Amongst all the huge Ultra HD TVs and the endless glitzy cell phone accessories, CES 2013 also saw a number of quieter, but at times far more remarkable announcements. Some of them were on the technical side, yet had implications that will soon extend across the entire electronics landscape.
Here are few of my favorites.
One of the most remarkable and potentially far-reaching developments on show at CES this year didn't exactly lack publicity, but may have been overshadowed owing to its lack of immediate product announcements. That was Canonical's showing of its Ubuntu GNU/Linux adapted for smartphones.
This is such an obvious idea, you have to wonder why it took so long. With smartphone hardware becoming increasingly powerful, it's inevitable that more-powerful operating systems will start to encroach. And given that Android is essentially just an evolution of Linux, the arrival of a full-fledged Linux ‘distro' (distribution) was an inevitability.
The implications may not be entirely obvious. But Canonical is suggesting their scope by referring to the its new platform as a "superphone:" a pocket device that's every bit as powerful and flexible as a desktop PC.
And which could effectively become a desktop PC, when docked to a monitor and keyboard. Unlike Windows Phone 8, Ubuntu could bring its sizable established library of desktop apps into to the smartphone world, making it the most powerful device you could put in your pocket. (Make up your own jokes.)
A lot will depend on the system's new small-screen user interface. Canonical seems to have some good ideas on that score, such as using all four edges of the screen to enable various thumb-swipe commands. (Ironically, this may actually be more popular than the latest non-standard Ubuntu desktop interface, which has drawn the ire of many former supporters.)
Canonical sees no particular technical challenge to getting Ubuntu working on phone hardware. In fact, it notes that the OS won't have the overhead of a Java virtual machine, as in Android.
Ubuntu would also have some interesting advantages, especially to enterprises and power users, who might benefit from having a single powerful, secure OS available on just about every scale of hardware. In fact, Ubuntu 14.04 (scheduled for spring 2014), is intended to be a single image that can run on phones, tablets and desktops.
Canonical says its goal is to have actual Ubuntu phones on the market by the end of 2013. That will depend on finding hardware partners to work with, but it seems inevitable that at least one or two smaller companies will take the bait. Should an industry major come on board, we could see a really interesting shakeup in the marketplace.
If nothing else, Ubuntu for phones could significantly raise the bar as far as smartphone capability. It suggests that the basic ideas of ‘personal computing' (such as openness and user control) may be mutating beyond their previous laptop and desktop forms, and infecting platforms that were expected to remain limited, closed and proprietary.
At the same time, oddly enough, there's been talk about Samsung also moving into Linux phones, by a quite different route. The company has apparently stated that it will be launching a line of devices this year, based on Tizen Linux, an open source development of the Linux Foundation and the LiMo foundation.
Tizen is said to emphasize HTML5 in its software development architecture. It replaces the previous Linux-based MeeGo initiative, which had apparently made little headway.
Some sources have gone so far as to speculate that recent moves into Linux may have something to do with phone manufacturers hedging their bets on software licensing, or with concerns over Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Whatever the specific reasoning, a Samsung-built Tizen handset would be yet another interesting alternative in the smartphone mix.
Could we be reaching the end of broad market dominance by one or two platforms, and the start of a new era of diversity? The barriers are lower than ever before, given that consumers have become adept at adapting to new operating systems. And perhaps more finicky than ever about choosing them.
Kingston Ships Faster Flash
A much smaller announcement, easily lost in the noise of CES, came from Kingston Digital Inc. (the "flash memory affiliate of Kingston Technology Company Inc."). The company launched its DataTraveler HyperX Predator 3.0 USB Flash Drive and DataTraveler Ultimate 3.0 Generation 3 USB 3.0 Flash Drive. (Brevity does not seem to be the company's strong suit.)
As flash drives have grown in capacity, it's become increasingly apparent that performance was simply not adequate. Filling a typical 4GB ‘fob' can take longer than burning a 4.4GB DVD+R. Ironically, this has meant that as capacity has gone up, the utility of flash storage has actually started to decline.
Kingston's new generation of flash drives should reverse that trend. Used in a USB 3.0 port, the HyprX Predator is rated at speeds of "up to" 240 MB/s read and 160 MB/s write. The Ultimate 3.0 boasts read speeds up to 150MB/s and write speeds up to 70MB/s.
In a USB 2.0 port, those speeds drop dramatically: 30 MB/s read and write for the HyperX, 30MB/s read and 20MB/s write for the Ultimate 3.0. Clearly, flash technology is now faster than USB 2.0 can handle, albeit still far from quick enough to max out a USB 3.0 connection.
It's odd that we're turning to solid state drives (SSDs) for ultra-fast data access inside our PCs, while equally ‘solid state' external flash drives continue to be so much slower. (Kingston's own HyperX SSD is rated at over double the speed of the HyperX Predator, for both read and write..)
Nonetheless, Kingtston's new DataTraveler drives at least catch up with some part of the hard-drive spectrum. Flash-drive performance is now fast enough that users can realistically contemplate storing and accessing larger files, such as video.
