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Internationaler Funkaustellung 2015–Part 1–Personal Computing Trends

IFA LogoI am reporting on the Internationaler Funkaustellung 2015 in Berlin which effectively is the show that determines the consumer electronics, personal IT and appliance technology trends that will affect Europe, Middle East, Africa and Australasia. It is also the time to publicly launch technologies that have been ready for prime time by the middle of the year.

Personal Computing

This year has become a year where smartphones, tablets, laptop and desktop computers are seen as one force where hardware and software vendors are working across these devices as of they are simply personal-computing devices.These are primarily based around operating systems which allow people and companies to develop the software that suits different users’ needs.

Desktop, Laptops and Tablets

Intel, Microsoft and others have caused a huge refresh to this class of device thanks to new hardware, software and standards.

Windows 10 Start Menu

Windows 10

Microsoft had just launched Windows 10 while Intel replaced their existing processor silicon with the new Skylake range. These new chipsets are focused on increased performance for the same amount of energy used. This allows for manufacturers to create a granular lineup of products that suit different needs and budgets while assuring “best bang for the buck” in this context. As for peripheral connectivity, the USB 3.1 and Type-C standards along with the Intel Thunderbolt 3 standard had been made firm and more systems honouring these standards were being launched. Acer stands behind the Thunderbolt 3 standard with USB Type-C connectivity because they want to allow users to enhance graphics performance on their computers using an outboard graphics expansion dock of the Alienware Graphics Amplifier or Sony VAIO Z Series Blu-Ray expansion module ilk..

USB Type C plug press image courtesy of USB Implementers Forum

USB Type-C plug – the way to go this year for multipurpose connectivity

Nearly every computer name has catered to the hardcore gamer market by offering high-performance  computers that are tuned to this class of user. Increasingly everyone is offering this kind of performance not just as a desktop or tower form-factor but as a laptop or notebook and some of these manufacturers are offering these products under a “performance” sub-brand like Acer Predator. Acer has even worked on the first Android-driven gaming-grade tablet and smartphone to cater for the mobile gaming community.

Lenovo IdeaCentre Y900 gaming tower PC - press picture courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo IdeaCentre Y-Series gaming tower PC – the first product Lenovo offers for core gamers

In some ways, this is the late 1960s and early 1970s where GM, Ford and Chrysler fielded to the American and Australian markets a lineup of highly-powerful aggressively-styled “muscle cars” targeted at younger buyers. Examples of these include the Dodge Challenger and  the Chevy Camaro released in the US and the Ford Falcon GT, the Holden Monaro and Valiant Charger released in Australia

It is part of a strategy common amongst this year’s exhibitors where they are offering different ranges of computer products to suit the different user groups in a similar way to how the common vehicle builders like Ford. GM and Toyota pitch vehicle ranges to different kinds of drivers. This factor has been more demonstrated by ASUS, Acer and Lenovo who are effectively “pure-play” personal-IT companies.

ASUS RoG GX700 water-cooled gaming laptop with radiator dock - press picture courtesy of ASUS

ASUS RoG GX700 water-cooled gaming laptop with radiator dock

ASUS have built out their Zen Republic of Gamers sub-brand. One key example that ASUS had offered is the GX700 gaming laptop which is liquid-cooled when connected to a special dock that has an integrated radiator but is able to perform with less power when independent of this dock. As well, ASUS have fronted up with the Zenpad S 8” tablet which has a USB Type-C connector for power and data.

ASUS Zen AIO S Series all-in-one desktop computers press picture courtesy of ASUS

ASUS Zen AIO S Series all-in-one desktop computers

They also released the Zen AIO S Series of all-in-one desktop computers which are driven by Intel Skylake processors such as the i7-6100T, a 23” 4K screen or a 21” Full HD screen with both having touch as an option, NVIDIA discrete graphics, up to 32Gb RAM and 2Tb hard disk capacity and optional 128Gb SSD. These are endowed with connectivity in the form of 2×2 MIMO 802.11a/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet for your home network along with Bluetooth 4.0 Smart Ready wireless and USB connectivity in the form of 1 x USB 3.1 Type C, USB 3.0 x 4 and USB 2.0 x 1. These shows up a reality that the all-in-one can have the same kind of specification as a regular desktop computer.

They also fielded their VivoStick which is a direct competitor to Intel’s “Compute Stick” when it comes to a “PC-on-a-stick” that plugs in to a TV’s HDMI port. Here, the VIvoStick has two USB ports so you can use a keyboard and mouse without the need for a USB hub. They are still at the “toy” stage by using Intel Atom horsepower, 2Gb RAM and 32Gb storage.

Acer is building out their Predator gaming lineup of performance computing equipment. Here, they had pitched the first performance-grade Android gaming tablet known as the Predator 8 Tablet. This runs on an Intel Atom x7 processor and Intel Generation 8 graphics serving an 8” Full HD screen. It will have 2Gb RAM and 32Gb or 64Gb storage and a microSD expansion slot. It has 2×2 MIMO Wi-Fi, tactile feedback, an aluminium housing and four front-facing speakers. This is estimated to arrive in North America on November 6 for US$299 and will arrive earlier in the rest of the world in October for EUR€349.

They also are running the Aspire V Nitro Series range of laptops as performance laptops without the aggressive “muscle-car” looks associated with gaming computers. These 15” and 17” laptops, along with the Aspire V 13 ultraportable are driven with the latest technology – Intel Skylake processors under the hood, USB Type-C connectivity, 802.11ac 2×2 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi with the Black Edition variants offering Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type C.

Acer also fielded the first Chromebook R11 which is the first Chromebook to come in a 2-in-1 form factor rather than the cheaper “clamshell” style. This is also accompanied by another Yoga-style 360-degree convertible in the form of the 14” Aspire R14. They also demonstrated the Revo Build which is a modular personal computer where functionality is added on simply by one plugging extra modules on to the computer.

This year, Lenovo stepped into the gaming fray by offering the Y series of performance-grade computing equipment. They fielded the IdeaCentre Y900 and Y700 gaming towers which are based on the traditional ATX form factor. This allows for core gamers to improve these systems with the hardware that suits their performance curve, much like the way the “petrolheads” liked to “hot up” the Ford  and GM cars to turn them in to “street machines”. These use quad-core i7 horsepower and discrete graphics under the hood with the Y900 being able to work with 2 display cards. The IdeaPad Y700 range of gaming laptops can be based on Intel or AMD processors  but implements discrete graphics, a 10-point multitouch screen and a RealSense 3D camera. This is augmented with a surround-sound headset, precision mouse, mouse mat, laptop-optimised backpack, mousemat and a mechanical keyboard which is a brush with their former self due to the original IBM PC keyboards.

Lenovo MIIX 700 detachable tablet press pictue courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo MIIX 700 detachable tablet – to snap at the Surface Pro

Lenovo is snapping at Microsoft’s heels by offering the Miix 700 12” detachable tablet which is a spitting image of the Surface Pro lineup. It comes with the keyboard folio and has a 12” touchscreen with 2160×1440 resolution and runs Windows 10 Home.  Lenovo also entered in to the Chromebook game with the 100S Chromebook and fielded the IdeaCentre AIO 700 which is a range of all-in-one desktops that have a 24” or 27” screen with resolution up to 4K and upgradeable discrete graphics. These can come with Intel or AMD processors and a RealSense camera.

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 3 press image courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 3 – the latest incarnation of the Yoga Tab lineup

The Yoga Tab series has been refreshed with these Android tablets fitted with features like rotating cameras along with new horsepower. The Yoga Tab 3 Pro still has the projector so you can throw a picture on the wall as big as one of today’s flat-screen TVs. These are being pitched more as entertainment devices rather than as general-purpose iPad-style tablets.

But they have come strong with more additions to the laptop range. Lenovo had shown 2 Xeon-driven mobile workstations along with their latest ThinkPad Yoga 2-in-1 laptops both driven by Skylake processors and having a silver finish. The ThinkPad Yoga 260 has a 12” Full HD screen, 16Gb RAM and 512Gb solid-state storage while the ThinkPad Yoga 460 comes with a 14” 2560×1440 screen, 8Gb RAM and either a 256Gb SSD or 1Tb hard disk along with discrete graphics.

LG have launched the G Pad II which is a 10.1” Android 5.1 tablet that uses a Full HD screen. This has 2Gb RAM, 16Gb storage, microSD expansion and connects to your home network via 802.11a/g/n/ac Wi-Fi. It is also available with an LTE wireless-broadband modem as an option and comes with that brilliant bronze look.

Toshiba has been big on the 2-in-1 computers this year. They launched the Satellite Radius 12 which is the first 360-degree “Yoga-style” convertible notebook with a 4K screen. This convertible ticks the boxes when it comes to up-to-date requirements like having a USB 3.1 Type-C socket and a capable Intel i7-6500U Skylake processor, 8Gb RAM and 512Gb SSD storage. Some press reports called the 4K resolution a bit of overkill for a portable computer of that 12”-13” “portable-typewriter” form factor especially because of Windows not handling display scaling properly and these machines typically earn their keep as being the smallest size to comfortably type on.

There is the Satellite Radius 14 which is a 14” “Yoga-style” convertible with Full HD resolution and available with either Intel or AMD processors. Toshiba also offers the Satellite Click 10 detachable which is based around an Intel Atom CPU from the Skylake family, 4Gb RAM and 64Gb SSD storage. These 2-in-1 computers exploit Windows 10 to the fullest by working hand in glove with Continuum display switchover, a dedicated button to access Cortana and dual-array microphones to improve speech recognition.

Samsung and Apple have pushed the barriers for mobile-platform tablets with the former offering an 18.4”  Android tablet and the latter heating the rumour furnace with the intent of the 13” iPad Pro family of iOS tablets. Do I see these tablets as something that competes with the 13” 2-in-1 laptops that run Windows 10 as a mobile computing device for group browsing or composing new material?

The tablet you get to do mobile computing activities on doesn’t have to be an iPad anymore.

Handheld devices (smartphones and phablets)

There is a main trend affecting the European smartphone market where more Android devices are appearing from brands other than the usual smartphone market leaders. It is more so with devices that are pitched to the mid-range sector. This is because it is harder to cut in to the high-end sector because Apple and Samsung have cornered the market with the iPhone and Galaxy S / Note phones respectively.

One main trend affecting smartphones this year is the fact that Android 5.1 offers native support for dual-SIM operation and this function is becoming more mainstream in this year’s smartphones. The feature may have relevance for a person who roams between different countries and wants better call value or local mobile-number presence in both these countries or a person who has a “work” or “business” SIM card and a “private” SIM card in the same device. This is typically offered by having two card slots with one that takes the main SIM card and another that can take either a microSD card or a secondary SIM card.

There is also the fact that Microsoft is intending to launch the Windows 10 Mobile operating system very shortly and it is bringing forth an improved third contender for handheld operating systems.

Lenovo Phab Plus phablet press picture courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo’s answer to the Samsung Galaxy Note products in the form of the Phab Plus

Lenovo is pushing in to the European market with its Vibe and Phab phones which are all Android based. An example of this is the Vibe P1 mid-tier phone with a 1.5GHz processor, 5.5” Full HD screen, 5000mAh battery and 16Gb storage. There is also the Phab range which is meant to join the phablet market  One of these is the Phab Plus which is a dual SIM / microSD phone having a 6.8” Full HD screen, Snapdragon 615 chipset. 2Gb RAM and 32Gb storage.

Acer even has pitched an Android gaming-grade smartphone which is the first for a handheld device. This Android smartphone will use a deca-core MediaTek ARM system-on-chip with 4Gb RAM and a 6” Full-HD display.Some questions may be raised about how long it would last on its own battery especially if you play games on this phone or whether it even scales back on performance when you aren’t gaming.

They also fielded the Liquid Z630 mid-tier Android smartphone which also has MediaTek system-on-chip horsepower, 2Gb RAM, 16Gb storage, 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi and 8 megapixel cameras on the front and back. It also has a 4000mAh battery and runs for EUR€199.

They also are fielding entry-level smartphones that can be packaged with Windows 10 Mobile or Android Lollipop like the LIquid Z330 Series. There is also the Jade Primo Windows smartphone which has a USB Type-C connector and is made to take advantage of Windows Continuum display-mode switching courtesy of an accessory dock, keyboard and mouse. This is a 5.5” screen with Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.

Archos is another company who are offering smartphones that can be specified with Windows 10 Mobile or Android. These dual-SIM phones will have the usual lineup of features like LTE, Wi-FI and Bluetooth Smart connectivity, microSD card slot. But they have 1Gb RAM and 8Gb storage which can be limiting.

Gigaset has risen to the European market with the ME series of smartphones. The ME phone is powerful but doesn’t go too far. having a 5” Full HD screen, USB Type-C connection, Snapdragon 810 processor and Adreno 430 graphics, 32Gb storage, microSD slot and 3000mAh battery. The ME Pure phone is considered a “foot in the door” phone having 16Gb storage and a Snapdragon 615 processor while the ME Pro has the larger 5.5” screen.

Marshall, known for their guitar amps used by many of the famous rock stars, have pitched a music-focused smartphone in the form of the London. This has a similar styling to their amps in that some of the controls have brass accents and the phone has a rubberised housing which has the same texture as these amps. The London 4.7” HD smartphone is one of a few smartphones that implements a discrete sound subsystem and the only app that Marshall furnishes with this phone is a DJ app. It will be sold in the Boxpark retail area in Shoreditch, London for GBP£375 and I would describe this as being a high-quality MP3 player with smartphone functionality attached to it.

