, for example, was showing the fruits of its initiative with Microsoft to promote what the vendors are calling ultra-mobile PCs or UMPCs — slate-style tablet PCs with small screens (usually seven inches diagonal), Intel mobile processors and mid-size hard drives. They're about the size of a large book and typically weigh less than two pounds.

Not many people could get along with a UMPC as their only computer, but it might be ideal for an on-the-go executive who doesn't do much more than check e-mail or browse the Web and the company intranet. A UMPC would also be great as a second device to carry to meetings — it runs on Windows Tablet Edition: you can make freehand notes using the stylus and later translate them into computer text — or to take traveling.

Once you have one, I'm guessing you'll also find uses for it around home — for checking e-mail and browsing the Web wirelessly (with its built-in Wi-Fi) while sitting in your Barcalounger, for example, or accessing media server software.

TabletKiosk with its eo UMPCs (two were introduced last year, priced from $900 to $1,400) appears to be making a major commitment to the format. TabletKiosk is touting a new eo, the TufTab, a ruggedized model designed to withstand drops and bumps. To be launched this quarter, it features a seven-inch screen, 1.2GHz processor, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, Windows Tablet PC edition, fingerprint reader, etc. The TufTab weighs 1.87 lbs.

Nokia, meanwhile, was showing its latest Internet tablet, the N800, a similar but even smaller device (2.95- x 5.7- x 0.5-inches and just 7.27 ounces.) with a smaller screen (800x480, 65,536 colors). It connects to a Wi-Fi network or to a computer via Bluetooth to download e-mail and browse the Web. It's also an MP3 player, but it's not a phone. Connecting to the Web

If you want to use the non-Windows-based N800 to browse the Web over a mobile network, you'll need to use a compatible cell phone as a modem. Available now, the N800 sells for $400.

The Perfect Camera
Sanyo launched its first Xacti "cameracorder" a couple of years ago. The latest, previewed at CES and available (for about $700) in April or May, is called the Xacti HD2. The company calls the Xacti a cameracorder to distinguish it from both digital still cameras (digicams) and video camcorders. It shoots better video than any digicam — highly compressed but near-broadcast quality high definition — and better stills (7.1 megapixels) than any camcorder. The only storage is on SD flash memory cards.

The HD2 would be ideal as a multi-purpose company camera — for shooting Web catalog product shots, recording do-it-yourself training clips, etc. But you will have to invest in a big SD memory card if you're going to use it often for video. A 4GB card ($60 to $160) will hold as much as an hour of best-quality video. One of the new 8GB cards ($150 to $300) will hold two hours.

Dual-Mode Cordless Phone with Skype
Netgear's Dual-Mode Cordless Phone with Skype lets you make conventional phone calls or calls over the Internet.

Microsoft's Windows Vista platform includes an innovative new feature, SideShow, that allows developers to build products that pull information from a Vista computer for display on a small subsidiary screen — without the computer itself having to be on. Some new laptops, for example, including the W5Fe from Asus, feature a SideShow module with a second small screen, built into the lid in the case of the W5Fe.

The SideShow screen can display Outlook and other quick-hit data. It can also show images and play audio. In the airport, in the elevator, in the car, you can see your most important information at a glance without having to boot the computer. The SideShow module synchronizes data whenever the computer is on so it's always up to date.

Asus claims its product is the first laptop with SideShow to make it to market. More, no doubt, will be arriving soon. The W5Fe comes with a range of Intel Core2 Duo Processors, built-in 11a/b/g wireless networking, up to 1.5 GB of DDR2 RAM, a 12.1-inch WXGA screen, a choice of SATA drives from 80 to 160 GB, a built-in 1.3M pixel Web-camera, Bluetooth, etc.

Digital Pen
We've looked before at digital pens that both write in ink on paper but also capture writing digitally. There are still lots of situations where people feel uncomfortable using a computer to take notes — in meetings, while doing field survey work, for example — or can't take notes fast enough with a tablet or PDA. The Logitech io2 is an example, but the io2 system requires special paper that can be expensive and difficult to find. Iogear Inc., a company with a few cool new products at CES, has taken a different approach.

The Iogear Digital Scribe, which the company told me would begin shipping in February or March, includes a special pen with a ballpoint tip that writes on any paper, plus a small, lightweight wireless scanner device you clip to the top of your pad or clipboard. The device captures every stroke you make with the pen and stores it or sends it wirelessly to a computer, where it can be converted to text using handwriting recognition software. If it works, it could be a very useful gadget. One concern: if you fold a page up over the top of a clipboard, won't that cover the scanning device and prevent it recording pen strokes?

Skype Gear
Skype, the low- or no-cost computer phone service acquired 18 months ago by eBay for $2.6 billion, continues to slowly gain acceptance as a business tool. Netgear, one of the premier home- and small-business network equipment vendors, added to its line-up of Skype phones at CES, introducing the Dual-Mode Cordless Phone with Skype (SPH200D). It plugs into a conventional phone wall jack and into a broadband network router and can be used to make and take both Skype and regular phone calls.

The Netgear product, like a other recent dual-mode phones, uses DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications), a standard developed originally in Europe. It uses a radio frequency that is unlikely to interfere with other computer-related networks in the office — Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, for example — and offers excellent coverage and call quality. While other dual-mode phones we tested require you to connect to Skype through a computer running the Skype software, one very cool feature of the Netgear product is that you don't even need a computer turned on to use Skype. The company says it will ship sometime in the first quarter of 2007 and sell for $199.

Belkin's Easy Transfer Cable
If you don't have a network, Belkin's Easy Transfer Cable is a quick way to move files from one PC to another.

Odds and Ends
Finding the right gear to set up your computer exactly the way you want can sometimes be a frustrating exercise. A couple of companies were showing new products that solve some old problems — and, in one case, a new problem.

Belkin was pitching its Easy Transfer Cable, an eight-foot USB cable that you connect between two computers, as a quick and easy way to transfer data from an old XP computer to your new Vista model. It transfers files at up to 480 megabits per second. But if you have a network, you don't need this.

Belkin was also showing a new version of its Flip KVM switch, a device that lets you hook up two computers to the same mouse, keyboard and monitor and flip back and forth between them. What's new is that the Flip DVI-D has a DVI port for connecting a monitor using a digital cable instead of a conventional analog monitor port.

Iogear was showing its new Ultra-Wideband 4-Port USB Hub ($200), which it says will begin shipping in February or March. A USB hub lets you plug in multiple — in this case, four — USB devices while using only one of your computer's USB ports. The Iogear product uses a new wireless technology, ultra-wideband, just beginning to find its way to market.

A wireless transceiver plugs into the USB port and communicates with the hub up to 30 feet away (in an open space). The benefit? Flexibility in where you physically position USB devices — they no longer have to be close enough to the computer to reach with a cable. Plus, it's one less cable trailing across the floor. We're just not quite sure that's worth $200. Conventional wired hubs sell for less than $30.

Iogear also showed an External Video Card ($80), due out by or sometime in March, but the product doesn't appear at the company's Web site. It plugs into a USB 2.0 port on your PC and then you can plug a second monitor into it. This allows you to set up one monitor to view one part of your desktop, the other to view another part, saving you the trouble of constantly opening and closing or repositioning windows.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Jan 30th 2007
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