The best of the "Best of CES"

The Consumer Electronics Show wrapped up on Sunday, and by now the many Best of CES lists have been posted. Every year there are a few blockbusters that show up on nearly everyone's list.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

The Consumer Electronics Show wrapped up on Sunday, and by now the many Best of CES lists have been posted. Every year there are a few blockbusters that show up on nearly everyone's list. This year the darlings were the Palm Pre and the Sony VAIO P Series, a tiny subnotebook with an 8-inch widescreen display.

But there were some differences of opinion as well. SanDisk's slotRadio MP3 player is a polarizing product--reviewers either love it or hate it. And the same race car simulator that PC World included among the Best of Show landed on Popular Mechanics' list of "Tone Deaf Products in a Recession" thanks to its $40,000 price tag. Then again, PC World was one of the only sites that didn't fall head over heels for Sony's $900 netbook Lifestyle PC.

CNET is the official arbiter of the Best of CES, so it makes sense to start there. The Best in Show was no surprise. After its annus horribilis, Palm needed a miracle and nearly everyone agreed that it delivered with the Palm Pre. The hardware is fine, but the "the real highlight of the Pre is the user interface and OS." The Palm Pre wasn't just a critical darling--it also picked up the People's Voice award. (By the way, Palm also deserves some award for keeping the wraps on the Pre until CES, at a time when nearly every vendor seems to be playing games with NDAs and leaks on gadget blogs.)

Sony picked up two CNET awards for its incredibly-tiny VAIO P Series ultraportable and the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-G3 WiFi digital camera. I had some hands-on time with both at the show, and they are compelling products, though I suspect when reviewers actually test the P Series, performance will be an issue. Home theater winners included Panasonic new plasma TV line; Samsung's home Blu-ray theater-in-a-box; and EchoStar's set-top box with Slingbox on board. Samsung's P3 really is one awesome MP3 player, but at this point does it really matter? Even Microsoft may be throwing in the towel, though the company (sort of) denies it.

PC World didn't bestow a single Best of award, but it did compile a very broad list--the filming of Jeopardy on the show floor made the cut, for instance--of show highlights including, of course, the Palm Pre. It was nice to see a list that included a good dose of software and services, most notably the Yahoo Connected Widgets TV platform--which was all over the place at the show--and the Slacker and Flycast streaming Internet radio services for smartphones.

PC World compiled a separate slideshow of products that "missed the mark." Some were fairly obvious--too many iPod and iPhone cases, for example. But there were some interesting contrarian picks as well including the Sony P Series with its tiny, high-resolution display ("The P Could Stand for 'Pain'--Eye Pain") and SanDisk's slotRadio MP3 player, which the company unfurled at a press conference headlined by Akon ("not just a bad idea, but an anachronistic bad idea").

Popular Mechanics loved the P Series, as well as 17 other products at CES including the LG Watch Phone, due out later this year; Yahoo TV Widgets; Panasonic's SDR camcorder with 70X optical zoom and image stabilization; and the eco-friendly Sony Bravia VE5 series HDTVs. I'll reserve judgment on Polaroid's PoGo digital camera with built-in printer until I've seen a few reviews. The "Postcards from the Edge of CES" feature highlighted oddball products such as an electric-shaver powered by a hand crank and speakers that look like fruits and vegetables.

One of the more distinctive CES lists, "5 Tone Deaf Products in a Recession" included a $60,000 turntable, $1,400 headphones, and predictably Monster Cable, which this year was hawking HDMI cables ($200 to $1,800 depending on length) with a transfer rate sufficient for displays up to 480Hz, "which is kind of like saying it's the perfect saddle to strap onto a unicorn." Actually LG was hawking a 480Hz LCD TV at the show, though it's sleight of hand--it is actually a 240Hz set that uses a scanning backlight. Toshiba and Vizio use the same technology in their 240Hz sets, which technically operate at 120Hz.

Laptop Magazine mostly hewed to popular picks such as the Palm Pre, Sony P Series and Panasonic camcorders. HP's Pavilion dv2, the first laptop with AMD's Athlon Neo chip, is an intriguing ultraportable that deserved a spot on more lists. Laptop Magazine also singled out the Casio Exilim EX-FC100 as best camera because it puts novel features first introduced in the Casio EX-FH20--slow-motion video, burst shooting at 30 frames per second--in a compact, point-and-shoot.I'm a bit skeptical of D-Link's SideStage, a secondary, USB-powered 7-inch display for laptops. It won't be out until the spring and D-Link hasn't announced pricing yet, but the number I've heard sounds a bit high. It's also not unique. Samsung was demonstrating its SyncMaster D190SX Sidekick, a larger, wireless secondary display, which was one of the many CES Innovations Awards honorees. It seems a bit early to honor Nvidia's Ion platform, which pairs an Intel Atom with the GeForce 9400 GPU, but Laptop Magazine said one look at a reference PC running Call of Duty 4 and playing HD video "without a hiccup" on a large TV sealed the deal.

Yahoo Tech's picks--Palm Pre, Sony P Series, LG Watch Phone--were fairly predictable. Blogger Christopher Null also liked the 3D TV technology that Panasonic, Samsung and Sony all demonstrated. He's also a fan of the SanDisk's slotRadio, concluding that "If you just want to listen to a whole lot of advertising-free music all day and not mess around with playlists, syncing, and the like, the $100 price tag of slotRadio is a compelling deal." Though nearly everyone covered Microsoft's release of the beta of Windows 7, Yahoo Tech was one of only two major reviews site I saw (the other was PC Magazine) that mentioned it among the best of CES, in this case because it is "more polished, refined, and prettier than Vista ever dreamed of."

Though not strictly a best of list, Wired's list of innovations at CES included many of the same gadgets. More interesting selections included a Motorola CDMA femtocell that doubles as digital picture frame, a Plustek scanner than automatically converts scanned books into MP3 audio files, and a remote from a company called Hillcrest Labs that claims to improve on the Nintendo Wiimote.

CNN fell for the "Get Smart" gadgets at the show. They were in good company with the Sony P Series and the LG Watch Phone. But most of the other picks such as a $2,000 Motorola cell phone made of stainless steel and sapphire crystal, the LiveScribe Pulse pen, an alarm clock that responds to voice commands, and a Sharper Image keychain/MP3 player seem more like novelties.

PC Magazine just posted its list this morning. Many familiar names--Palm Pre, Sony P Series, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-G3 with WiFi, LG Watch Phone--are on there. Samsung has a true 240Hz LCD TV line, the 8000 series, which PC Magazine chose for its frame-rate technology, LED backlighting, slim design, and low power consumption. Two other laptops made the list, the MSI X320, which is a poor-man's Apple MacBook Air, and the Dell Studio XPS 16, a new model with a 16-inch widescreen display. PC Magazine has already posted a full review of the Dell Studio XPS 16 and awarded it an Editors' Choice.

Like CNET, PC Magazine singled out EchoStar's HD DVR/Slingbox and the Samsung P3 MP3 player, but it went with Vizio's first Blu-ray player, the VBR100, largely because it should be available starting in April for as little as $150. The Clickfree Transformer Cable, a very simple back-up system, was an interesting choice. The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg gave Clickfree a favorable review last week. In addition to PC Magazine's overall picks, my boss, Michael Miller, posted his own picks on his blog, Forward Thinking.

There were several other peripherals that showed up on lists time and again. Samsung's MBP200 Pico Projector is a tiny DLP projector that connects to a cell phone and displays video, images or PDFs at sizes up to 50 inches. PC World, Popular Mechanics and Laptop Magazine all gave it the nod. Over the years, I've seen several attempts at wireless chargers for cell phones and MP3 players, but Powermat claims to be the first solution that can charge wirelessly at the same speed as conventional wall plugs without burning a hole through your desk. PC Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Laptop Magazine and Wired all picked Powermat. The latest OQO ultra-mobile PC (you remember UMPCs, right?) also made it onto a few lists. I still don't get UMPCs, but I had a chance to try out the OQO model 2+, which now includes an Intel Atom processor and Qualcomm's Gobi 3G wireless, and I have to admit that the new OLED display looked great.

List of the Best of CES 2009 lists:

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