The premium end of the market still hasn’t lost its ground despite the imminent arrival of Apple’s iPhone 6S and 6S plus phones. They also offered a clip-on keyboard for these phones as an optional accessory. Before the IFA 2015, Samsung had released the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ phones which are pitched on thinness. As well, Sony launched their XPeria Z5 family comprising of the XPeria Z5, Xperia Z5 Compact which is the smaller of the bunch and the Z5 Premium which has a 4K ultra-high-definition screen. They also offered the XPeria G8 which has the same camera abilities as Sony’s standalone digital cameras courtesy of improved focus abilities.

The next article in this series will cover the trends affecting wearable devices, display technology and the home network with subsequent articles covering home entertainment and appliances.

Part 1 – Personal Computing Trends

Part 2 – Wearables and the Home Network

Part 3 – Home Entertainment

Part 4 – Home Automation and the Internet Of Things

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Consumer Electronics Show 2015 – Part 4 – The Home Network

Over the past three days, I have covered some very interesting trends that were exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show 2015 in Las Vegas. Part 1 covered the changes concerning personal computing including smartphones and tablets whereas Part 2 covered the increasingly-connected lifestyle which is brought on by the Internet Of Things. Part 3 has covered home entertainment especially as 4K UHDTV, wireless multroom audio and high-resolution file-based audio via the home network approach points of market maturity.

Now I am covering computer peripherals including USB 3.1 with the Type C either-way connection along with the “glue that holds it all together” – the home network. This is brought on with the arrival of Wave 2 802.11ac (AC2600 and AC3200) wireless networks and the highly-resilient HomePlug AV2 MIMO powerline network technology.

Computer Peripherals

A major innovation that is taking place with computer peripherals and accessories is the implementation of USB 3.1 with Type C connectors, something I have covered regularly on this site. Here, it is living up to the promise of high throughput with setups clocking a real-world throughput of 800Mbps on a demonstrator. Nokia’s N1 tablet is the first tablet device to be marketed with USB 3.1 technology and Type C connectivity. MSI are pitching the G772 gaming notebook and X998 Gaming 9 ACK motherboard with the USB 3.1 and Type C connectivity along with regular USB connectivity and they are intended to be available in March. Creative Technologies have not taken computer audio lying down. Rather they fielded a USB digital amplifier in the form of the X7 which you can connect to some decent speakers. It uses Sound Blaster chipsets for the computer interface and has enough connectivity to amplify line-level or digital sound sources or provide the Sound Blaster goodness to other amplifiers, digital recorders or digital-analogue converters. It also has on-board Dolby Digital decoding along with enhanced sound processing to get the best out of anything from compressed MP3s to high-grade FLAC files.

As for displays, most of the monitor manufacturers are running at least a few 4K ultra-high-resolution models. HP are running an new monitor lineup including some 4K models and even a 5K model. Two of these monitors have curved displays like the TVs shown at this show while there is a “virtual-reality”display that works with 3D glasses. Samsung joined the party by premiering 34” curved monitor with 21:9 aspect ratio and WQHD+ (3440×1440) resolution – their TV-display knowledge fits in here on the desktop.

There is a huge run of Bluetooth-capable audio devices at this show. Braven have premiered the Braven Bridge portable conference-call device. This uses a microphone array and noise-cancelling technology for clearer and understandable voices and can even come clear in loud environments. It has that deluxe leather look that appeals to travelling executives and can serve as a powerful Bluetooth speaker and mobile charge bank.

They also fielded a series of deluxe-look Bluetooth speakers with TruWireless stereo pairing. These are known as the 2200b and the 2300b with the latter having improved sound output. Braven also pitched a wireless audio mixer that mixes the sound from two Bluetooth A2DP sources and distributes it to two Bluetooth speakers.

Samsung cracked the storage capacity ceiling for solid-state storage by offering a 1 Tb external solid-state storage device that connects to the host via USB 3.0. Ultra fast, Ultra large! SanDisk had come to the party by offering a “memory-key-type” external storage device that connects to “open-frame” smartphones via their microSD card slots or a regular computer (or other device) via its USB 3.0 socket. These are available at capacities up to 64Gb.

The very fast no-new-wires home network

D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 6 stream wireless router press picture courtesy of D-Link America

D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 6 stream wireless router – an example of what Wave 2 802.11ac is all about

One major technology that is being premiered at CES 2015 is the 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless segment, especially the faster variants that implement at least three input and output streams and use MU-MIMO technology. This has a theoretical media-level throughput of 2.6 Gbps or 3.2 Gbps. This technology has been “cemented” courtesy of IEEE releasing the Wave 2 set of specifications for the 802.11ac wireless network along with Qualcomm, Quantenna and Broadcomm releasing the chipsets for this specification.

MU-MIMO is a high-throughput variant of MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) wireless technology that can allow an access point to concurrently serve data to multiple client devices with best-case performance and reduced network congestion. The benefits that this provides also extend to non-MU-MIMO client devices because the higher-throughput devices aren’t taking up the lion’s share of the traffic.

It was also run alongside the Wi-Fi Aware proximity-based service discovery mechanism for the Wi-FI wireless network standard which is to come later this year. Working in the background, this setup allows a device to discover other Wi-Fi devices and what they offer before actually connecting to them. It is being pitched to be like what Bluetooth was known for where you could spontaneously discover a person to share a namecard or picture with in the same room or set up a multi-machine multi-player game with friends on the couch. It also would serve a similar function to the Bluetooth Beacons and orthodox Bluetooth “push” advertising as a way to reach mobile users..

All of the major home-network hardware vendors are releasing at least one premium-level router with this technology. This has also pushed down the availability of AC1750 and lower-spec 802.11ac routers to prices that most of us can afford and allow carriers to supply such gear to their customers.

D-Link DHP701AV HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptor press picture courtesy of D-Link America

D-Link DHP701AV HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptor

As for HomePlug AV2 powerline networking, each of the major home-network companies is releasing a HomePlug AV2 MIMO-capable adaptor package that allows you to start setting up a robust powerline network segment with a theoretical throughput of around 1.5 Gigabits per second. It gives legs to this “wired now-new-wires” technology when being used in commercial premises or multi-building home networks.

Amped Wireless have released their 802.11ac range with AC750-compliant routers and range extenders that use touch-screens as their control surfaces. Sadly, these are their low-tier models for this specification. They are also running more 802.11ac range extenders with two desktop models having a Gigabit Ethernet switch to make them work as wireless client bridges for many devices along with two wall-plugged models that have a Gigabit Ethernet port for wireless-client-bridge functionality. In each form-factor, there is a two-stream variant along with a three-stream variant.

Linksys launched their fastest 802.11ac home-network router which uses four streams with MU-MIMO(AC2600) and has Snapdragon horsepower, a four-port Gigabit Ethernet switch and USB and eSATA sockets to allow it to serve as a NAS. They also released the “AC1200” variant of their WRT1900AC “son of WRT54G” router along with the styled-alike WRT Network Storage Bay which is a dual-bay NAS enclosure with eSATA and USB external-disk connectivity. Oh year, it has DLNA network media server functionality.

D-Link have shown off their out-of-this-world 8-antenna MU-MIMO AC2600 router and also launched the AC1900 USB wireless network adaptor. This is so you can gain the benefits of a Wi-Fi wireless segment running to the latest 802.11ac wireless specification with your existing laptops or desktop computers. They have launched their HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptor (DHP701AV) and HomePlug AV2 SISO adaptor (DHP601AV), both having Gigabit Ethernet connections.

TRENDNet TPL-421E2K HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptor (US variant) with AC socket plugged in to typical US AC outlet - press picture courtesy of TRENDNet USA

TRENDNet TPL-421E2K HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptor (US variant) with AC socket

TRENDNet are also running one of the first “travel routers” to have 802.11ac technology. This unit implements AC750 single-stream technology along with the ability to be a USB file server as well as having Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. They also launched an AC3200 “tri-band” (all 5GHz band and 2.4GHz band) six-stream router with six antennas along with their AC2600 four-stream router, both having Gigabit Ethernet for WAN and LAN, USB file serving and IPv6.They haven’t forgotten about the HomePlug AV2 MIMO powerline network and are re-exhibiting their HomePlug AV2 adaptors and exhibiting a variant with an integrated power outlet.

TP-Link launched their Archer 2600 router with 4 x 4 AC Qualcomm Wi-Fi and Archer C3200 with 2 3-stream 5GHz front-ends and 1 3-stream 2.4GHz front-end and Broadcomm chipset. They also have launched a 3-stream AC1750 range extender and an AC750 range extender. As well they have contributed HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptor which is the first of this product class to have a 3-port Gigabit Ethernet switch

Netgear have launched a lineup of range extenders including an AC1900 model, AC1200 model, AC750 model. These devices can use one band for their wireless backhaul while the other serves the downstream devices and can be set up to be access points with Ethernet (or HomePlug AV2 MIMO) wired backbones. They are the  EX7000 which is the AC1900 3 stream variant with a 5 port Gigabit Ethernet switch and a USB 3.0 file server, along with the EX6150 which is a 2-stream AC1200 wall plug that has a Gigabit Ethernet connection, and the EX3700 Essentials Edition which is a 1-stream AC750 wall plug.

NetGear GS108E 8-port Gigabit Ethernet "Click" swithch with power supply bracket press picture courtesy of NETGEAR America

NetGear GS108E 8-port Gigabit Ethernet “Click” swithch with power supply bracket

They also launched their PL1200 HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptors – the PL1200 and the PLP1200 which has an integrated AC outlet. Let’s not forget their value-priced unmanaged desktop Ethernet switches which Netgear have been well known for and is something I would specify, and they have shown up with a new device in this class. Here, they have launched a pair of these Gigabit switches which dock in to a power-supply bracket thus eliminating the need to use a wall-wart that falls out too easily. They have a 16-port variant along with an 8-port variant which comes with two USB gadget-charging ports.

NETGEAR ReadyNAS RN1040 NAS press picture courtesy of NETGEAR America

Latest generation of the Netgear ReadyNAS family

Netgear also launched the latest iteration of their ReadyNAS multi-function NAS units as the 100 and 200 Series ReadyNAS series. The 2-bay and 4-bay NAS units have improved processors for quicker throughput along with using ReadyNAS OS 8.2 as their operating system.

Around Town launched a 4G LTE 802.11g/n Mi-Fi router with a “boosting cradle”. This is a charging dock that has an Ethernet LAN socket, and 2 better MIMO antennas for 4G. This reminds me of some consumer-electronics devices released through the early 1980s like a portable VHS video cassette recorder setup that Hitachi implemented where the video recorder docked in to a large L-shaped tuner-timer base which had a full-function infra-red remote control, or some “ghetto-blaster” setups that had a tape unit that could be removed to become a Walkman.

The NAS is being seen by some vendors as being a “personal cloud”. But some of these vendors are taking an integrated approach with interlinking with existing online storage services like Dropbox along with acceptiance of the new BitTorrent Sync technology. This is being pushed more so by Seagate with their home NAS units.

QNAP had launched some AMD Steppe Eagle x86 powered NAS units which came in 4 bay, 6 bay and 8 bay variants. They had 4 gigabit Ethernet connections for throughput-bonding or serving multiple networks, a 10 Gigablt Ethernet upgrade option for small businesses and ran QTS 4.2 OS. This operating system provided various “connected-home” functions along with various business-focused snapshot backup options.

Conclusion

What I have seen of the Consumer Electronics Show 2015 is that certain technologies like 4K UHDTV, HomePlug AV2 MIMO, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and lightweight highly-capable personal computing have hit points of maturity in the marketplace or are close to achieving that goal.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2015–Part 3–Home Entertainment

In Part One of this series about the Consumer Electronics Show 2015, I covered the trends associated with personal computing while I covered the “Internet Of Everything” and connected living in Part 2. This part now touches on home audio and video entertainment technology which is being more about 4K ultra-high-definition video and high-resolution file-based audio.

TVs and Home Video

Sony slim 4K UHDTV press image courtesy of Sony America

One of Sony’s ultra-slim 4K UHDTVs being shown in Vegas

The 4K ultra-high-definition TV technology is starting to mature with more manufacturers running even 10 models with this resolution. But they are improving on this with cost-effective high-quality display technology with LG using Quantum Dot technology and Samsung using SUHDTV nanocrystal technology. As well, a lot of manufacturers are running with more of the curved or bendable 21:9 TVs in their lineup.

Sony have premiered their XBR900C series 4K UHDTVs available in 55” 65” and 75”, and being 4.9mm thick. They also are implementing the X1 processor for optimumly real colours across all their current 4K TV range. They also launched an ultra-short-throw 4K UHDTV projector at US$10000 which is bringing 4K closer to the bar.

Samsung is supplying a range of flat and curved 4K TVs with screen sizes ranging from 48” to 88”. These will appear across three model lines – the JS9500, the JS9000, and the JS8500 and is in addition to a curved 105” set which has the new nanocrystal display technology.

LG's 4K OLED curved TV press picture courtesy of LG America

LG’s 4K OLED curved TV

LG are running with 8 different 4K model lineups that are targeted at every price and room Sharp are implementing the Quattron yellow-dot technology in their 4K sets while TCL are putting their foot in the door for 4K UHDTV technology.

Another important trend is the control software for the smart TVs. Sony, along with Sharp and TPV Philips are intending to implement the new Android 5.0 operating system while Samsung is intending to run with Tizen and LG to implement a newer iteration of the WebOS operating system. Razer is even working on a games console that runs the Android 5.0 operating system. Panasonic are implementing the Life+ Screen smart-TV platform which is based on the Firefox OS operating system. In each effort, the companies are using established open-source operating-system code as part of their smart-TV platforms.

Dish Joey 4K set-top box press picture courtesy of Dish Networks America

Dish Joey set-top box – the first set-top box to support 4K UHDTV

Let’s not forget what will appear on these sets Dish Network are ready for 4K content with the first 4K-capable set-top device in the form of the Joey set-top box. These can connect to 4K UHDTV sets with HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 . As well, they are offering a Sling IPTV service along with music-focused upgrades to their service delivery.

