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CES 2006 Preview: Will low-power, digital life, and rights management sell to consumers?

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Las Vegas (NV) - The end of the holiday season means one thing : the beginning of the next holiday season, especially from the perspective of consumer electronics manufacturers who see 2006 as a make-or-break year. This year, TG Daily and the network of TG Publishing will step our reporting and kick off the new year with in-depth coverage from the Consumer Electronics Show, which offically opens its doors on January 5, though there will be plenty of action today. This year’s show promises several significant announcements that truly will impact the way we use computers, consumer electronics, and telecommunications devices today.

Only one of our tasks this week will be covering the "hot gadgets." We’ll be honest with you : You’ll see a lot of "hot gadgets" coverage just by turning on your own local newscast at about 18 minutes past noon your time, and watching the two-minute package being fed to your station by one of the networks or news syndication services. What you’ll see from us is the type of insight and probing questions that have distinguished Tom’s Hardware since the turn of the millennium, and that you expect to see from all of us, including TG Daily. Not just what gadgets are "hot," but how are consumer technologies evolving ? Will the soft economy affect sales expectations ? Is there enough demand for the new technologies we’re being introduced to - especially in the field of digital home entertainment ?

But there will indeed be a great deal of gadget news, including anticipated announcements from Sony on its forthcoming PlayStation 3 console, and from Intel on its new brand, new ad campaign, and new lines of chips and chipsets. We’ll be looking beneath the plastic and chrome, and inside the processors, technologies, and protocols that drive 2006’s consumer products. We’ll be asking the questions you’re asking : When will we really get to use them ? Will they work as advertised ? Do they make sense ?

Here are the key questions we expect to be answered at CES 2006 :