The HyperX Predator also shatters previous notions of capacity. That again will make flash technology competitive with hard drives. On the other hand, it will again put pressure on data rates. While 240 MB/s may be fast for a 64GB drive, it will still take a long time to fill a 1TB version.
Also note that prices are still a bit extreme on the leading edge models, though more reasonable on smaller capacities.
The DataTraveler HyperX Predator 3.0 is available in a 512GB version now, selling for a whopping $850 at retail. A 1TB version is coming later in Q1. (If you need to ask the price, you probably can't afford it.) The DataTraveler Ultimate 3.0 G3 is far more affordable, available in 32GB (about $45) and 64GB (about $80) versions.
HP Monitors, Monitors
Another interesting trend at the show was the unlooked-for emergence of portable monitors as a product category.
We've previously noted Lenovo's launch of the ThinkVision LT1423p Mobile Monitor Touch ($449). It's a 13.3-inch display with a foldable stand, featuring both wired and wireless connectivity.
But it turns out this wasn't just a one-off. Hewelett-Packard announced its own HP U160, a ‘flip-up' 15.6-inch LED-backlit display. It looks much like a laptop perched on a folding kickstand-type case, but it's actually just a 3.4-lb display, with 1356x768 resolution, and 180-nit brightness.
It's notable that the U160 draws all the power it needs from the host computer. Power consumption is rated at 5 watts, which may exceed the output on some lower-power laptop ports. However, a Y-cable does allow drawing juice from two USB ports simultaneously, as we've already seen with many portable hard drives.
A more serious omission seems to be touch capability. It's not mentioned in HP's press release, so presumably it's not on-board with this model.
The U160 is said to be aimed primarily at business applications. It certainly looks like it would be handy for presentations, or simply when a demanding mobile user needs to dig into some intensive work: programming, graphics, video editing, or whatever.
The HP U160 should be available this month for about $139. It will be interesting to see if other entries continue to expand this category.
HP also launched a number of other monitors during CES, though it seemed to make rather little noise about it. (Nothing on the official CES newsfeed, for example.)
The ENVY 27-inch IPS Monitor with Beats Audio (available worldwide Feb. 3, at $499) is the company's first to monitor incorporate the Beats by Dr. Dre-branded audio enhancement system. Viewing angle is said to be 178 degrees both horizontally and vertically.
Others include: the HP Pavilion IPS LED Backlit Monitor series, with models in various sizes (available Jan. 20, from $129.99 to $339.99); the HP x2401 24-inch LED Backlit Monitor, a ‘microthin' design; the HP ProDisplay series (18.5-, 20- and 21.5-inch models, available in February from $129 to $179) for "everyday business" applications; and the HP ZR2330w IPS LED Backlit Display, also for "business-class" uses (available late Jan. at $259).
It's interesting to speculate whether the falling price and soaring value of LCD panels will lead to a bit of a renaissance for the monitor category this year. Second or even third monitors are sprouting up on more and more desks, and many users we talk to speak longingly of upgrading those they have, or adding still more.
Also, many of the LCD monitors out there are of the first generation CCFL variety. Moving to the new LED-backlit generation has an immediate benefit in improved image quality, lower power cost and sleeker profile.
Targus Touch Pen
For computer users wanting to adopt Windows 8, but reluctant to shell out for all new touch hardware, Targus is offering a very different option. Its Touch Pen users a small magnetic receiver attached to the side of a laptop screen or desktop monitor, and allows users to tap, swipe and slide through the new ‘Metro' user interface.
The Touch Pen has a "soft bristle tip," to cushion contact with the screen and prevent any marking or scratching. No software drivers are required, according to Targus, just a one-time calibration so that the receiver can determine the boundaries of the screen.
Targus seems to be pitching the Touch Pen chiefly at laptop users, but states that the device will work with any display of up to 17-inch size.
The Touch Pen (AMD002US) is scheduled to be available in Q2, at an MSRP of US$99.99.
IEEE Upgrades Wi-Fi
Finally, another small announcement with big consequences. Even as the 802.11ac standard begins inching its way out the door, the IEEE has approved the ‘802.11ad-2012 amendment,' enabling data rates up to 7 Gbps "more than 10 times the maximum speed previously enabled with the IEEE 802.11 standard."
IEEE expects the new spec to act as "the foundation for tri-band networking, wireless docking, wired equivalent data transfer rates and uncompressed streaming video."
The chief innovation is a new ‘fast session transfer' feature, which enables wireless devices to seamlessly transition between the current 2.4 and 5GHz bands and a newly-allocated third band in the 60GHz part of the spectrum.
The shorter physical range of this 60GHz band could be an additional advantage, as it should help reduce the potential for interference, given the rapidly growing number of devices operating on Wi-Fi frequencies.
By moving imperceptibly between the three bands, devices should always be able to operate with optimal performance and range. The figure of 7 Gbps is of course to be taken with the usual hefty block of rock salt, purely as a theoretical maximum. But even so, the increase in speed should be substantial, even beyond 802.11ac.
Roll-out of actual 802.11ad products will take some time, of course. But looking ahead a year or so, we should be seeing a new world in which gigabit-speed wireless transfer is commonplace.