This is also being brought on by the UHD Alliance which is a group of big-name TV manufacturers and Hollywood content providers who are working together to provide high-quality 4K UHD video content. They have goals not just for high resolution but high dynamic range, a wider colour gamut and immersive sound as part of the content from creation to viewing on the customer’s TV set.

It has been augmented by the Blu-Ray Disc Association announcing that they were to start work on the Ultra HD Blu-Ray Disc specification. Panasonic have put a fair bit of input in to it and have even shown a prototype Blu-Ray player that plays 4K UHDTV content. As well, the Secure Content Storage Association have defined a secure-content-storage specification for consumers to store premium content on a hard disk or NAS and have established a “best-case” principle for selling 4K video content. This is where a customer buys a 4K-grade copy of content and they can have the best resolution that the playback equipment they are viewing it on can offer.

Cognitive Technology is working on a “Smart TV” content recommendation engine and wanting to partner with TV manufacturers and content studios to improve the concept of machine-assisted content recommendation.

As for the PlayStation Experience, Sony is providing the PlayStation Now streaming game service for the Smart TVs and their PlayStation consoles and offering at least 100 PS3 games to this service. This is in answer to them selling 10.5 million PS4s since model introduction and 4.1 million of them being sold through the past Christmas shopping season.

The doyen of streaming movies, Netflix, is working on a “Netflix Recommended” scheme for TV sets. The goal is to have certified TVs to switch to Netflix as quickly and as easily as changing TV channels. Here, the TV would have to have a dedicated Netflix button on its remote control, a suspend/resume function and to have Lilyhammer showing on Netflix within 2-3 seconds. This effort is being focused on the US market but will be rolled out around the world.

DirecTV are heading towards toe “over-the-top” path with the Yaveo Hispanic IPTV service. This will feature programming that has Latin-American Spanish dialogue and concepts focused at the Latin-American community.

Imaging

Sony FRD-AX33 4K HandyCam camcorder press picture courtesy of Sony America

Sony FDR-AX33 4K HandyCam camcorder

This year, there has been an increase in the number of consumer-grade video-cameras that can natively film in 4K UHDTV. Sony have put up a 4K lightweight handheld Wi-Fi-enabled Handycam along with a GoPro-style “action cam” that surprisingly works in this format. These implement various “steady-shot” so you can take better footage with the camera hand-held. The action cam can shoot 4K footage at 30 frames per second and also implements an ultra-wide-angle lens.

Panasonic has used this show to get their fingers wet with 4K UHDTV imaging and launched their first 4K camcorder which can also do high-dynamic-range filming. They also released the Lumix CM1 Android-powered digital camera which has a 1” sensor.

Kodak is now on to lens-style cameras that attach to smartphones like what Sony initially offered. But these are more lightweight than the Sony models so you can stuff them in your coat pocket without them being too bulky and use a Wi-Fi link to the host device and implement NFC-based setup for Android phones.

Networked Audio technology

LG Music Flow Wi-Fi multiroom speakers press picture courtesy of LG America

LG Music Flow Wi-Fi multiroom speakers

There is still a lot of interest in the networked audio technology whether in the form of music and home-theatre systems or in single-piece wireless-speaker setups.

LG are advancing a range of new Wi-Fi speakers that are directly targeted to answer Sonos’s market dominance. This include a battery-powered portable model along with their speaker range based around the Music Flow concept. It uses a mix of technologies that are similar to Sonos, Spotify Connect and Google Cast. It also implements Bluetooth NFC-based “touch-to-play” experience and allows you to create room zones with stereo/surround speaker clusters and a party-mode with music around the house. They come in the form of the H3. H4 Portable and H5 which are similar to the Sonos Play:1 and Sonos Play:3 but can run at a louder volume without distorting and clipping. The H6 Soundbar negates the need for a hub device and has its own bass abilities without the need of a subwoofer. LG is to field a variant of this soundbar to snap at the heels of the Sonos Playbar.

Technics R1 Reference hi-fi system press picture courtesy of Panasonic

Technics R1 hi-fi system symbolising the return of the hi-fi brand

Panasonic is using the CES 2015 to exhibit its line of Technics hi-fi components Stateside. This is to capitalise on the Technics name that was associated with some highly-capable hi-fi components through the 70s, 80s and 90s with memories of some classy amplifiers, turntables, CD players and cassette decks; and was reintroduced in to Europe during the IFA 2014. Here, they have the R1 Reference Class System with the SU-R1 network media player / control amplifier feeding the SE-R1 150w/channel digital  power amplifier which has those large power meters that Technics power amplifiers were known for and driving the SB-R1 3-way six-driver floorstanding speakers; along with the C700 Premium Class system which has a ST-C700 network media player / tuner serving the SU-C700 45w/channel integrated amplifier driving the SB-C700 coaxial 2-way 2-driver bookshelf speakers. It would be interesting to see how this renaissance picks up in areas like New York City – whether it has the same vim and vigour as what existed in the early 80s where hi-fi was really valued.

Samsung have launched their WAM-7500 and WAM6500 360 degree speakers which implement  Ring Radiator Technology. This leads to sound that is diffused around the listening area, but they have the look that would make them blend in to a “retro-future” environment typical of a 1960s or 1970s space-fiction movie. They can connect to regular AV gear, or be wireless speakers that support Wi-F home-network connectivity along with, Bluetooth connectivity. The WAM6500 is the portable one of the bunch while the WAM7500 is intended to exist on a table or bench.

They are also launching the Milk Music “online-radio” service as a music service that can work with their multiroom systems.

One of the main drivers has been Google Cast which is an app-based content-streaming technology that uses the home network to “pull up” content from your smartphone on TVs and stereo systems in a similar vein to Apple’s AirPlay setup. Here, it has been pitched at the Android TV platform but the audio aspect has been pitched at a few home-audio devices offered by different companies. This is also run alongside the Google Nexus Player which is based on the Android TV platform.

Cambridge Audio are releasing a range of network-audio devices that are manageable on their front panel or through a mobile-platform app. These use a highly-optimised digital-analogue path with Wolfson WM8740 DAC circuitry and can support sources from the home network via AirPlay, DLNA / UPnP AV, or online sources like Spotify Connect. The CXN is a network audio player that provides these services to an existing sound system while this function is integrated in to two 7.1 channel bridgeable surround-sound amplifiers – the CXR-120 rating at 60 watts / channel or 120 watts / channel when bridged to stereo; and the CXR-200 which comes in at 120 watts / channel or 200 watts / channel when bridged to stereo.

Sony NW-ZX2 Audiophile-Grade Android Walkman music player press picture courtesy of Sony America

Sony NW-ZX2 Audiophile-Grade Android Walkman music player

Sony have launched a pair of S-Trainer street-style headphones as wireless music players but also have sensors to help you with your workout. But they have focused on High Resolution Audio by releasing the NW-ZX2 Android Walkman MP3 player capable of playing Master-Grade audio files and has 128Gb storage on board infinitely expandable with a microSD card.

Sony STR-DN1060 home theatre receiver press picture courtesy of Sony America

Sony STR-DN1060 4K-ready network surround-sound AV receiver

They also released the HT-ST9, HT-NT3 and HT-XT3 soundbars with some being connected to the home network and the STR-DN1060, and STR-DN860 network-capable home-theatre receivers. These are all capable of working with High Resolution Audio which is, again the “Master Grade” audio content worked at 24-bit 96kHz or greater sampling rates, said to be close to the sound of the master tapes.

Massive are fielding a set of Doctor Who Bluetooth speakers which look like either a Dalek or a TARDIS. They have the classic effects associated with this show such as the “Exterminate” call or the TARDIS’s cloister bell. This is also alongside a pair of headphones with some Doctor Who iconography..

Gibson (who now have Philips Audio, Onkyo and TEAC) is now selling the Trainer exercise supra-aural Bluetooth headset as a way of being noticed that it has consumer-audio prowess rather than just Les-Paul-style musical-instrument prowess. This headset has an LED so you can be noticed at night and it also has a button to “duck” the audio so you can hear what is going on around or to talk with someone else. As well, the earpads are designed to be washable.

Audio Technica have refreshed their headphone lineup with some waterproof “sports-grade” intra-aural devices including a headset. They even pitched a set of intra-aural earphones that are “up-to-snuff” for audiophile applications. They also launched a set of noise-reducing headphones with one that could be sold in Europe for EUR€100 and a pair of gaming headsets – one being open-backed and one being closed-backed for different frequency response characteristics, but these headsets are pitched at the same price.and can serve as wired mobile headsets. Let’s not forget their other point of prowess with record-playing equipment where they released an entry-level fully-automatic turntable equipped with their own cartridge.

The final part of this series will cover some computer and smartphone peripherals of not but will also cover how the home network is to evolve courtesy of some new connectivity-technology improvements.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2015–Part 2

Previously, in Part 1, I covered the trends that are affecting personal computing which encompases laptops / notebooks, tablets including the “2-in-1” convertible or detachable units, and the smartphones.

As I continue coverage of the trends shown at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, I am highlighting what is being highlighted when we think of the connected world and the Internet Of Things. This is where devices we have on ourselves or use in the home, or the cars we drive, connect to each other and the Internet to acquire a range of impressive capabilites.

Wearable technology

There is an increasing number of smartwatches and other wearables being launched at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. These are based on the Android Wear platform along with Tizen and other proprietary wearable platforms. It is although Apple has their smartwatch close to launch as part of their iOS ecosystem. A question that often came to mind is whether the smartwatch is to be seen as a bridge device between your smartphone and other wearable devices.

Sony raised the bar for Android Wear by integrating a GPS in to the metal-look variant of their Smartwatch 3 Android Wear watch. It may be seen as a way to provide standalone navigation and distance measurement for this watch or to serve as a secondary GPS sensor for your smartphone.

LG had headed towards smartwatches by putting forward one that is to run WebOS. This is part of having their devices run the descendent of the Palm operating system which HP refashioned as WebOS.

Lenovo had jumped on the wearable bandwagon by offering the Vibe lineup of wearable products. At the moment, the first of these products is the Vibe Band which is a water-resistant fitness band that uses an e-ink display, allowing for this device to run longer on a single battery charge.

There have been a few weirdly wonderful wearable devices like some snowboard bindings that help you plough through the powder better. These bindings measure the forces you apply on your feet as you slide down the slope and an app uses your smartphone’s GPS and these sensors to assess your snowboarding prowess. There is the Misfit LED which works alongside the Misfit range of activity trackers to show how you are performing. But the most weird device is the Emiota Belty which is a men’s dress belt that records your waistline and reports it back to your smartphone.

Hyundai Blue Link smartwatch app press photo courtesy of Hyundai America

Hyundai Blue Link smartwatch app – your smartwatch is your keyfob

The smartwatch is becoming part of the “connected car” ecosystem thanks to some vehicle builders. As I will mention below, BMW uses the smartwatch as a key fob that is to be part of their self-parking setup that they are working on. But Hyundai has presented the Blue Link app for the Apple Watch and Android Wear platforms so you can use this watch like the typical button-equipped car keyfob. Think of this as being to touch your watch to start your Veloster from afar, open its doors or have that coupe flash its headlights so you can locate it in the car park.

The connected car

Speaking of which, the car that links to the home network and the Internet is being given a fair bit of airtime by most of the vehicle manufacturers. This is promoted by Mercedes-Benz who were exhibiting a capsule-style self-driving concept car, Ford demonstrating their idea of a self-driving car, and other vehicle builders talking about the self-driving idea for cars.

Smartwatch control surface for car press picture courtesy of BMW America

Smartwatch as control element of BMW car

BMW took the modest path by demonstrating a self-parking variant of the i3 car. This smartwatch-controlled car looks for a parking spot by itself and implements a map-based setup where it has pre-loaded maps of car parks. This is very like a valet-parking setup but without the car-park attendant parking your car for you in that car park.

BMW self-parking car press picture courtesy of BMW America

It parks itself

Ford launched the third iteration of their Sync connected-car technology which will implement a touchscreen as part of its control surface and use of Blackberry QNX technology. This is intended to be part of what will be offered for the 2016 model-year vehicles.

Even the chipset manufacturers have dipped their finger in the connected-car scene with NVIDIA announcing that they are purposing Tegra and similar processors to power the connected-car dashboards.

Next generation VW infotainment setup press picture courtesy of VW America

Next generation VW infotainment works with Apple Play, Android Auto or MirrorLink

As for infotainment, there is a trend to support both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in both factory-supply and aftermarket infotainment setups. This means that the advanced abilities of these systems can work in a system-native manner to both iPhone and Android users. The Volkswagen Group had put this forward in the latest factory-spec infotainment setups and were even involved in the level-playing-field idea of MirrorLink even when it was put forward.

Parrot have premiered the RNB6 which is a 2-DIN media unit which runs both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay but has 55 watts per channel output for all of the channels along with more options. Pioneer have launched this function in to some of their newer 2-DIN car radios. These efforts satisfy realities that exist in countries like Australia where people are likely to keep their cars on the road for a very long time.

Internet Of Everything

The Internet Of Everything has become a key feature of this show with companies either showcasing new gadgets that link with the Internet or showcasing improvements for existing gadgets with this kind of ability. Most of these devices are still pitched as a “system” of devices, cloud services and apps supplied by the same vendor that are dependent on each other and there haven’t been any devices that are pitched in a manner where they can work with other manufacturers’ devices, services or apps.

There have been some devices that are targeted at your baby’s health such as a smart baby bottle holder measures food intake. Another of these is a Bluetooth-connected infant thermometer that uses your smartphone as its display with this being developed by the company that is behind Moto’s smart temporary tattoo.

Parrot has launched houseplant water monitors that link to the home network. One is the H2O which is a sensor and automated watering system that you can use in-situ with your plants and the other is the Parrot Pot to put your plant into.

