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Sleek laptops, big bright TVs, insurgent smartphones show off

(Mike Stotts for the Boston Globe)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / January 11, 2012
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LAS VEGAS - Here at the Consumer Electronics Show, the giant annual technology trade event, cellphone reception is often lousy. It can be impossible to get a decent Internet connection. And it’s hard to try out the latest speech-controlled television set; it’s just too noisy.

But for about 150,000 technologists, journalists, and business people, it’s the ideal place to see the gadgets coming to retail stores.

This year’s show features sleek new computers designed as a cure for iPad envy; a bold bet on a risky new TV technology; and a last stand in smartphones from a company not used to losing.

While there are plenty of 3-D TV sets at the show, the hype of the past two years faded as US consumers scoffed at paying a premium for limited viewing choices and clumsy 3-D glasses. This year, TV makers are counting on “smart TVs,’’ Internet-connected sets that can run popular software apps and respond to a viewer’s voice or gestures.

Of course, nothing beats a bigger, brighter, more colorful screen. So giants like Samsung Corp. and LG Electronics showed off their latest “ultra high-definition’’ sets; with pictures that have 16 times the resolution of today’s high-definition sets, they deliver images of extraordinary clarity. But they are nowhere near ready for prime time; for one thing, there’s not much ultra high-definition video out there for consumers to watch. Nonetheless, LG said that it will offer an 84-inch ultra high-definition set this year; no word on price.

Organic light-emitting diode technology, or OLED, TV sets are another story. For years, Samsung Corp. has been making OLED cellphone screens with rich, deep colors. Since they don’t use backlights, TV sets with the technology can be extremely thin.

The only trouble is that making large OLED screens costs a fortune. No matter; this week at CES, both LG and Samsung are showing off 55-inch OLED sets they will introduce this year. Those will be the first large-screen OLED TVs but they could land with a thud if the prices are too high. Neither LG nor Samsung has said what they will sell for, but the smart money here thinks they could be very expensive, as much as $10,000 a set.

This year, Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are looking for new ways to stay relevant. For Intel, it’s Ultrabooks - thin, powerful computers modeled after Apple Inc.’s stylish MacBook Air.

Intel invented the Ultrabook concept, seeking to make laptops that could fend off increased competition from tablet computers powered by non-Intel processing chips. The company is spending $300 million to help computer makers develop Ultrabooks, and the result is an array of sleek, new machines.

The Envy 14 Spectre from Hewlett-Packard Co. features a casing made largely of glass. Even the laptop’s lid is made of heavy-duty glass. It means the $1,400 computer is heavier but has a uniquely polished, elegant look.

Chinese computer maker Lenovo showed off Ultrabooks that resemble the classic ThinkPad laptop line it acquired from IBM Corp. But Lenovo also displayed the IdeaPad Yoga, a $1,200 device that will debut this year. Its screen flips 180 degrees, instantly transforming the Yoga into a tablet computer the user can operate by touch.

The Yoga is designed for Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 operating system, which will add an improved touchscreen interface. The company is betting Windows 8 tablets will be competitive with Apple’s iPad and tablets that run Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

Microsoft is also launching what could be a last-ditch effort to become a major player in smartphones. Its Windows Phone 7 software has been hailed by analysts and critics but consumers are unimpressed; Microsoft has just 2 percent of the US smartphone market, according to NPD Group.

At CES, Microsoft is hoping to recoup by showing off the fruits of its alliance with Finland’s Nokia. The Lumia 900, set to go on sale from AT&T Inc. this year, will be the first Nokia phone in the United States that supports the very fast 4G LTE wireless data technology. It will also be a second chance for Nokia, which has failed to gain much traction in the US market.

Taiwan’s HTC Corp. also rolled out a new Windows Phone: the Titan II, which will also be offered by AT&T, and uses 4G LTE technology. It features a camera with 16 megapixels of resolution.

But Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android have sewn up over 80 percent of the US smartphone market. That leaves Microsoft very little room to maneuver for market share, and no margin for error at all.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com

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