CES Notebook: Portability Is Still King

An early look at this year's electronics confab proves wireless is showing the way.
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Editor's Note: Senior writer Troy Wolverton is attending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. He's keeping a journal to note some of the convention's highlights.

LAS VEGAS -- Digital, wireless and portable are likely to be the key themes in the consumer electronics industry this year, if this year's show is any indication.

In other words, more of the same -- only more so.

Although the showroom floors at CES don't open until Thursday, industry analysts and the media got a sneak peak of some of the offerings on Tuesday night. Among the dozens of products on display, few seemed truly revolutionary. Instead, most seemed to be evolutions of last year's products, rehashes of old ideas or products or standards designed to make the Digital Life easier or somehow better.

Still, some products did stand out -- including those that weren't even on display.

The elephant in the room is

Apple Computer

(AAPL) - Get Report

. Although, the iPod has made Apple one of the hottest and most important companies in the consumer electronics industry, it doesn't have a direct presence at CES. Instead, the company will showcase its upcoming products and strategy at the MacWorld event in San Francisco next week.

But with all the iPods on display at Tuesday night's event, Apple's presence was felt. Numerous companies were showing off iPod accessories -- which are becoming a sizable market in their own right. And that's not to mention the companies touting or displaying iPod rivals.

Among the iPod accessories on display were a new line of FM transmitters from

Belkin

; some rugged, waterproof cases from

Otter Box

; and external speakers from

Kensington

.

One of the more interesting iPod accessories comes from

Scosche

. The company is offering a Bluetooth transmitter that attaches to the back of an iPod and can send music to a car stereo, home entertainment system or wireless headphones. Other companies offer similar products, but Scosche is one of the first that will send music to multiple devices -- and do so digitally. About the only thing it won't do is wirelessly sync an iPod to iTunes -- you'll still need your USB cable for that.

Speaking of the USB cable, you may not need it for long, if several exhibitors here have anything to say about it. They are touting a new wireless protocol that seeks to replace the nearly ubiquitous USB cables that attach peripherals such as digital cameras, printers and iPods to computers. The standard promises to give USB transfer rates -- some 480 megabits per second -- over short distances sans cables.

The new protocol -- which is backed by companies such as

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

,

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

and

Samsung

, among others -- is seen as a response to the popularity of current wireless technologies and their limitations.

Wireless networking (the 802.11 standards) and Bluetooth have become increasingly popular in recent years as ways to share Internet access within a home or to connect cordless headsets to mobile phones. But both of the protocols suffer from relatively slow data transmission rates that can make the transfer of large files impractical. Downloading a Web page over a WiFi connection is one thing, transferring 20 minutes worth of digital video from a camcorder to a computer is quite another. That's where wireless USB comes in.

But the protocol is more than just a nice idea. Some companies are starting to bring it to market. On display at the preview event, for instance, was a wireless USB chip from startup

Staccato Communications

that the company hopes to roll out to equipment makers this year at less than $10 a system.

But wireless USB isn't the only idea out there for moving around big digital files without resorting to cables. A new iteration of the 802.11 WiFi standard incorporated into a chipset from

Airgo

promises data transfer rates of up to 240 megabits per second. That's more than enough bandwidth, an Airgo representative said, to wirelessly transfer high-definition video. Airgo's chips are being incorporated into wireless routers from companies such as

Netgear

(NTGR) - Get Report

,

Cisco's

(CSCO) - Get Report

Linksys division and

Buffalo Technology

, some of which were on display at the preview event.

But new WiFi routers and wireless USB weren't the only ways that companies were proposing that consumers cut their cables.

Freescale Semiconductor

(FSL)

, for instance, touted new devices that offer a way to connect existing USB ports wirelessly. The devices, typically transmitters that plug into USB ports, use Freescale chips.

Meanwhile, a semiconductor company named

Pulse-Link

is pushing an "Ultra Wideband" protocol it has dubbed CWave that promises transfer rates north of 1 gigabit per second.

Companies are hoping to cut the cords in other ways, too. One of the big innovations in telephone technology in recent years has been voice over Internet protocol (or VoIP) services from the likes of

Vonage

or

Skype

, now owned by

eBay

(EBAY) - Get Report

.

The problem with such systems is that they haven't been as easy to use as regular old telephone service. Vonage, for instance, requires users to install a special box that attaches to their computer network and Skype generally requires users to be in front of their computers to initiate calls.

But companies such as these are hoping to make VoIP a little easier to use this year. Skype, for instance, showed off a cordless phone handset that connects to its system via WiFi, meaning that customers can wander around their house or even go to a local hotspot to make calls. Likewise, Taiwanese company

Wistron

demonstrated a WiFi phone intended to replace mobile handsets; it also can be used at local hotspots and over home and business networks.

In the meantime,

Panasonic

is rolling out a cordless phone that incorporates a Vonage adapter into the phone system itself.

It's not just VoIP that consumer electronics companies are hoping to make more mobile. Another big push would allow consumers to take movies and TV shows on the road with them.

Portable digital video players are not new, of course. The big no-show, Apple, jumped into the portable video player segment in October when it introduced its video-playing iPod. And that device was predated by a number of other portable media players from the likes of

Creative Technology

(CREAF)

and

Archos

.

The trouble the devices have run into is getting digital content onto them. While it's relatively simple to download home movies to the devices, there just hasn't been a whole lot on offer from Hollywood.

Apple has attacked the problem by signing deals with

Pixar

(PIXR)

,

Disney's

(DIS) - Get Report

ABC and

GE's

(GE) - Get Report

NBC to get movies and numbers of television shows on to the company's iTune's online store. But the selection is still fairly limited.

Other companies see more hope in linking portable media players with the growing number of digital video recorders in consumer households. The idea is to allow consumers to transfer the shows and movies they are already recording on their DVRs to portable devices.

At the preview event,

Advanced Micro Devices

(AMD) - Get Report

showed off a new portable media player from Humax that links with DVRs on offer from

DirecTV

(DTV)

. The device, which uses an AMD chip, is expected to cost about the same as a top-of-the-line iPod, but consumers will be able to transfer video from their DVRs to it for free.