D-Link DCH-S160 myDLink water sensor press picture courtesy of D-Link America

D-Link myDLink water detector alerts you via your smartphone if your washing machine leaks or the bath overflows

BeeWi and D-Link are snapping at Belkin’s WeMo home-automation technology with their own technology. The latter have packaged it in as their myDLink package which is dependent on a home-automation hub even for the Wi-Fi devices. They have Z-Wave motion sensors and door magnet/reed sensors which interlink with this hub and also work as ambient temperature sensors.

They also have a Wi-Fi-based water-leak sensor that uses a wire to sense leaking water from that dribbling washing machine along with a Wi-Fi siren unit and smart plugs. This system is managed on your mobile device through an app that D-Link supplies. TRENDNet are running a HomePlug-based home automation package that links with their TPL-406E HomePlug AV500 adaptor and the THA-102PL appliance controller with both devices using the AC wiring to communicate to each other. They also have the THA-103AC which is a Wi-Fi-managed appliance controller that works as an AC750 Wi-Fi range extender and both these systems are controlled using an app for the iOS and Android platforms.

Kwikset Kevo cylindrical deadbolt in use - Kwikset press image

Kwikset Kevo Plus extends online monitoring and control to this Kwikset Kevo smart deadbolt

Two companies that are known for the common door lock have fielded some “smart-lock” products, but they are focused around the “bore-through” cylindrical deadbolt form-factor that is common on many American front doors. Firstly, Kwikset have provided an IP bridge and online service for their Kevo smart deadbolt. Here, the Bluetooth-IP bridge and online service allows for such functions as “remote unlock” for situations like when you have a friend or relative who doesn’t have a smartphone with the Kwikset Kevo app to come to your house to do some caretaking or fetch something for you or to have a repair technician visit your house to perform some repair works on an appliance while you are at work. The service is offered as an annually-billed service. August who offer a similar Bluetooth-driven smart lock have come up this path using their own IP bridge to provide “remote check / remote release” functionality.

Yale Real Living NFC-capable smart deadbolt - outside view (brass finish) press picture courtesy of Yale America

Yale Real Living smart deadbolt – enter using the code on the keypad or touch your open-frame smartphone to it

As well, Yale have launched an NFC-based smart lock that works to the Seos NFC-based smart locking platform that ASSA Abloy, the “Electrolux” of the door-hardware industry, have established. This is one that comes in the same form factor as the Kwikset Kevo but doesn’t use a key outside as a failover method. As well, it requires you to touch your NFC-capable Android smartphone to the outside keypad to unlock your door.

Tagg are working with Alarm.com to implement a tracker system for your pets. This will be based around a collar attachment that implements GPS to locate and uses 3G as a “report-back” mechanism.

The CES tech fair has given Roost some boost with their “smart battery” for existing smoke alarms. Here, they were able to show and demonstrate this battery in action as a monitoring device for the common smoke alarm.

Appliances

Unlike the Internationaler Funkaustellung where a home-appliance trade show had been merged with this consumer-electronics trade show, there has become an increasing de-facto presence of home appliances at the Consumer Electronics Show. This has been brought on by some of the Korean and Japanese consumer-electronics manufacturers wanting to show their appliances at this trade show along with appliances, both major-class “white-goods” and countertop “small-goods” and is demonstrating that home appliances are increasingly becoming part of the “Internet Of Things”.

Dacor used this show to premiere their Android-controlled ovens which used an “app-cessory” approach to controlling these ovens. This also goes alongside the use of a touchscreen as a local control surface and is representative of what is to come about for premium “white goods”.

LG Twin Wash System press photo courtesy of LG America

LG Twin Wash System – two washing machines in one

LG have fielded some interesting “white goods” at this show. The show-stopper for them in this department was the Twin Wash “drawer-load” second washing machine which is installed underneath their recent front-load washing machines. It works in a manner where you can wash a small load while the main machine is processing another load. The example often cited was for ladies to wash a change of delicate underwear on the delicate-wash cycle while the main machine runs a lot of normal-cycle washing. Another example from my experience would be to turn around two white shirts by themselves while a large quantity of coloured clothes is being washed, with everything being ready to dry at the same time. They also fielded a “double door-in-door” fridge for easier organisation of food in the fridge. Samsung were fielding some interesting appliances like a dual-cavity oven and their “ActiveWash’ washing machine which implements an advanced wash action.

The coffee making scene closes in to the home network more with Smarter running a “bean-to-cup” espresso machine for the US market which uses Wi-Fi technology to facilitate its app-cessory control surface.

In the next part of this series, I will be looking at what the Consumer Electronics Show 2015 is representing for entertainment in the connected home.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2015–Part 1–Personal Computing

No sooner than the Christmas shopping season is upon us that the hype machine for the Consumer Electronics Show starts to warm up. This is where the Internet is awash with rumours about what hot gadgets will be shown in Las Vegas during the first week of January.

This year, it is becoming the place to even show household appliances in a similar vein to what is happening in Europe when the Internationaler Funkaustellung takes place in Berlin during the first week of September. But certain technologies are being considered key drivers at this show such as more of 4K UHDTV including more content for this ultra-high-resolution technology, the Internet Of Everything being more pervasive with an increase in the number of gadgets that link to the Internet or our smartphones, along with highly-converged personal computing.

A key issue that will be worth remembering  through this year’s Consumer Electronics Show is how Sony has come out of its recent massive cyber-attack that nearly crippled Sony Pictures. The President of Sony Corporation, as part of the press conference, ran a speech about not caving in to that attack especially where it concerned “The Interview”. He was underscoring the key factors of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of association as being very important lifebloods and lifelines of Sony and their entertainment business. For me, it was very much like Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight On The Beaches” battle speech given to the UK Parliament on June 4 1940 during World War II with these memorable lines:

“…. we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…..

Personal Computing

It is hard to split apart the different classes of personal computing devices what with the “2-in-1” convertibles and detachables becoming a major part of manufacturers’ lineups while smaller tablets have the computing abilities of even low-end laptops. Some of these even run Windows or Android or even can boot between both operating systems. This is why I have classed them together as one heading because of the way the CES hype machine was coming up with these machines.

As well, it is coming to the point where a household will have multiple computer devices at different screen sizes and for different uses. For example a “2-in-1” convertible or detachable computer could serve as one’s highly-portable auxiliary computer whereas a 7”-8” tablet could become a personal reference device or a smartphone becomes your main communications device.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon press image - courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – now refreshed with new hardware

An example of this is NVIDIA with their Tegra X1 ARM processor which is able to achieve a 1 teraflop throughput and work with 4K video at 60Hz. Sony had put in to the CES hype machine the idea of a 12” Android tablet that can work at 4K resolution.

Lenovo have refreshed most of their computer lineup like the Thinkpad X1 Carbon carbon-fibre-built Ultrabook. Their new equipment will be more slimline and there will be a new solid-state-drive-only Ultrabook in the form of the T450S. They have also built up a range of Ultrabook accessories that are designed to stack like Lego bricks such a an external battery pack, expansion module (docking station) and an external hard disk.

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook press image courtesy of Dell

Dell XPS 13 negligable-bezel Ultrabook

Dell have released a negligable-bezel XPS 13 Ultrabook and an ultra-slim Venue 8 7000 coat-pocket Android tablet. This implements multiple-camera depth-sense technology along with, guess what, an OLED screen which I would expect to be a treat for your social-media pictures or what you took with your camera.

Toshiba Portégé Z20T detachable laptop press image courtesy of Toshiba

Toshiba Portégé Z20T detachable pitched at the business user

The “two-in-one” convertible or detachable computer is still alive with the Jide which is an 11” Surface-style tablet along with Toshiba’s Satellite Click Mini which is an 11” netbook-style detachable. Toshiba also released the Portégé Z20t which is a 12.5” 2-in-1 detachable pitched at the business user and is driven by the Intel Core M technology.

They are still pushing on with smartphones with Acer fielding the Liquid Z410 Android low-cost unit with 4.5” screen. Yezz is even pitching to the Windows Phone platform with the Billy S5 LTE model. The old dogs of consumer photography are vying for each other’s existence in the digital world through Kodak and Polaroid offering Android smartphones with Polaroid’s phone, a badge-engineered Oppo N1, known as the “Selfie” to court the selfie-taking craze. As well, ASUS have released the ZenFone Zoom which is the first smartphone to implement optical zoom in their rear camera. This Android phone also implements a 13-megapixel sensor and optical stabilisation on that camera.

LG G-Flex 2 curved Android smartphone - courtesy of LG

LG G-Flex 2 curved smartphone – to snap at Apple’s and Samsung’s heels

But the steal of the show is the LG G Flex 2 which is the first curved smartphone to get some real market traction. This sexy number implements a 5.5” Full HD OLED screen and is more durable than most flat phones. It is equipped with Gorilla Glass and a self-healing case that keeps looking anew. But it uses Snapdragon 810 64-bit horespower with 2Gb RAM and 32Gb storage infinitely expandable by microSD cards. The camera implements laser-assisted auto focus and it runs Android 5 Lollipop. But do I see it knock Apple, HTC and Samsung off their perches when it comes to premium smartphones – if it becomes the next thing in cool.

In the next post, I will be looking at the trends for wearable technology and the Internet Of Everything

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Australian Audio And AV Show 2014

Introduction

IMG_2138In October I had visited the Australian Audio And AV Show which was hosted at the Intercontinental Melbourne The Rialto hotel and this was about observing the way hi-fi and home AV were progressing especially on the Australian market.

Video Technology

Regular readers may have seen some coverage about the new 4K ultra-high-resolution TV technology and I had a chance to see this technology in full flight for myself at this show, courtesy of Sony. But the Sony representatives have remarked that this technology’s appearance in the broadcast-TV context is still a long way off especially in Australia. Here, they remarked that 4K UHDTV content will have to be delivered in a packaged form i.e. Blu-Ray Discs, file-based video delivered via USB hard disks or via the home network.

Sony 4K UHDTV

Sony 4K UHDTV

BenQ and Epson presented Full-HD video projectors that were more or less targeted at home-theatre setups and were demonstrated in that context.

Audio Technology

The two main distribution trends that are hanging on for quality hi-fi sound reproduction at the moment are the classic vinyl record or file-based audio content delivered via the home network.

The classic vinyl record

A turntable equipped with an optical cartridge that uses light to follow the stylus vibrations

A turntable equipped with an optical cartridge that uses light to follow the stylus vibrations

The classic vinyl record is still focused on new-cut records that have been mastered using newer techniques that permit increased dynamic range. These are played on turntables that are equipped for improved stability and the sound path implements high-grade components from stylus to speaker.  The equipment that I have seen in operation at this and previous Australian Audio And AV Shows is more for those who value the vinyl format as a hi-fi content source rather than to be part of the image.

VinylPlay - an integrated-phono-stage turntable that raises the bar for this class of turntable

VinylPlay – an integrated-phono-stage turntable that raises the bar for this class of turntable

One manufacturer even implemented an “optical cartridge’ that uses reflected light rather than friction to follow the stylus’s vibrations in that groove. Here, this cartridge can be fitted to most tonearms associated with high-quality turntables and is connected to a special preamplifier which exposes this cartridge’s output as a line-level signal. Here, it was about using light as a tool to “follow” a source of acoustic vibrations before it is converted to an amplifiable electrical signal as well as being able to use this cartridge with most turntables.

One turntable that was exhibited here that is considered a proper specimen for bridging the classic medium with today’s Sonos speakers or the computer is the VinylPlay “integrated phono stage” turntable. This has a similar build to most of the recent Rega, Pro-Ject or similar turntables that properly welcomed back vinyl and has what is expected for stability, but has a built-in phono preamplifier with digital and USB outputs as well as line-level and “cartridge-direct” analogue outputs. Another feature that increases its useability, especially for a manual turntable, is a distinct arrow on the cartridge’s front that indicates where the stylus is, so you can be sure the needle is where you want it i.e. on that record. What I see of this USB-equipped record player is that it isn’t about a gimmicky flimsy unit but one that can properly bridge the classic records to a lot of equipment.

Digital audio

On the other hand, the quality of digital audio, both in the recordings that are distributed and the “file-to-speaker” playback chain has improved. For example, the “high-resolution” file-based audio content has been represented here as being above the 44.1kHz 16-bit CD-Audio or the 48kHz 16-bit standard-play DAT specifications that was “cemented” for digital audio recording and playback in the late 1980s. Typically, audio that is made to this specification will resolve towards 24-bit 96kHz or 24-bit 192kHz digital-audio streams and this will either be in the form of FLAC or similar audio files and it yields what could be perceived a clearer sound. It is also augmented through the use of digital-analogue converters or digital-amplifiers that are designed to “pull more out” of a digital-audio stream with very little in the way of unwanted sound artifacts.

Sony MAP-S1 network-capable CD receiver

Sony MAP-S1 network-capable CD receiver

Equipment that was designed to cope with the “master-grade” high-resolution digital audio sound could also bring out the best from classic digital audio content as I had seen for myself with the Sony MAP-S1 network-capable CD receiver. This unit was set up completely as a system with a pair of the Sony SSH-W1 3-way bookshelf speaker and I had let it perform with my Whispers “Love Is Where You Find It / Love For Love” CD. Here, it came through clearly with the soul music, yielding that desirable “punch” to the sound yet coming across clearly.

The home network as part of digital audio

Auralic Aries network-to-digital media bridge which serves an external DAC

Auralic Aries network-to-digital media bridge which serves an external DAC

Again, the home network is still considered as part of enjoying digital audio. This is typically with a network-attached-storage device or music-focused media server holding all the music and network media receivers playing the music that is held on the NAS or from one or more online sources. It has been brought about with the larger size of music files that are prepared according to high-resolution “master-grade” standards and these files being offered on a “download-to-own” basis.

