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Demartek Comments on the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2012

Updated 16 January 2012

By , Demartek President

I spent two days at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2012) looking for technologies and products that bring consumer and datacenter technologies a little closer together. We are seeing the “Consumerization of IT” in many areas and I wanted to get a glimpse of what is available now and what is coming this year or in the not too distant future. You may also be interested in my comments from CES 2011 and CES 2010.

Ultrabooks™ and Tablets and Touch Screens

Intel has trademarked the term Ultrabook which they define to mean mainstream thin and light mobile computers. I saw many of these Ultrabooks at Intel’s booth and in many other booths, including units from Acer, Dell, HP, Samsung, Toshiba and many more. I was very impressed with most of the Ultrabooks that I saw. These are basically laptop computers that have several interesting characteristics. These weigh less than three pounds, are less than one inch thick, and have Intel 2nd generation Core i3/i5/i7 processors. Most of the units I saw have quad-core processors, 4GB RAM, internal SSDs, USB 3.0 ports, WiFi b/g/n and advertise good battery life, in the 6-8 hour range. Some also have HDMI output ports and include gigabit Ethernet for wired Ethernet. Most of these were running Windows 7 and some were showing the Windows 8 preview version. Some of these units are available now and some were early samples of units that will be released later this year. Many of these units will be less than $1000 US, some well below this price point, but a few might be slightly above it. It looks to me like 2012 will be the year of the thin and light notebook computer. I didn’t see any with a backlit keyboard, however, which I prefer. If I hadn’t just purchased a very nice laptop last summer with an SSD, backlit keyboard and extended battery that gets upwards of 9 hours on a charge, I would definitely want one of these new ultra-light computers, as these are lighter than my current laptop computer. Anybody who travels or needs a portable, full-function computer should consider these. I expect that many of these will find their way into datacenter environments this year.

Tablets were also everywhere at CES 2012. I saw tablets of many different sizes, including some that were about the same size as these new ultrabook computers. The main difference between some of the tablets I saw and the new ultrabooks is that the tablets operate with a touch screen. Some were showing Windows 8, some were using other operating systems. I hear that some of the new smaller tablets will be very competitively priced and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some tablets get near the $100 (US) price point sometime this year.

I saw many touch screens, some as big as home HD televisions, some running Windows or other computer operating systems and others functioning more as game or television controllers. Expect to see lots of touch functions this year.

Televisions: Bigger Screens and Ultra-high Definition and Portability

Just as with the computer industry, the television manufacturers keep pushing the envelope. There were many 3D televisions in various screen sizes from all the television manufacturers, but I still find the 3D viewing a bit gimmicky and unsatisfactory to view. I also saw several 60, 70 and 80-inch displays from a number of manufacturers. The question for these focuses on the amount space you have in your living room.

The next big thing seems to be the ultra-high resolution. I saw a few “4K” televisions. These can display 4096x2160 resolution, which is the equivalent of four 1080p images on one screen. This is an emerging standard in the movie industry, and many movie theaters are converting to projectors that are able to display movies at this resolution. I also saw one “8K” display in the Sharp booth. The movie industry already has commercial 4K movie cameras, but I saw a new 4K camcorder from JVC that will become available later this year. The price point for this new 4K camcorder is beyond that of the average consumer, but affordable for those in the business. We have begun to see announcements from some of the DSLR camera makers promoting their 4K video capabilities. YouTube also supports 4K videos, but you will need a very fast connection to play them. In order to fully appreciate this higher resolution, a large screen, probably greater than 40 inches, is really needed. The primary 1080p content today comes from Blu-ray players, and the TV stations broadcast in 1080i or 720p as their high-end, so I think 1080p is going to be the de facto standard in the home for a long while. Although I liked what I saw in the higher resolutions, it is very early in the lifecycle of 4K resolution. At this point I consider it to be a good indicator of the technology of the future, but I don’t think we’ll see wide adoption of 4K in the home environment this year. In addition to movie theaters, there seem to be some commercial applications for the 4K resolution such as computer aided design, medical imaging, etc.

I also saw portable displays of various types. One portable television, currently only available in Japan, can display full 1080p via WiFi. The model was holding it via a small handle at the top, similar to a purse or briefcase, and it was displaying the movie that the televisions on the wall behind her were displaying. I saw several other smaller portable displays that were powered via USB and would be great for presentations to small groups. I was told that at least one of these portable display units drew only two (2) watts of power. Look for “DisplayLink” products from several sources this year that take advantage of USB 3.0 to deliver high-definition video and audio in a variety of forms, including multiple HD monitors from a single USB 3.0 connection.

