Converging in the Desert

There's always something different at CES.

The Consumer Electronics Show is sort of the Super Bowl of our industry, as manufacturers of just about everything that accepts AC, DC, or batteries descend upon Las Vegas each winter to parade what's new and what's coming soon. Given the presence of all the wonderful new products that blur the lines between consumer electronics and computers at this year's show, it looks like I've got my work cut out for me as convergence editor. Here's a quick look at some of the most interesting arrivals.

Roku
I've heard people refer to the plasma display as the ultimate toy. If so, the Roku HD1000 ($299) might be the ultimate toy box, a home theater accessory like no other. It's a high-definition digital media player that delivers JPEG photos (the higher the resolution, the better), professional nature and space photography, great paintings, and even an amazing and unique world-clock application, plus music and video.

The HD1000 can connect to most current standard-def and high-def TVs via S-video, component video (1080i/720p/480p/480i), or VGA outputs, and it gives our flat panels something to do when we aren't watching TV or DVDs. To prevent burn-in, the player automatically cycles its images or, when it detects a static video source, generates an active screen saver. Analog stereo and digital coaxial audio outs are also provided, along with stereo audio, S-video, and component ins for passthrough, plus USB and RS-232 ports for further control.

The HD1000 supports MP3, WAV, and AIFF audio tracks, playing them by themselves or as a musical complement to the images. You can stream these tracks from a networked PC or Mac via Ethernet or an optional Wi-Fi adapter or simply load them from a CompactFlash, an SD/MultiMediaCard, a Memory Stick, or a SmartMedia card into one of the four front-panel slots.

Roku also sells Art Packs—on CompactFlash cards ($70) or by download ($40)—from which you can choose assorted masterpieces presented as crystal-clear digital stills or LiveArt packs, such as an animated computer-generated aquarium loop or video of a nature scene. The ATI XILLEON 225 chip powers real-time MPEG-2 decoding and supports playback of all 18 ATSC DTV formats.

Initial setup is quick and uncomplicated, and the menu screens are clear and friendly. You can master the compact, ergonomic remote, with dedicated buttons for zoom and rotate, for one-handed use in mere minutes. The hardware itself is remarkably lean and solid, with a brushed-metal finish that's extremely sexy. The picture is razor-sharp, apparently limited only by the clarity of the original image. For the record, Roku means "six" in Japanese, as this new company is ReplayTV founder Anthony Wood's sixth consumer electronics venture.

HD1000 High-Definition Media Player $299
Roku
(650) 321-1394
www.rokulabs.com

Samsung
In case you haven't heard, the Napster downloading service is back, more precisely as Napster 2.0, a completely above-board Website for purchasing digital music—real songs from famous artists—to do with as you like, or at least as the embedded Digital Rights Management will permit.

Samsung has stepped up to produce the official Napster portable, the YP-910GS player. Its user interface unites all of the YP-910GS's tunes with those on your computer's hard drive and offers an integrated portal to Napster.com. Through this unique music manager, you can search and listen to 30-second clips of songs before you virtually plunk down your 99 cents with two clicks; the first 20 songs are even Samsung and Napster's treat. The selection is vast, and operation is quick and simple, but dinosaurs beware: This player is only compatible with Windows XP/2000. The free Windows Media Player 9 Series is also required, and both MP3 and WMA playback are supported. Firmware is upgradeable.

The hardware is equally impressive, housing a 20-gigabyte hard drive in an exceptionally slim, snazzy form factor with blue LEDs (vaguely reminiscent of a PDA) and a large, bright LCD screen. A zippy USB 2.0 port lets you download files from your PC, while the wired remote control patches in between earphones and jack, for less fumbling with the player itself. The rechargeable lithium-polymer battery will do its thing for about 10 hours, depending on use.

What makes this such a relevant home theater product is the built-in FM transmitter, which includes a removable broadcast antenna to enable the YP-910GS to connect wirelessly to an FM-equipped hi-fi system so that everyone in the house can listen to your stored tunes. Finding an unused frequency the first time around is a bit of an expedition, but you can always save it as a preset for easy access next time. In addition, the FM tuner and the ability to encode FM programs to MP3 files on the fly make collecting tunes from the airwaves possible. An included cable also allows computer-free MP3 encoding from connected line-in music sources like a portable CD player.

YP-910GS Digital Audio Player $350
Samsung Electronics America
(800) SAMSUNG
www.samsungusa.com

Creative Labs
Every year, there's a short list of real buzz products at the show. Once again, Creative Labs makes the list with their Zen Portable Media Center. