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Innovation

CES 2012: still worth it, just the wrong time of year

The list of companies and people announcing that they won't go back to CES is growing. The show was full of me-too products and many of the interesting ideas will never be successful products.

The list of companies and people announcing that they won't go back to CES is growing. The show was full of me-too products and many of the interesting ideas will never be successful products. It's hard slogging across the crowded show floor, the prices in Vegas are back up to extortionate and we have the Internet. Do the 2,000 new products from 3,100 companies shown to 153,000 now-rather-tired attendees add up to a successful show or an object lesson in the lack of innovation in the technology industry? Both of course.

The crowds, the five miles you walk a day, the late nights and the frenetic pace are just part of the job. You can expect journalists to complain a little about them the way you complain about being crushed on public transport for your daily commute. The real question is whether it's worth the sore feet and spinning brain to see what's at CES. That depends on what you're looking for, but don't write this year's show off as Ultrabook Air-alikes, yet more Android tablets, Android TVs and enough iPad cases to fill in the Grand Canyon, frustrating as the vast numbers of those are.

It's well past time for PC laptops to be both thin and light, and affordable (you've been able to have one of the other for years). It's great that Intel has produced a version of the Core CPUs that's neither so underpowered that you don't want it (ULV) nor so hot and powerful that you can't cool it enough in a thin case without the pricey design expertise of Toshiba (who can put full-power Core CPUs in ultra-thin machines already). And it's great that the PC makers have pointed out to Intel that people want 14" and 15" notebooks to be thin and light too. That isn't just in response to the MacBook Air, although you'd hardly know it from the vast number of silver metal wedges with isolated keyboards. You can tell them apart from MacBook Airs easily enough when you look at the spec - they have USB 3 and Ethernet ports - but there's enough lazy design here to fuel a dozen court cases. Hats off to Asus for bucking the trend with its rose gold case (sadly, hot pink isn't a popular enough colour in the UK for us to get that as well). The standout is HP's beautiful 14" ENVY Spectre, with a glass lid, a volume wheel and plenty of other useful and unique touches.

In fact there's plenty of innovation in almost every area of tech. For Android tablets my favourite was the Lenovo tablet with built-in WHDI, which mirrors the screen on a WHDI-connected TV over a wireless connection so efficient you can drive 1080p video to multiple screens from one tablet and get smooth and beautiful video. Cases are mostly fashion, but how about one with a removable battery that you can also use to recharge a headset or music player?

Android TVs I can't find much of interest in. I want a smart TV to be smart about connecting to the device I want to drive it from - like a WHDI-enabled tablet - and then smart about getting out of the way. I'm more interested in a gorgeous 55" AMOLED screen than the apps I already have on two or three devices that some foolish TV maker thinks will replace the movie the screen will show off so well. But there's plenty more. How about delivering up to 100 Watts of power over a USB 3 cable? How about easy remote access for sharing files and streaming my own music that automatically wakes up my home PC? How about 802.11ac Wi-Fi that will reliably offer 650Mbps bandwidth? How about using NFC on a wireless charging point to let me pay for power as seamlessly as I can get it? How about waterproofing phones and smart audio that cuts out background noise without changing my voice? How about dozens and dozens and dozens of really unusual and innovative products that make CES worthwhile?

The real problem with CES isn't the technology; it's the timing.

Microsoft's valedictory keynote was widely misunderstood as meaning the company didn’t have anything new to talk about. It did - it's just that January is the wrong time to do it. in fact January is the wrong time for almost every technology company to talk about products, coming as it does right after Christmas, Thanksgiving and the start of the new school year. Retailers want to know about new products in July or August to get them in the shops or on the Web site for the big selling season. Consumers have spent their budget and aren't buying much in January. Lots of the products announced at CES won't be on sale until spring, and when you hear about something in January and see in it May, you think it's taken a long time coming and isn't very interesting any more. Announcing at CES undermines the impact of a spring or summer product, which is why several technology companies took pains to reassure us that what they were showing wasn't everything they'd have this year.

Move CES back to June or July and it would have much more impact. It would still be exhausting but I don't think we'd be arguing about whether it was still relevant.

Mary Branscombe

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