Can Intel deliver what it promises ? This week, with the formal unveiling of Intel’s new logo, we expect to see some vigor added to the company’s marketing strategy. Last week, TG Daily reported on new, consumer-oriented features that Intel is likely to add to its chipsets during the first half of this year. And as Tom’s Hardware reported earlier, with 65 nm lithography already under way, the company is already well into the development of 45 nm process technology. Already, the company has implemented its change in language away from acceleration and heat, and toward power conservation. But there’s concern as to whether computers with Intel’s anticipated Core processor, based on the Israel Design Facility’s "Yonah" architecture, will actually yield lower voltages. As Tom’s Hardware’s tests last year showed with the Sonoma platform - the 2005 model Centrino - power reduction levels didn’t exactly meet expectations. So it’s difficult to want to make equally lofty lower-power predictions about Napa, the first Centrino platform to use the Yonah architecture. Will mobile platform providers’ expectations be lowered as well ? Is the re-re-re-emergence of the digital home media center real ? Someone once said you can’t re-break a broken record. It seems someone is trying anyway. At CES, we’re likely to see the latest devices that will purport to serve digital multimedia throughout the home. Microsoft is likely to make another try at convincing electronics manufacturers that its software should manage the world’s set-top boxes, particularly for IPTV. But this year, there may be serious momentum away from Microsoft. So Den Guru will be talking with the major players in IPTV, manufacturers of set-top boxes (STBs), and major content services such as DirecTV. All of these players will be working simultaneously to get you hooked on their version of the set-top box, for viewing, managing, and purchasing content through avenues where they run at least one of the toll booths. And while we expect more Intel news on its Viiv home entertainment platform, already announced last year, we’ll be looking into rumors that the first group of Viiv-supporting PCs won’t support certain types of digital media adapters. If a certain Steve Jobs makes a certain response the following week at MacWorld in San Francisco, then we’ll know for sure what technologies Viiv will look to cast out. Maybe this Intel/Apple pairing will have its share of problems after all. Have budget notebook design advancements bottomed out ? With new chipsets and the trend toward lower power consumption - at least in the advertising department - and newer CPUs from Intel and its competition, the advances of lower voltage single cores might be usurped by the emergence of dual-cores. Even so, as Tom’s Hardware tests show, the goal of reduced power consumption isn’t played out by the CPU. The #1 consumer of power in modern notebook systems is the display, by far, and that power drain is getting bigger as notebook displays get wider. The performance of mainstream and budget notebooks is not going to improve unless the batteries improve as well. So it will be up to the power providers this year to open the floodgates that help manufacturers like Intel make good on their promises. Is the PDA on the way out ? Microsoft has come a long way in making handheld devices more efficient, with the distribution of Exchange 2003 and Windows Mobile 5. But the company hasn’t done a very good job to date promoting WLAN and WWAN wireless mobility through PDAs, especially in corporate environments - hence RIM’s dominance in that field. Palm PDAs and smartphones still have their respective market shares, but mostly in the consumer segment, not corporate. With Palm fraying in the wind, and with RIM struggling to hang on to its US market foothold, are today’s PDAs seriously going the way of the Newton ? Will the HD DVD / Blu-ray battle result in nobody winning ? As factions in the two sides of the high-definition videodisc battle continue to either duke it out or carefully straddle the fence, there’s evidence that Bill Gates’ prediction may yet come true : that consumers will end up wanting neither standard. How can that be ? Conceivably, a "next-next generation" disc may come about within the HD DVD / Blu-ray market time frame, possibly with even higher data compression, and possibly in the form of holographic storage. Representatives of the major players from both sides will be making their cases heard this week. But more importantly, manufacturers will be starting to show the first components available in North America that use either standard. We’ll see whether they’re on board with the standard of their choice as firmly this year as they seemed willing to be last year. How much will DRM invade our digital lifestyle ? Yes, we too are about as tired of the "digital lifestyle" as couch potatoes and computer geeks like us can possibly be. Nonetheless, the term describes pretty much what the IT and consumer electronics industry expects us to interpret, learn, and adapt to. Quid pro quo : We expect the industry to reveal more of its ideas how our digital content, and the hardware that houses it, will be managed by content companies. We expect to discover how much or how little we will be able to use this great new digital content that will be squeezed through broadband lines. Last November’s blowup of the Sony BMG affair demonstrated the extent to which consumers will openly reject unwanted digital rights management in their computers, and in their lives. So are they ready for the DRM measures that are coming, including in high-def discs, and in optical disc drives in general ? Even Apple - usually the maverick on consumer issues - has refused to break ranks with regard to DRM lockdowns, particularly with regard to iTunes video. Will someone be kind enough to take Apple’s place on this issue ? Or will consumers have to continue to violate the DMCA whenever they want to view the content they own, on any or all of the platforms they own ? Sony PlayStation 3 : Can it ship where Xbox 360 couldn’t ? After the news of the Xbox 360 premiere’s rousing success has faded, we start to see some evidence of significant problems. Just like ATI discovered last year, Microsoft can’t exactly create new customers when it can’t ship its products in pace with demand. And while visions of prospective customers parked outside of Circuit City in their tents and raincoats, create free publicity for a product, after awhile, people start to lose sympathy for consumers standing in line for video games while others are standing in line for jobs, or even homes. If PlayStation 3 is going to capitalize on this, it needs to be ready to ship in volume. Are the stores ready ? Are consumers ready...moreover, are they willing ? Or did Xbox 360 satisfy their curiosity, if not their demand ? (By the way, we’ve also heard something about a little heating problem that, if you know someone at Microsoft, you might ask them to look into.) The digital TV transition : Can manufacturers ramp down in time ? The transition date is now 18 February 2009. But will the price of digital TV sets in the US and Canada be low enough for consumers to be willing to make the switch ? The National Association of Broadcasters cites figures showing over one-fourth of the US population depends on over-the-air broadcast analog transition ; its counterpart in the cable TV industry believes that number is far lower. Still, that’s a significant number of people who may have to take advantage of the US government’s proposed set-top box voucher program. If that program is successful, would that actually serve to squelch consumer demand for new digital sets ? We may know more as some of the industry’s key players, along with a principal US legislator, meet on Thursday afternoon at CES to discuss the costs and the economics of the digital television transition. Multimedia networking : Consensus or more consortiums ? The rhetoric continues to fly, as there seems to be an ever-increasing stream of lower-case letters to support the many flavors of 802.11. Is the Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) helping or hurting progress to straighten out the standard ? And as Tom’s Networking tests uncovered, there are a great many wireless routers out there using some variation of the concept of Multiple-In/Multiple-Out (MIMO) antenna technology. But while they all use the same acronym, they’re not using the same standard in the same way. While the industry looks to Airgo for leadership, the company has been found to use router chips that adhere to standards earlier than 802.11g and 802.11n. Also, the issue with HomePlug AV which plagued last year’s CES, will continue to play a factor this year, as Intellon’s 85 Mbps HomePlug Turbo solution announced last January, has only come to market in November. Will HomePlug even be ready by Christmas 2006 ? What will AMD do ? Intel is ready to go with its 65 nm product line, which will take the spotlight along with the company’s new logo and "Leap Ahead" catch-phrase. But will AMD be able to catch up ? Suddenly, the ball is in AMD’s court, and the attention is on whether that company will be able to follow up. We do expect some major AMD product announcements during CES, including a possible next-generation Athlon 64 FX. But would such an announcement bring it back up to par in the "dual-core duel ?"

TG Daily will have news from CES 2006 throughout the day, all this week. We’ll be asking these questions, and perhaps learning to ask some new ones, as we discover what’s truly important in the consumer electronics field this year. Stay in touch with us for the latest developments.

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