There were a few of the network audio receiver devices which were built to work with an external digital amplifier or digital-analogue converter rather than doing the digital-analogue conversion themselves. These were pitched for use with the top-notch digital-analogue converters and digital amplifiers the were becoming part of a high-grade digital-audio setup.

.. which serves this Auralic Vega digital-analogue converter and Auralic Taurus control amplifier

.. which serves this Auralic Vega digital-analogue converter and Auralic Taurus control amplifier

One of these was Auralic Aries network audio bridge connects between home network or online content and DAC,  DLNA support and works as Media Renderer. Connects to DAC via USB, AES/EBU (Digital XLR), SPDIF Coaxial or SPDIF Optical, network via 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi or Ethernet. As well, it works with Linn’s Songcast “network sound card” software so it and the DAC work as a computer sound card. This device is controlled using Auralic’s Lightning DS mobile-platform app but has the ability to work with an Auralic remote control for ad-hoc program selection and transport control.

The QNAP NAS works as a music server

The QNAP NAS works as a music server

This small network-media bridge  was fed by a QNAP NAS full of music and passed its digital signals via USB to an Auralic Vega digital-analogue converter. It in turn passed the analogue signals to the Auralic Taurus Pre control amplifier feeding a pair of Merak monobloc power amps to drive a pair of floor-standing speakers.

Another was the latest iteration of the NAD Masters Series of premium digital hi-fi components with the M12 digital control amplifier and M22 stereo power amplifier being driven by the <model number> digital media player. This unit appeared at previous Australian Audio And AV Shows and was an example of an optical-disc transport and network audio bridge device.

Latest iteration of the NAD Masters digital-driven hi-fi system

Latest iteration of the NAD Masters digital-driven hi-fi system

There is an increased number of dedicated music servers or “ripping NAS” units being presented at this year’s show with some of them working as the music servers for their distributors’ rooms. Two examples included the RipNAS Solid v3 and the Naim HDX. The Cocktail Audio music servers still appeared but were on static display, not serving an active system. As always, Naim pushed their music servers in to service as content libraries for two music systems, this time it was the NDS which was serving the Statement ultra-premium hi-fi system and the mu-so wireless speaker.

RipNAS Solid v3 ripping NAS

RipNAS Solid v3 ripping NAS

Lifestyle and multiroom audio

Lifestyle audio still had its strong presence at the Australian Audio And AV Show. This was mainly dominated with single-piece wireless speakers and soundbars with some of the soundbars being used to play music. Some of these systems implemented subwoofers to “lift” the bass response, whether they were packaged with the soundbars or simply as to be set up to work with one of the wireless speakers just to add that bit of “bite” to the sound.

These were part of the multiroom trend where you can have music systems located in different rooms  There was even a seminar on the multiroom audio trend and this highlighted the arrival of the home network and online media as key drivers of this technology.

Naim mu-so wireless speaker

Naim mu-so wireless speaker

But they highlighted the fact that different companies, including chipset and technology vendors, are working on their own solution to permit audio content to be delivered to many speakers via a packet-based network like the typical Wi-FI or Bluetooth network in sync without jittering or packet loss. This was to open up paths for situations like 2 wireless speakers being set up to work as a true stereo pair with proper separation or “party-streaming” setups with multiple speakers and sound systems. At the moment, most of these systems can only work with equipment that implements the same technology and I am not sure whether these systems can work properly on a multiple-access-point setup such as with a wireless range extender or traditional setup with access points connected via an Ethernet or HomePlug AV wired backbone.

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

Denon had exhibited their HEOS Multiroom setup consisting of three different single-piece wireless speakers while Definitive Technologies used Room 320 for showing a highly-complete wireless audio system. This one consisted of a few different single-piece speakers, a soundbar, a wireless amplifier and an “on-ramp / off-ramp” audio adaptor module for their PlayFi-based system which uses a small Wi-Fi network as its carrier. Polk also made us aware of their wireless multiroom system which was based on one of the existing synchronisation technologies.

Definitive Technologies W-Series soundbar - as part of their multiroom setu[p

Definitive Technologies W-Series soundbar – as part of their multiroom setu[p

Ruark Audio had surfaced this year with a collection of table radios and music systems. This was headed by the R7 Radiogram which has a CD player, FM/DAB/Internet radio, Bluetooth playback, DLNA MediaRenderer functionality and access to online services. Here, it is styled in a form similar to the archetypal “radiogram” or “console stereo” that served as the main household music system for most people through the 1950s and 1960s and is something that is pitched at the “baby-boomer” generation.

Definitive Technologies Adapt "on-ramp / off-ramp" for the W-Series multiroom setup

Definitive Technologies Adapt “on-ramp / off-ramp” for the W-Series multiroom setup

Naim also came to the fore with a single-piece wireless speaker called the mu-so. This could pull up content from a DLNA server or online content services (think Spotify or Internet radio), AirPlay, Bluetooth A2DP with aptX amongst other sources. It is primarily controlled through Naim’s mobile app and works tightly with their multiroom streaming setup. But this uses a 3-way speaker arrangement for each channel with each driver having its own amplifier and it also implements DSP technology which Naim implemented in the sound system used in the newer Bentley cars.

Ruark R7 Radiogram - the up-to-date take on an old classic form factor

Ruark R7 Radiogram – the up-to-date take on an old classic form factor

The Headzone still appeared, representing the increased role that headphones and earphones played in the personal AV life. The theme here still was to listen to music or video content through the headphones rather than have them available to hear the other party of a phone conversation or hear the sound effects associated with computer games played on our mobile devices. But I would see these still play a strong role with VoIP or mobile communications services that implement “HD Voice” or newer telephony-audio technologies which sound as good as AM radio, if not better.

They still are important for the connected life as we use them to be able to listen to music, video and games effects from our computing devices privately. Most of the premium sets were demoed with dedicated headphone amplifiers but some of the headphones were either connected to regular integrated amplifiers or the headphone outputs on some CD players, or simply available for us to plug our mobile devices in to.

It is also worth being aware of the efficiency that particular headphones show up, especially if you are targeting them for portable use with battery-operated equipment. Here, I had discovered this for myself with the Sony MDR-10RC headphones I previously reviewed and a pair of newer portable-focused headphones I am using as my regular set and tried both of them on the Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth adaptor associated with my Samsung smartphone. I ran the Bluetooth adaptor at the same volume setting on both headphones and the portable-focused headphones sounded louder but not as clear compared to the MDR-10RC set. The fact that one pair may sound louder at the same volume level compared to another, thus being more efficient, may be of benefit with that battery-operated device because you are not “running the device hard” for the same volume level, thus not drawing on the batteries more.

Speaker technology

An example of one of the many systems that were demonstrated with bookshelf speakers yet yield the bass

An example of one of the many systems that were demonstrated with bookshelf speakers yet yield the bass

A lot of the hi-fi systems were demonstrated with the conventional-architecture speakers, some of which were the traditional floor-standing types or most of which were the bookshelf speakers that were set up on speaker stands. These still yielded strong unassisted bass response with the amplifiers at “ideal listening volume”.

On the other hand, another firm were exhibiting a surround-sound setup which used flat-panel speakers in a traditional quadraphonic layout but these required the use of a subwoofer to convey the bass response.

Conclusion

What the last few iterations of the Australian Audio And AV Show have underscored was the fact that recorded-music reproduction has taken many methods and has improved on the methods. The signal path from the content source, being a vinyl record, optical disc or a file held on a computer or network-attached storage, to the speakers will under a continual path of innovation and even the medium itself will under a path of innovation.

I have provided a Spotify playlist of some of the songs that have heen played here.

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Internationaler Funkaustellung 2014–Part 2

IFA LogoThe second part of this series about the Internationaler Funkaustellung 2014 covers the consumer AV, wearable technology and home automation technologies that were being premiered at this trade fair.

Consumer AV

TVs with advanced display tech

Samsung Curved OLED 4K UHDTV press picture courtesy of Samsung

Samsung curved OLED 4K UHDTV

There has been consistent activity with TVs that implement advanced display technology. Primarily, this has come about with more of the 4K ultra-high-definition TV sets with some of the sets with this resolution crossing the EUR€1000 price barrier for the European market and sets having a minimum screen size of 42” while most come in at the popular screen sizes of 55” and 65”.

An increasing number of manufacturers are pushing through with curved screens and the 21:9 screen aspect ratio which mimics the experience one would gain from watching a movie at the cinema. Alongside this is for the Korean names to field TVs that use OLED technology on their screens.

Firstly, Samsung have fielded a 40” UHDTV alongside the UE105S9W which is their 105” 21:9 curved screen model. They also are exploiting the “Connect One” connection box which is a way of assuring future-proof design for their sets. This has been integrated in sets based on the HU8590 chassis but is ready-to-add for their other current-issue 4K UHD TV designs. They were also fielding the curved TVs based on the 8000 Series design

LG have run with a range of curved OLED 4K Ultra HDTVs with a screen size of 65” or 75”. These implement a 4-colour OLED display technology which uses a white element in each pixel to show the white part of the picture rather than “constructing” the white part.

Panasonic VIERA AX900 Series 4K UHDTV press picture courtesy of Panasonic

Panasonic VIERA AX900 Series 4K UHDTV

Panasonic are working on the improved picture quality and are running the AX630 4K TV design with a 40” model at EUR€899, a 48” model at EUR€1199 and a 55” model at EUR€1499. The sets based on this design have the HDMI 2.0 connectivity and H.265 / HEVC decoding but eschew the local-dimming improvement. They also run an extra-cost 4K TV design as the AX900 which comes in the 55” and 65” screen sizes and tick the boxes for HDMI 2.0 connectivity, H.265 support and local dimming.

Sony were pushing the quality angle with improvement on sound and extended dynamic range for the pictures, along with the Edge LED illumination feature. Their key model they were running was the S90 series which is a curved 4K UHDTV that sports the Triluminos technology and is available as either 65” or 75”.

Loewe, with TVs that are best described in German as “eine Superdeutschefernseher” have it that all newly-released models will be equipped with 4K resolution save for a 32” model. These will appear in 3 new ranges and have HDMI 2.0 connectivity and support for H.265 HEVC codecs. Thiey will implement DVB tuners that work with signals regular aerial (antenna), a satellite dish or cable-TV infrastructure and implement quick channel-change.

Thomson, the European TV name, are running with the Series Z 4K sets which are available as the Z7 (65” and 42” screens) and the Z8 (85”, 55” and 49” screens) variants. These have support also for HBBTV and Miracast mobile-phone playback.

Haier were showing the H6600 4K UHDTV range (42” to 65” screen sizes) with the 42” for less than EUR€600 and the 65” for EUR€1300 for 65”. These implement a simple design and use HDMI 1.4 connectivity. There is also the M7000 4K UHDTV range with screen sizes of 40”, 48”, and 55”. This design runs Android 4.2.2 and has access to Google Play, support for an add-in Webcam, and comes with a QWERTY remote control,

They will also implement an upgrade box for their TVs just like what Samsung did with their Evolution Box, satisfying a reality with the way TVs are used.

A Hong-Kong-based TV firm called Chanhong have shown curved OLED 4K TVs which are driven by Android technology. These are available at 55” for EUR€1700 or as 65” and 79” sizes. There is also a fiat-screen design known as the C5500 with the 42” selling for EUR€500 and the 65” selling for EUR€800. This one also implements Android technology and uses HDMI 2.0 connectivity.

Philips Android-driven curved 4K UHDTV press image courtesy of Philips

Philips Android-driven curved 4K UHDTV

Philips even ran for the title of the first Android-driven curved TV, which comes in with a screen size of 55” at EUR€2390. This also implements the Ambilight feature that Philips is known for to augment the viewing experience.

Smart TV and multiscreen

The Smart TV experience is being driven on the HBBTV broadcast-Internet interactive TV technology that is being premiered in Europe and, to some extent, Australia.

Technisat were working on the “Watchmii” personal-TV experience which I would suspect is a content-recommendation service.

Platform-based “smart-TV” technologies that don’t require the manufacturers to “reinvent the wheel” were coming to light. Here, Philips was implementing Android-based Smart TVs that have access to the apps on the Google Play Store while LG was pushing the idea of implementing WebOS on their Smart TV designs.

Qualcomm are intending to use the AllJoyn and AlSeen standards to make TVs operate with smartphones and tablets.

Audio technology

Wireless speakers and multiroom audio

Harman-Kardon Omni 10 Black multiroom speaker and smartphone press picture courtesy of Harman International

Harman-Kardon Omni 10 multiroom wireless speaker

The wireless speakers, some of which work with your Wi-Fi home network or as a Bluetooth speaker for your smartphone, are showing up as a very distinct product category. The innovation that is taking place here is the ability to wirelessly link two or more speakers together either to cover more sound space during a party or to provide a stereo pair with the proper desireable stereo separation. Some of the multi-room setups even make it feasible to adjust the volume for that speaker locally to your taste. These systems are being seen as an attempt to encroach on Sonos’s territory when it comes to multi-room multi-speaker wireless audio setups.

Harman-Kardon Omni 20 Black multiroom speaker press picture courtesy of Harman International

Harman-Kardon Omni 20 multiroom speaker

Another trend is that an increasing number of the portable Bluetooth speakers that have rechargeable battery packs in them are even able to work as external battery packs for mobile devices. This can help with them providing that bit extra of power on the go.

Yamaha have advanced a 3-piece elegant Bluetooth speaker and a single-piece Bluetooth speaker that creates a lightshow when playing music.

Philips SW-500M Spotify multiroom speaker press image courtesy of Philips

Philips SW-500M Spotify multiroom speaker

MTX, known for their beefy car-audio technology have advanced some wireless speakers along with some Street Audio earphones. One of these is the iT1 which implements a 6-amplifier, 6-speaker and 2 bass speaker arrangement and uses Wi-Fi with DLNA and AirPlay connectivity. They also fielded the iWa225 which is an in-wall Bluetooth amplifier for use with build-in speakers and supports multiroom mode using 2 of the same amplifiers.