Fiber Optic Cabling for USB and HDMI

I saw two very interesting applications for fiber-optic cabling in the consumer environment. We use quite a bit of fiber-optic cabling in our datacenter environment, and have been for some time, so this is nothing new to us. Although the cost is a bit higher, fiber-optic cabling can send and receive signals over much longer distances than copper cabling. Unlike copper cabling, fiber-optic cabling uses lasers that transmit and receive light, and is not subject to electromagnetic interference (EMI). For more information on fiber-optic cabling in the datacenter, view our Storage Interface Comparison page and look for the “Cables” section.

Newnex demonstrated its FireNEX-5000™ USB 3.0 (Superspeed USB) fiber-optic repeaters. These allow a full-duplex USB 3.0 signal to go at least 100 meters (more than 300 feet) with no signal loss, using either multi-mode or single-mode fiber-optic cabling with standard LC connectors. This far exceeds the standard distance for USB 3.0 signals using copper cables. Use cases for this include connecting USB SSDs over distance, video conferencing, video production, some of the many USB 3.0 HD cameras, robotic applications or anything else that needs to connect USB 3.0 devices over distance to a host computer.

Rainbow Fish Fiber Optic was demonstrating HDMI over fiber-optic cabling. They were using a consumer-grade fiber optic cabling, which is a little different than datacenter fiber-optics in that the transceiver is imbedded in the cable and connector, making it a relatively simple installation for a home user. This allows full resolution HDMI to be sent over long distance within a home environment. The particular fiber-optic cable they were using was clear, which would “hide” relatively easily in a home living room environment. Using this type of fiber-optic cabling, the HD television/display can be quite a distance from the Blu-ray player, computer, etc., giving more flexibility for placing the display or the system providing the video signal to the display.

HDBaseT Alliance

The HDBaseT Alliance has come up with a standard for transmitting full uncompressed HD video, audio, 100BaseT Ethernet and electric power (up to 100 watts) over a standard Cat5e Ethernet cable. Cat5e cable is very common and makes a handy way for this to work, and is significantly lower cost per foot than HDMI and other cables. I saw a demonstration that allowed multiple high-definition television and computer displays with only an Ethernet cable connected to them, delivering both the signal and electric power to multiple displays. The HDBaseT Alliance has also defined an HDBaseT switch that allows multiple “controllers” to connect to multiple displays, and allowing control to be switched among the devices. In the particular demonstration that I saw, an application was developed for a tablet that communicated via WiFi to the HDBaseT switch. This tablet controlled four different displays. There was a security camera, a Blu-ray player and two computers connected to this switch. Using the application on the tablet, we were able to redirect the output from any of these four devices to any of the four displays that were setup. At one point, we directed the output from the security camera to two of the displays, pausing the movie that was being displayed on the “living room” display. Then we switched the PC output to one of the displays, used the wireless keyboard and mouse that were connected to our “living room” display and ran a PC application from the living room, then returned the movie back to our living room display. The common thread for all of this operation was an Ethernet cable running to each device. The HDBaseT alliance group has also come up with a small box that takes Ethernet as the input and then HDMI or the appropriate short cable into the display device for those devices that don’t have an HDBaseT connector on them.

The HDBaseT Alliance was founded by LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Valens Semiconductor and has 29 other companies as Contributor members or Adopter Members. Best Buy installed HDBaseT in one of their Chicago-area stores in September of 2011.

Wireless Power

The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) has made a lot of progress since last year (see my CES 2011 commentary for details). This wireless power allows for greater “spatial freedom”, meaning that a device that needs recharging or direct power doesn’t have to be located and positioned in a specific way, but can be anywhere near the power source, without a special mat or plug. They have figured out how to transmit electric power through 2-3 inches of wood, marble, slate and glass. More recently, they have demonstrated the ability to transmit through thin layers of engineered metals such as aluminum, stainless steel and titanium. The WPC has more than 100 members now.

Furniture and car companies are getting involved. Imagine being able to recharge your mobile phone by simply placing it in the glovebox or center console of your car without having to connect any cords, or placing it anywhere on top of a conference table or other piece of furniture.

Wireless Power - Qi (chee) The WPC has defined a standard for wireless power that is in three levels:

The low power specification is completed and the mobile phone makers are beginning to adopt it. There are nine mobile phones available in the USA that support this now, and more than 90 worldwide. The low power specification was completed in 18 months, relatively quickly as industry standards are concerned. For mobile phones, look for the “Qi” (“chee”) symbol, shown here. I was almost able to try this with my own smart phone, as one of the wireless power phone models from HTC, who makes my phone, was almost the same physical size as my current mobile phone.

The medium power specification is nearly complete, with some devices such as tablets and others at the low end of the medium range expected during this calendar year, and devices at the higher end of the medium range expected by the end of this year. The high end (“kitchen appliance”) standards work has begun and we’re already seeing prototypes of these types of devices. There is talk of a fourth wireless power level known as “ultra high” beyond the current high power level.