Braven are cottoning on to the multiroom idea with their Vibe system. As well, LG are answering Sonos with their Music Flow multi-room audio setup.

Lenco are running with a multiroom setup which users single-piece speakers that are controlled by an iOS or Android app and are able to work with master-grade audio files. This system, which connects to an existing Wi-Fi small network segment, consists of the Playlink 6 speaker, Playlink 4 small portable speaker, and the Connect box which connects to an existing sound system.

Pure have refreshed their Jongo speaker lineup as the X Series speakers and implemented the Imagination Technologies Caskeid multiroom transmission technology. This technology works with multiroom setups or separate stereo speakers using the existing Wi-Fi network and the “Bluetooth Caskeid” variant provides a single Bluetooth A2DP on-ramp to the Caskeid system. These speakers are now available in white, grey or black finishes.

Harman-Kardon have fielded the Omni multi-room setup which is based around the Omni 10 or Omni 20 wireless speakers. These work on the existing Wi-Fi home network, have an Bluetooth A2DP on-ramp function and also work with 96khz 24-bit master-grade audio streams. A brace of these speakers can be set up to be a stereo pair or five of them can be set up to provide 5-channel surround sound. Harman-Kardon also offer the Esquire portable Bluetooth speaker that is so “stylish yet cool” like the well-dressed gentleman. This unit, which also can be an external battery pack, wouldn’t look out of place in his elegant briefcase.

Philips are running a Wi-Fi-based multiroom speaker setup that, again, works with the existing Wi-Fi home network but also has Spotify Connect functionality. There is the SW750 which has one tweeter and one woofer per channel and the SW700 which has one full-range speaker per channel. They also have fielded a Bluetooth speaker that doesn’t have trouble with multiple Bluetooth source devices. This one uses 1 tweeter and 1 woofer per channel along with the use of passive radiators to improve the sound.

Headphones and earphones

Sony MDR-1ADAC digital headphones with integrated DAC press image courtesy of Sony

Sony MDR-1ADAC digital headphones with integrated DAC

The headphone scene is being advanced here with improved headphone and earphone designs as we listen to more audio content on the road. It is becoming more acceptable for one to were large “cans” when they are on the street or in public transport because of better sound quality. This is being advanced with some headphones even implementing multi-transducer “two-way” designs.

For example, Sony have put forward the MDR-1ADAC headphones with integrated digital-analogue converter along with the PHA-3AC portable DAC for use with existing “cans”. These work with some of the new Sony Walkman digital audio players, the new XPeria smartphones, Apple iOS devices or regular computers as digital headphones and yield master-grade digital audio reproduction.

As well, Sennheiser are fielding headphones that are intended to “snap at” what Beats offers for ultra-cool bass-rich headphones.

Other Hi-Fi sound trends

Technics R1 Reference hi-fi system press picture courtesy of Panasonic

Technics R1 hi-fi system symbolising the return of the hi-fi brand

One main trend that is being pushed in hi-fi design is inherent support for “master-grade”  file-based digital audio with FLAC and similar files that are worked at 24 bits and greater than 96 kHz sampling rates.

Panasonic have resurrected the Technics hi-fi brand to the consumer market through them fielding two music systems. One of these is the R1 Reference System which is based around the SE-R1 stereo power amplifier with those classic power-level meters and XLR connectors that aren’t out of place on a PA system. This beast of an amplifier drives the SB-R1 3-way floor-standing speakers and is fed by the SU-R1 network audio player / control amplifier that uses separate power-supply paths for the analogue and digital signal paths.

Technics C700 hi-fi system with SL-C700 CD player press picture courtesy of Panasonic

Technics C700 hi-fi system with CD player

They also had shown the C700 music system which consists of a stereo amplifier, network audio player and 2-way bookshelf speakers. Users can also buy an optional SL-C700 CD player which has highly-strung digital-analogue conversion circuitry. These systems have been designed by Michiko Ogawa who is a Japanese jazz pianist and sound engineer and is part of the new “Rediscover Music” ethos that Technics is bringing back.

Pioneer X-HM82 3-piece network-capable music system press picture courtesy of Pioneer

Pioneer X-HM82 3-piece music system with XC-HM82 network-capable CD receiver

Pioneer have brought in hi-fi network media players that can work high-resolution files and yield high-quality sound from regular music files and streams. They also brought in the XC-HM82 network CD receiver which plays CDs, broadcast and Internet radio, Spotify, music from your home network via either DLNA or AirPlay as well as Bluetooth A2DP music from your mobile devices. This is available as a variant with support for DAB+ digital broadcast radio and is available either as a standalone component for use with speakers that you like or as one of two music systems. The first one – the X-HM82 comes with 2-way bookshelf speakers equipped with a 12cm glass-fibre woofer and 25mm dome tweeter and finshed in that piano-black lacquer.  The second one comes with similar speakers that have a cheaper look and similar-sized drivers.

Pioneer N-70 network media player press picture courtesy of Pioneer

Pioneer N-70 network media player

As well they have brought in a pair of DLNA-capable Blu-Ray players with Dolby Atmos support (BDP-LX88 and BDP-LX58) along with the SC-LX88 Atmos-capable AV receiver. The BDP-LX58 even comes with a pair of XLR balanced-audio connectors along with the RCA connectors as stereo-output options so this can tie in with PA systems or high-end audio amplifiers. Their Compact Components range of micro hi-fi systems has been refreshed and now comes with a network media player and a USB DAC. In addition to this, they also have released the N-70 network media player that has hi-fi credentials and pulls music from online music services or the home network’s NAS unit using DLNA.

Pioneer have also improved the Bluetooth functionality in their latest iterations of their Bluetooth-capable car audio equipment to support the reality of multiple-phone use. This is especially to cater for the “work phone and home phone” users.

Photography

The IFA consumer-electronics show in Berlin clashes with the subsequent Photokina photography show that is held in Cologne so I won’t go in to much detail here about the cameras.

A key trend is for more DSLR cameras and camcorders to be able to take video footage at 4K UHDTV resolution.

Another trend being pushed on to the European market is for some cameras to be able to upload or play via Wi-Fi. This provides for direct access to Dropbox, Facebook and co along with the ability to support a level of DLNA compatibility.

Of course, Canon and Nikon field new or refreshed iterations of their system cameras and DSLRs

Sony have brought the NEX series of cameras to Europe along with refreshed versions of their smartphone “lens-camera” devices. One of these even works with their E-mount interchangeable lenses.

Polaroid has made the IFA the chance to launch their Socialmatic “online” camera to the European market. This camera has the ability to work with a smartphone to upload pictures to the Social Web and a variant has been launched to maintain the same “look” as their iconic 1000 / One-Step series of SX-70 platform instant-picture cameras launched in the 1970s. This include an LCD screen that mimics the look of the original cameras’ viewfinder windows but shows iconic images like the smiley face.

Personal Tech

Wearables

The Northern Autumn (Fall) is intending to become the season for a battle between manufacturers to present the best smartwatch on the block.

Samsung Gear Live Black Android Wear smartwatch press image courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Gear Live Android Wear smartwatch

Here, there is an increasing number of  smartwatches that are driven by Android Wear, some of which are round. As well, there is an increasing number of models that are priced to be affordable for most along with the hybrid smartwatches that have the traditional quartz movement that drives actual hands along with an extra control / display surface integrated in the face for smartphone integration. As well, Samsung is one of the first to introduce a standalone smartwatch that isn’t dependent on a smartphone for most of its functionality.

Samsung Gear S smartwatch (him on bike) press picture courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Gear S standalone smartwatch suitable for bike riding

This watch, known as the Gear S smartwatch, has the ability to work as a smartphone or can work alongside an existing smartphone. It is based on the Tizen operating system and implements 3G communication for the cellular link. As well, the Gear S uses Samsung’s iconic Super AMOLED display technology but the display is curved, effectively to “wrap with your wrist”.

Samsung Gear S smartwatch (her with smartphone) press picture courtesy of Samsung

The Gear S can look just as elegant – a sign of what is to be expected of smartwatches

They also released the Gear Live watch which works on the Android Wear platform yet has the Super AMOLED display that Samsung is behind. As well, Samsung are snapping at Oculus Rift by issuing a pair of goggles known as the Galaxy VR.

LG are intending to launch an AMOLED-equipped successor to the Android Wear driven G Watch along with the G Watch R which is intended to sell in October. ASUS are running an Android Wear smartwatch which could be affordable for most with a price tag of EUR€170-200 along with the ZenWatch which is a customisable Android Wear smartwatch that oozes with style and is equipped with an AMOLED display.

Sony’s SmartWatch 3 is their third iteration of the Smartwatch range and is intended to be based on Android Wear. This is also to be run alongside the Smartband Talk which is a fitness band with hands-free telephony functionality for your smartphone along with a battery-saving e-ink screen.

Samsung Gear VR goggles press picture courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Gear VR goggles to snap at the Oculus Rift goggles

The Cogito Classic smartwatch has the real moving hands to tell the current time but a display underneath the hands and on the clock face for notifications. This is part of the new breed of hybrid smartwatch (real hands that tell the time, display the shows messages or LED that indicates status, buttons or multi-function crown for controlling the smartphone. One question is whether these watches could set themselves from your smartphone and the time references that it has like the mobile towers. This includes adjusting themselves to daylight-saving time as it comes in to effect or adjusting themselves to the new time zone that you travel in to.

Home automation and security

There are a few key trends affecting home automation and security. One is having appliances link to your smartphone by Bluetooth Smart technology or your home network and work on the “app-cessory” model. This is where they gain functionality by you using a manufacturer-developed app that you draw down from your mobile platform’s app store, with this app being an enhanced display and control surface.

An example of this is the Oral B (Braun) Bluetooth-linked electric toothbrush that analyses your teeth-cleaning process and suggests better ways to do it.

A few “do-it-yourself” home-automation systems have come on the scene. One of these is the DigitalStrom home-automation system uses the AC wiring and  looks like Lego blocks. This is app-controlled and supports scene-driven or event-driven behavour and is easy to expand. Similarly, Devolo have put their foot in the door for home automation with an app-driven appliance module and contact sensor. Thomson are fielding the THOMBox which is another home-automation system that uses a computer, tablet or smartphone as the control surface.

Saeco GranBaristo Avanti espresso machine press picture courtesy of Philips

Saeco GranBaristo Avanti automatic espresso machine represents the new direction of appliance user-interface design with mobile-device app-cessory control and high-resolution display

Another trend is for appliances to have an easy efficient safe hygienic design, One of these factors also includes major appliances and coffee machines being equipped with colour LCD graphic displays rather than a monochrome low-resolution LCD display or alphanumeric display. This has picked up from where an increasing number of multi-function printers are being equipped with colour LCD touchscreen displays. This is also augmented by the above-mentioned “app-cessory” enhanced control method where your smartphone or tablet serves as a control or display surface with access to extra functionality. In some cases, some of the conventional or microwave ovens have the ability to allow you to download recipes to them to manage the cooking process for that recipe.

For example, Bosch have established the Home Connect web-assisted platform for their appliances. For example, they have a fridge that lets you you see what is there by viewing your tablet while the door’s closed. This is achieved with two cameras that do the task of photographing what’s there after you close the door before the light turns off.

Similarly, Whirlpool / Bauknecht have designed a cooking hob that is an information dashboard for the connected home when it is not cooking food. This would show  remaining time for processes like oven cooking or dish / clothes washing cycles, along with recipes based on what’s in the fridge and information from social network feeds, etc.

Siemens even fielded the iQ700 appliance platform with a multifunction oven that has a “lift-up” control panel with storage behind. This is part of a similar “Home Connect” portal, and their dishwasher even supports assisted operation.

Dyson joins the robot vacuum party by offering a unit with a 360-degree-vision camera and the ability to locate itself based on where your furniture and other items are in the room. It also uses tank-style tracks to move between surface types along with Dyson’s well-known motor technology.

Philips have even worked on the Hue Beyond “tuneable” LED lighting system which is managed the “app-cessory” way but can be adjusted minutely.

Conclusion

This is showing how the IFA 2014 is reinforcing the concept of personal computing in the lifestyle space such as with watches, music systems and even appliances.

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Internationaler Funkaustellung 2014–Part 1

IFA LogoThe Internationaler Funkaustellung trade fair that happens in Berlin is seen as a launch point for consumer electronics and home appliances being sold primarily in to the European market but also covering to some extent the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Ocieania markets. Typically what is launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas during January may be premiered in Europe during this show.

Personal and home computing

Laptops, notebooks and tablets

ASUS Eeebook X205TA 11" notebook courtesy of ASUS

ASUS Eeebook X205TA – an example of the new cheap Windows notebooks that are appearing

There are two main trends affecting the laptop computer and tablet computer here that you couldn’t really have them as separate product classes. One is an increased proliferation of the detachable and convertible classes of products that become either tablets or laptop computers at any one moment. The other is the available of 11” Windows notebook computers at really low prices to compete with the Chromebook products that run the Google ChromeOS operating system.

As far as the cheap-end laptop is concerned, ASUS, HP and others have been pushing products in this class with ASUS drawing on the EeePC “netbook” heritage with their specimen that has an 11.6” screen, an Intel Bay Trail Atom processor, 2Gb RAM and 32Gb solid-state storage.

Toshiba Satellite Click 2 Pro detachable notebook press image courtesy of Toshiba

Toshiba Satellite Click 2 Pro detachable notebook

The convertibles and detachables are coming strongly in the 13” screen size with Toshiba fielding the Satellite Click 2 Pro P30W detachable Ultrabook and the Dell Latitude 13 7000 for the detachable form factor. Acer have shown up with a 13” “flip-down” convertible in the form of the Aspire R13. The 13” screen size is still perceived as a size to keep with this product class because of a larger screen that can be good as a large “sharable” tablet and the keyboard comfortably large enough for typing up large chunks of copy while you deal with a compact portable computer.

Other trends affecting this space include laptops having 4K UHDTV resolution screens which have been brought on by the concept of the Apple Retina display in the MacBook lineup. This is making the concept of high-dot-per-inch displays become the norm in this class of computer which will put pressure on software developers and Webmasters to cater to these screens.

An example of this is the Toshiba Kira 102 13.3” Ultrabook which sports an Intel i7 processor and 256Gb SSD along with a touchscreen resolution of 2560×1440. Let’s not forget that Toshiba were refreshing the popular Satellite L Series of 15” and 17” laptops with them having either Intel or AMD processors.

The tablets are becoming available either as Windows 8.1 units or as Android 4.4 KitKat units. Here, I have had to class tablets with the laptops because they are being positioned as a competitor to the small laptop as a personal computing device although some people could position them more as media-consumption devices. This has been made easier with Microsoft licensing Windows 8.1 at no cost for the small tablet devices.

As well, it was a time when Microsoft was premiering the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet but, really a detachable notebook. Samsung has used this show to promote the Galaxy Tab S which is the first tablet to implement an OLED screen, causing it to be more lightweight as well as show pictures with increased contrast and brilliance.

Sony used this show to premiere the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact which is their “coat-pocket” tablet. As well, they have premiered their PocketBook Android-driven e-ink readers which also includes a 13” model that is pitched at CAD and architectural use. This one also is able to connect to a computer to serve as a Wacom-compliant graphics tablet.  Thomson fielded the THBK-1-1- which is capable of booting between Android or Windows 8.1. Acer was also running a Windows-based 8” tablet in the form of the Atom-powered Iconia Tab 8W.

Peripherals

As for desktop monitors, the 4K resolution is appearing in the premium end of this product class. LG fielded a curved ultrawide 4K unit with a 34” 21:9  screen, along with the 31” Digital Cinema 4K monitor and a 24” gamer-grade monitor.

Smartphones

Samsung Galaxy Note Edge press image courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Note Edge – a new trend for smartphone displays with the wraparound display

The key trends for the smartphones include moving towards the 5”-6” 16:9 screen size with the display size hitting the golden maximum for the product class. This is where the product is similar in size to a larger highly-functional pocket calculator where it has a large screen yet it is comfortable to hold in one hand and operate with the other. It has been underscored by the so-called “phablet” class of smartphone with the large 6” displays and having that “golden maximum”.

We are also seeing more stylish designs for the premium models along with upscaling of the devices’ processor, camera and similar abilities.

Samsung were pushing their premium Galaxy line at this show. The headline products were the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini and Galaxy Note Edge with screen edges that wrap over side of phone and exposes software-determined options,

Alcatel were exhibiting their One Touch smartphone which uses e-ink as a battery-saving display technology. HTC also exhibited the Desire 820 which was the first Android smartphone to implement a 64-bit ARM processor. This may impact software development for the Android platform because of a requirement to compile 64-bit packages of the apps to take full advantage of this processor’s abilities.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 press picture courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 – the latest iteration of the phone that started the phablet phenomenon

Companies that are normally dormant when it comes to handheld devices are surfacing with smartphone products of their own. Examples of these include Acer launching their “Leap” smartphone range along with Lenovo launching their Vibe smartphones with some of the products being pitched at the “selfie” culture.

The phablets are emerging in the form of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, which is the latest iteration of the Galaxy Note lineup that opened up this product class. Sony answered with the Z3 product range while LG fielded the G3 Stylus 5.5” Android phablet.

As for the emerging markets, Technisat were promoting a dual-SIM Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean smartphone with Wi-Fi N, Bluetooth and FM radio. This runs on a 1500mAH battery with 512Mb RAM and 4Gb main storage at EUR€115.99. LG were running the L Fino and L Bello 3G smartphones for these markets.

The home network

Two main trends that are affecting connectivity on the home network are 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless connectivity and HomePlug AV2 MIMO powerline connectivity.

More of the current-issue broadband routers are being equipped with 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity with more concurrent wireless streams this allowing for increa

Devolo dLAN 1200+ HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptor press picture courtesy of Devolo

Devolo dLAN 1200+ HomePlug AV2 MIMO adaptor (Continental Schuko plug)

sed Wi-Fi throughput. For that matter, we are seeing such equipment in the order of the AC1900 specification with three radio streams.

Examples of this include TP-Link’s Archer C9 performance broadband router and the NETGEAR NightHawk X4 with the four-stream AC2350 802.11ac Wi-Fi.  As well, TP-Link also fielded the RE200 AC750 dual-band wireless range extender.

As for HomePlug AV2 with its MIMO abilities, Devolo have released their kit for this specification as the dLAN 1200+ which requires the power outlets to be compliant to the Continental “Schuko” plugs at each end of the connection. These have a filtered Continental “Schuko” mains socket in them so you don’t forfeit the AC socket you used for your HomePlug AV2 connection, along with a Gigabit Ethernet socket for your network connection. There are even plans for Devolo to release local-specific variants of this kit for other European countries like UK and France. TP-Link are fielding the PA8030 HomePlug AV2 SISO (two-wire) adaptor which has a Gigabit 3-port Ethernet switch.

There have been a few “Mi-Fi” routers with 4G LTE WAN technology at the IFA 2014. One of these is the NETGEAR Aircard 785 Hotspot which also has a dual-band Wi-Fi LAN connection. TP-Link has fielded a the M7350 Mi-Fi which also works as an SD-card file server.

In the next part of the series, I will be covering the consumer AV technology, the wearables and home appliances technologies.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2014–Part 3 (Wearables, Home Automation and the Open Road)

This final instalment of my coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show will be focusing on some areas that have had high media coverage. This are the connected wearable devices that work with our smartphones, the connected home along with car-based technologies. The latter two are underscoring the idea that the online life is more than the home office or living room but more pervasive.

Connected Wearable Devices

The arrival of hardware and operating-system support for Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy for smartphones, tablets and laptops has opened up a flood of connected devices that we can wear.

This is primarily in the form of the smartwatch which is today’s connected iteration of the “nerdy” digital watch of the late 70s and early 80s. Some companies like Archos have started to join the smartwatch party by offering one that implements the e-paper display technology for US$85. This is while Samsung and Pebble came forth with newer smartwatch models.

Rather than have a smartwatch like the Galaxy Gear, Casio has gone down the path of premiering a Bluetooth-connected sports watch. Here, this one-time king of digital watches implemented a regular sports-watch design which uses a Bluetooth link to work with a fitness app and support a notification display on the watch. Another company also fielded a Bluetooth-linked notification watch that is equipped with an analogue dial, something that could come about for targeting the “dress watch” segment.

A similar device that is covering an increased amount of floor space is the “fitness band” which is a connected bracelet or wristband that measures physical activity and reports it to your smartphone or other computing device. They have been brought on by the success of the Nike FuelBand which provides this functionality when in use with the Apple iPhone.

LG even has developed the Lifeband Touch which is a hybrid device that serves as a  fitness band or a discreet smartwatch that works as an external display for your phone, courtesy of its touch-enabled OLED display. Herem the Lifeband uses sensors in the form of a 3-axis accelerometer and an altimeter. Razer also premiered the Nabu which is another of these fitness bands that double as a smartwatch.

Archos and Samsung have joined the fitness band party with the latter calling theirs the Galaxy Band to fit in with their Galaxy online lifestyle devices. Garmin even came forth with the Vivofit fitness band that is more about reminding us to be active rather than tracking actual activity. Pulsense even worked on a fitness band that also can “see through” skin to measure heartrate without the need for other awkward sensor requirements.

Sony Smart Band - Sony press image

Sony Smart Band – an example of the many connected wearables surfacing this year.

Sony has taken another path through the use of a “Core” wearable device that works with different accessories and works on what they call “Emotion” rather than activity.

Other sports and fitness applications that are being drawn out include a Bluetooth-connected basketball with its own motion sensors to measure basketball technique, LG’s in-ear headset that tracks heartrate, a connected headband with integrated speaker, a heart-rate monitor for swimming goggles along with a brain-sensing EEG headband for games with exercise and an impact monitor for sports injuries.

Eyewear is also becoming an important “connected-wearable” device class thanks to Google Glass with its “augmented reality” function. Epson have answered Google by offering an Android-based augmented-reality glasses system in the form of the Moverio BT-200.

Even the concept of making jewellery connected has not escaped a British chip-maker’s mind. Here, CSR who are known for the Bluetooth aptX audio codec for Bluetooth applications have released proof-of-concept designs where a Bluetooth Smart chipset can be integrated in to jewellery to give it software-driven notification abilities.

But from what I see, I would find that the smartwatches and the fitness bands, especially those that have smartwatch functionality would be the more credible class of connected wearable devices. Similarly, devices for personal healthcare monitoring may earn some credibility with fitness enthusiasts, sports people and those of us who are managing chronic illnesses.

Internet Of Things and the connected home

This year’s CES is showing that this trade fair could follow the same path as the Internationaler Funkaustellung where small and large household appliances acquire show floor space alongside consumer electronics and personal computing. This is being underscored by the “Internet Of Things” and the desire to see the “connected home” come to fruition in the name of energy efficiency, security and convenience.

Samsung and LG have been using their stands to premiere their advanced whitegoods which interlink with their communications and AV equipment in their product portfolios, using these devices as an extra control or monitoring point.

Of course, this is being underscored by the various home devices being connected to your home network via Wi-Fi and working on the “app-cessory” model where you install controller apps on your smartphone. This has been underscored heavily with a lot of LED-based “app-cessory” lightbulbs that are being marketed in the US due to that market moving away from the classic incandescent bulb towards more efficient lighting and the LED lighting can allow for highly-controllable lights that can change colour at the flick of a switch.

Belkin WeMo Crock-Pot slow-cooker - Belkin press image

Belkin WeMo Crock-Pot slow-cooker – an example of the app-cessory appliances surfacing this year

Belkin had shown more of their “Wemo” smartphone-based home-automation subsystem and added LED lightbulbs to this equation. They also partnered with Sunbeam Appliances to premiere a Wemo-enabled Crock-Pot slow cooker that can be managed from your smartphone. As well, they have the Wemo Maker which is a sensor or controller that links garage doors, sprinkler systems and the like in to the Wemo ecosystem.

The Lowe’s hardware-store chain have launched extras for their IRIS home-automation system with leak-detecting smart-shutoff valves, a sprinkler-control system, a garage-door controller, a voice-command interface along with smart-grid compatibility. This latest feature can allow for integration with off-peak tariffs or load-shedding practices that the grid may use.

Things were relatively quiet when it came to the “smart-lock” devices with two such devices being premiered as credible products. One of these was the Okidokeys smart-lock retrofit kit that adds NFC smartphone, touch-card and key-fob functionality to an existing tubular deadbolt. This kit has been based on Openways smartphone-enabled hotel room locks and has been pitched as a “wide-reaching” device while maintaining the user’s existing key as an entry path. Another deadbolt offered by Goji implements an integrated outside display, an integrated camera and implements Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology.

ADT who are well-known for service-based monitored security have joined in to the connected-home scene while keeping their service-driven business model alive. They have fielded the Pulse home security package which adds voice commands via a smartphone app along with the Canopy smartphone app which offers protection on the go. They also offered extra hardware in the form of remote controls for garage door openers and ceiling fans, along with a touchscreen controller for their alarm systems.

They are still underscoring the serviced-security model even by extending this to your computer and home network by partnering with McAfee Security (now Intel Security) for a home data-security solution. As well, they are working with Ford to provide dashboard integration for your monitored-security solution using the Sync technology that Ford offers.

Technology on the open road

This year, the Consumer Electronics Show has also been been a chance for vehicle builders to show the latest online technology for their vehicles.

Google and Apple have made steps to integrate their mobile operating systems in to motor vehicles and are partnering with vehicle builders to further this integration. For example, Google partnered with Audi to build an Android-driven infotainment system for the car and underscored this with a 10.1” Android tablet that docks in to the centre console of various new-issue Audis to become a display and control surface in that vehicle.This is while Apple had support from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors and Honda for iOS integration.

GM are underscoring this with some Chevrolet vehicles being equipped with 4G LTE mobile broadband as well as the creation of the OnStar AppShop where you can add extra functionality through apps. They even offered a telemetry recorder app for use with the Corvette Stingray.

Even the chipmakers are cashing in on the connected car with Qualcomm pitching the 602a connected-car CPU while NVIDIA offered a variant of their Tegra K1 for automotive use.

Advanced vehicle techologies were being pitches at this show such as Toyota presenting a concept vehicle that is powered by a fuel cell. As well, Ford integrated a solar panel in to the roof of their C-Max Energi Concept electric car which allows the vehicle to charge itself from that panel to add extra driving range. BMW even put up the idea of a parallel-parking “auto-pilot” for their i3 electric car where you can press a button to start your vehicle parking itself in that shopping-centre car park.

The aftermarket car infotainment scene is still kicking along with Alpine offering the X009 9” navigation receiver that fits in the dashboard of trucks and 4WDs and interlinks with smartphones including having MHL support for the Android phone. JVC also is supplying a double-DIN car stereo with MHL connectivity, touchscreen while app-link functionality and Siri Eyes Free is also appearing on cheaper JVC head units. Pioneer are even offering car AV equipment that “doesn’t miss your smartphone” by offering various methods of connectivity such as AVICSync, MirrorLink and AppRadio.

Sony has also gone about this in a different way. Here, they have a double-DIN CD receiver which works as a smartphone dock. Here, your Android smartphone can be set up with NFC paring and, with a companion app, becomes the control surface for the car stereo.