Imagine the impact of this type of power distribution will have over the long term. I believe that this is like re-inventing electricity, or at least how it is delivered. Everybody, myself included, seems to have that special drawer full of old cords and chargers. Imagine not having to buy a charger for the next device, not having to produce these chargers and not having to discard them.

As the high power version becomes available, imagine being able to put a server in a rack that doesn’t need power cables. I can foresee a time when a “wireless power bar” sits at the back of a standard datacenter rack and servers or other devices can simply slide into place and as their power supplies get near the wireless power bar, they automatically receive power without having any power cables. This would certainly make the back of our server racks less cluttered.

Also imagine the impact wireless power would have on everything from building and construction to things such as medical devices. There could be a time when differing plugs would not be needed for different countries or regions of the world and even when power plugs on the walls might not be needed at all. And I can finally get rid of all those old power adapters because I truly would not need to save them anymore. Wireless power may very well become the universal power delivery standard.

SSDs and Flash Everywhere

I saw lots of SSDs and other types of flash memory in many applications. Solid state storage is transforming not only the computer storage industry, but is making waves across the entire computing and electronics industries. We have certainly seen how flash storage has completely revolutionized the consumer electronics space. Flash has replaced spinning disk drives in virtually every category of consumer devices over the last few years, including MP3 players, cameras, video cameras, ultra-thin notebooks and more. Can you imagine one of today’s smart phones or tablet devices with a hard disk drive inside?

I saw both public and private demonstrations of various types of consumer-grade and enterprise-grade SSDs. The SSD vendors who were there were showing their products and basically asking how many you wanted. We have been testing SSD technology in our lab for a couple of years. Some of this testing has been as public evaluations, and other test projects have been private. We have been big proponents of SSDs for quite some time. Back in late 2010, I made the executive decision that all our desktop computers should boot from SSDs. Nobody in our office has complained about slow computers since then. For some basic information on SSDs, view our SSD Primer page, which we will update periodically.

Beginning in March 2012, I am conducting a free, multi-city SSD seminar series covering key solid state storage technologies. We will give printed excerpts from the Demartek SSD Deployment Guide 2012 at these seminars. We expect to publish the full SSD Deployment Guide towards the end of February 2012. Contact me for more information on this seminar series or our upcoming SSD Deployment Guide.

I saw an interesting new development for SD cards. The SD Association announced that it has added wireless LAN capabilities to SD cards. At least two companies were showing SD cards with WiFi capabilities that fit into digital cameras and similar devices. These cards can act as a WiFi access point and can transmit photos wirelessly to your computer, WiFi-enabled television, printer, etc. As a test, I turned on the WiFi feature of my smart phone and was able to view the photos on the camera in the booth via the browser in my phone. Expect to see lots more of this.

I saw a portable flash drive (“thumb drive”) that is 1TB in capacity and has a single connector that works for USB 3.0, USB 2.0 and eSATA. This unit also has a mini-display on the side that provides information about the drive. This particular unit also supports AES-256 encryption. This flash drive would work well with my laptop computer that has a combined USB/eSATA port.

RDX and USB 3.0

I was pleased to see that the RDX removable disk devices will be available using USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed USB). Imation was showing this new interface with its increased transfer rate for RDX in their booth. We use RDX as our backup devices, and you will find a video we did about this on YouTube.

Gigabit WiFi — 5G WiFi (802.11ac)

Broadcom announced chipsets that support Gigabit WiFi, also known as “5G WiFi” or 802.11ac. Depending on the chipset, speeds will be 433 Mbps, 866 Mbps and 1.3 Gbps, using one, two and three streams, respectively, though the range may be less than current 802.11n distances. Buffalo showed a demonstration of 5G WiFi in their booth. These chipsets are backward compatible with 802.11n and 802.11g, and the first products using these are expected to become available beginning in 3Q 2012, with other products following over the next few months after that. This clearly has implications for both business and home networks. Additional information about 5G WiFi is available on the 5G WiFi website.

You as the Controller

The Microsoft Kinect had a good showing again this year. I saw an interesting application for the fashion industry on display. A fashion model was standing in front of a display, and by using hand gestures, could “try on” virtual clothes and see how they look on her. The model could turn around and do all the things one might do when trying on real clothes, but in the comfort of the home or office. Expect online clothing retailers to adopt this type of technology this year.

CES 2012 Innovations Honorees

There were many products and technologies on display at CES 2012, far more than I could count or see. A number of these products were given the CES 2012 Innovations Awards. I recommend that you have a look at these innovative products that span a wide range of consumer electronics product categories.


Other CES Commentaries