Conclusion

What I see of the Consumer Electronics Show this year is a strong foothold for connected wearable devices, increased presence by vehicle builders at the show, a blending of computer classes that aren’t really delineated by operating system or display size along with a make or break for 4K ultra-high-definition TV.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2014–Part 2 (Your computer, smartphone, tablet and network)

The second part of this series is about computing devices both for desktop use and for mobile use in all of the form factors along with the new equipment that you can use to buid out our home or other small network.

Computers and Mobile Devices

Previously, I used to see mobile computing devices like tablets and smartphones as their own device class but the situation is changing for this class of device.

This has been brought on with use of Windows 8.1 in smaller tablets that have lightweight and low-energy processors that implement the orthodox Intel microarchitecture used in regular-computers along with these regular computer products running the Android mobile operating system as a standalone operating system or in a dual-boot configuration.

This has caused us to blur the lines between the orthodox “regular” desktop or laptop computer that uses IA-32 or IA-64 microarchitecture rather than ARM RISC microarchitecture and running a desktop operating system like Windows or desktop Linux; and the primarily-battery-operated mobile computers like the smartphones and tablets that use ARM RISC microarchitecture and  use a mobile operating system like Android.

Computer devices that boot between Windows 8.1 and Android

Sony VAIO Duo 11 slider-convertible tablet

This class of computer may be either running Windows or Android very soon

Intel and AMD have established computer reference designs that allow for switching between Windows 8.1 or Android 4.4 operating systems even when they are fully operational. This is to capitalise on the 7”-10” tablets appearing on the market that are running Windows 8.1 along with the desire for us to run Android programs on our regular laptops and Ultrabooks.

A clear example of this is ASUS’s Transformer Book Duet detachable tablet which has a hardware switch that allows you to switch between Windows 8.1 and Android. Think of this – on a long journey, switch to Windows to make some headway on a document you are creating with Microsoft Word, then, to while the time away on that journey after that, switch to Android to play Plants Versus Zombies, Candy Crush Saga or whatever is the latest mobile time-waster game.

Android and Chrome OS gain a foothold on the regular computer

Previously, we thought of Windows as the only open-frame operating system that runs on a “regular computer” i.e. a desktop or laptop. Now Google have pushed forward Chrome OS which is a cloud-based operating system along with Android with these kind of computers.

Nearly every laptop vendor, save for Sony, Panasonic and a few others are putting forward at least one “Chromebook” which are notebooks that run the Chrome OS environment. LG even premiered a “Chromebase” which is an all-in-one desktop computer that runs the Google Chrome OS. This implements Intel Celeron horsepower along with the Chrome OS specification for RAM and secondary storage (2Gb RAM, 16Gb SSD). These may have limited appeal due to software only available through Google and an always-online operation and may just work as Web terminals.

For Android, HP put up the Slate 21 Pro 21” tablet that runs on this operating system thus bringing the adaptive all-in-one to this operating system especially in the workplace. Similarly, Lenovo had launched a 19” all-in-one PC that runs Android and has an appealing price of US$450 along with the ThinkVision 28 which is a 28” 4K monitor that is an Android all-in-one PC. This is alongside HP also running with a Slate Pro all-in-one that runs Android and appeals to the business. Some of these computers are being pitched as inexpensive kiosk computers or communications terminals that go hand in glove with Viber, Skype, Facebook and the like.

Business-grade computing appears at CES 2014

Not often have I seen any of the Consumer Electronics Shows or similar consumer-electronics trade fairs become a platform to launch computer hardware pitched at business users. This year, HP, Lenovo and a few others are launching smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops pitch at this user class with the expected features like security, management abilities and system durability.

Could this be a sign that “business-targeted” computing trade fairs like CEBit and Interop start to focus on a narrower class of “big-business” computing equipment like large-scale servers and networking equipment while small-business office and computing equipment ends up being exhibited at consumer-focused computing and electronics trade fairs? Or could this be answering a reality where business computing equipment are working also as home computing equipment as in the typical “work-home” laptop that is used for personal and business computing tasks? As well, could this be in response to the so-called “BYOD” trend where employees are buying their own devices, perhaps with their employer subsidising the purchase and running costs of these devices, and using them at work?

This is augmented with Samsung, Lenovo and HP launching business-grade tablets and smartphones and operating environments that cater to the business’s operating needs.

HP even used this show to launch the 300 series 14” and 15” laptops that have hardware credentials for a business laptop like spill-resistant keyboards, anti-glare displays and fingerprint readers but don’t come with business-tier manageability software. These machines start from US$399 upwards. This is more about offering appropriate computer hardware for small businesses and community organisations at a price they can afford without the hard-to-understand “big-business” security and manageability software that can daunt operators who are effectively their organisation’s “chief cook and bottle-washer”.

They also released the Pro One 400 and HP205 all-in-one desktops and issued the second generation of the Z1 all-in-one desktop workstation which can he shoehorned as you see fit.

Newer hardware technologies

One key hardware technology that is being put forward is the arrival of highly-powerful ARM-based chips that are pitched for mobile computing. One trend has been the arrival of the 64-bit ARM mobile processor which was augmented by Samsung with their Exynos range. The other was NVIDIA who were putting up the Tegra K1 processor family that had 192 cores and the VCM variant being targeted at vehicle applications. The graphics capacity is about achieving smooth realistic rendering which comes in thandy for games and similar graphics-intensive applications that will be expected of the Android platform. This is an example of a high-power ARM processor that is being pitched across the board not just for the tablets but for the Android-driven computers, the smart TVs as well as the cars.

Similarly, Intel premiered the Edison microcomputer which is the same size as the standard SD memory card. This has a two-core microprocessor with a 400MHz primary core and a 50-200MHz secondary core along with 500Mb RAM and integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth interfaces. Here, they are pitching it at wearable application such as smartwatches but I would see a greater potential for this application.

As for memory, the magnetoresistive RAM and resistive RAM technologies have been premiered at this show. It s a non-volatile RAM technology that can lead to the creation of memory that isn’t just for primary on-hand storage or secondary long-term storage. The obvious applications that are being called include quick-start portable computers that don’t need to store their current state to secondary storage. But I see this likely to appear in devices like printers and faxes for power-safe job-queue handling.

As well, the IEEE 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless-network technology is appearing in a lot more as a client interface in this newly-released equipment. There has to be work on making sure that there are options for reduced-battery-load for smartphones and small tablets that are primarily battery-operated and these may stay on N technology at the moment.

Smartphones and Tablets

One major trend for smartphones and tablets is for the market to be full of affordable Android devices especially those that are positioned at the “value” segment where you gain best bang for your buck. Similarly, a lot more of these devices are being pitched at the business user with the necessary manageability features appearing.

Samsung have launched the Galaxy Note Pro range of Android tablets with some of these at 12”. Similarly, we are seeing Lenovo run a range of smartphones like the Vibe Z phablet along with a smartphone that has an 802.11ac wireless-network interface. They are even running an 8” business-grade tablet known as the ThinkPad 8 which runs Windows 8.1 and has Intel Bay Trail small-device horsepower.

Asus have previously run their Padfone range of smartphones which dock in to an accompanying tablet and are furthering this with the Padfone Mini 7 “coat-pocket” tablet / smartphone combo. They are also running the Zenfone range of standalone Android smartphones.They also premiered the VivoTAB Note 8 which is an 8” coat-pocket tablet with stylus that runs Win8.1 and uses Intel Atom horsepower.

Acer are even launching some more of the Iconia Windows and Android tablet range along with a budget-range phablet smartphone. At the same time, Polaroid have put their name to an affordable 8” Android tablet in the form of the Q8.

Panasonic is not left lying down when it comes to tablets with a ToughPad 7” tablet being premiered at this show.

Laptops, Ultrabooks and similar computers

This year has seen a great influx of detachable and convertible Ultrabooks with, for example HP bolstering their x2 family.This is brought in to affordable territory with the Pavilion x2 range being a “foot-in-the-door” and running on cheaper AMD or Intel Bay Trail horsepower. This is augmented with the Pro x2 which is pitched at business users and is powered by Intel Core i3 or i5 processors.

Lenovo have premiered their MIIX 2 detachable tablets which run Windows 8.1 with the 10” variant running an Intel Atom processor and the 11.6” variant running an Intel Core i5 processor. They also launched the latest iteration of the X1 Carbon Ultrabook which is finished in a carbon-fibre material.

LG has answered the slider convertible trend started with the Sony VAIO Duo 11 and released the Tab Book 2 slider convertible. Sony are still keeping on with their convertible notebooks with the new VAIO Fit 11a and Flip PC 13, 14 and 15 convertible notebooks and the latest iteration of the VAIO Duo 13 slider convertible along with the VAIO Tap 11 detachable tablet. Sony has also taken the time to refresh the VAIO Tap 20 adaptive all-in-one and sell it as the VAIO Tap 21.

Samsung have released the ATIV Book 9 which is a 15” Ultrabook that owes its small size to a very narrow screen bezel, making it look less like a regular 15” laptop. Toshiba has broken through the mould by offering the first laptop with a 4K resolution screen as well as a shape-shifting concept for a convertible portable computer.

The home or other small network

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show has become a time to show that 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless networking has matured ant to premiere the HomePlug AV2 MIMO Gigabit powerline network technology. It also has been a chance for network hardware vendors to showcase some of the small business / contractor network hardware alongside consumer network hardware so as to expose this kind of hardware to the small-business and startup users.

802.11ac wireless network hardware

One major trend that is affecting equipment for the small network is the increased availability of 802.11ac Wi-Fi network connectivity equipment, especially now that the standard has been officially ratified and published by the IEEE. Here we are dealing with Wi-Fi wireless-network segments established in the 5GHz band and capable of operating at Gigabit speeds. Broadcom have come up with newer 802.11ac chipsets that improve wireless-network experience including one that has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and improved radio amplification in the same packaging.

The main class of devices offered here are routers or range extenders where some of the range extenders can work as client bridges for these networks. Examples of these include TrendNet’s newer AC1900 router and the ASUS RT-AC87U broadband router that has 1.7Gbps on 5GHz and 600Mbps on 2.4GHz using 4 x 4 MIMO and support for multiuser MIMO functionality. The old Linksys WRT54G with its distinctive style and user-evolvable open-source firmware has been released as a new iteration but equipped with 802.11ac wireless and Gigabit Ethernet network abilities and USB connectivity.

Even Engenius offered the ESR-2300 which is a 4 x 4 AC2300 wireless broadband router that is the first device of its type to offer “box-to-box” VPN endpoint functionality. NETGEAR also offered DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem routers with one of these having an 802.11ac 1700 wireless network segment.

Netgear’s latest 802.11ac wireless routers also have a firmware option for small businesses to turn their premises in to Wi-Fi hotspots using the Facebook Wi-Fi service. This is where clients who have Facebook presence can “check in” using Facebook to gain free Wi-Fi access but there is also an option to skip this requirement and use password-protected sign-up.

There are also the range extenders that perform their range-extending trick on an 802.11ac network and are available as wall-plugged or standalone units.

TrendNet amongst a few others are premiering business / contractor-grade wireless-networking hardware, especially access points for integrated installation. Some of these units also work with management software to allow you to have control over your Wi-Fi segment. TP-Link even offer the EAP-320 dual-band AC1750 Wi-Fi access point (enterprise grade) which has Power-Over-Ethernet, hotspot-style captive portal authentication and rogue access-point detection.

TrendNet also used this show to premiere a USB-connected high-gain 802.11ac wireless network adaptor so you can bridge existing computer equipment to a new 802.11ac wireless-network segment.

HomePlug AV2 MIMO Gigabit power-line network hardware launched

This show also has seen TP-Link and TrendNet launch HomePlug adaptors that embody the latest iteration of the HomePlug AV2 specification. Initially there were plenty of the HomePlug AV2 devices that didn’t exploit the MIMO abilities of the specification allowing for Gigabit data-transfer speeds but the two latest devices do implement these speeds using all three AC wires.

As far as this standard is concerned, there haven’t been any other HomePlug AV2 devices in other form factors launched or premiered at this show. Of course, TrendNet and TP-Link have been able to premiere HomePlug AV500 Wi-Fi N300 access points as an alternative to using range extenders to build out 802.11n wireless-network segments.

IP-based video surveillance

Most of these manufacturers are offering IP-based video-surveillance cameras with some that even work on 802.11ac Wi-Fi. D-Link even issues one of these as a “baby monitor camera” which measures room temperature and plays soothing lullabies while TP-Link offers an N300 Wi-Fi cloud camera that also doubles as a range extender and can shoot at 720p.

D-Link and Buffalo both offer network video recorder devices that interlink with certain IP cameras and record on a stand-alone basis with these cameras.

NAS units

QNAP and Synology have used the Consumer Electronics Shows to premiere their small-business network-attached storage devices and Synology has used this year’s show to launch the DiskStation Manager 5 operating system which is their latest iteration of the Linux-based operating system. This one has both home and business capabilities like the ability to link with online storage and social-network services along with centralised management and scaled-out storage for evolving businesses. Now Thecus are using this year’s show to premiere their small-business NAS devices.

Lenovo also made this show the chance to offer their first consumer network-attached storage device which can also serve as a USB external hard disk or show multimedia on TV using its HDMI output. This is although they have taken over Iomega and rebranded it as Lenovo EMC to cover this product class and focus on small-business NAS units.

Buffalo even offers a wireless mobile NAS which has the DLNA media-server functionality which can come in handy with Internet radios or other DLNA-capable media players. This is alongside some increasingly-capable DiskStation single-disk and duel-disk NAS units.

Conclusion

Next I will be looking at a major trend that is captivating the Consumer Electronics Show 2014 in the form of the “wearables”, brought on by the arrival of Bluetooth 4.0

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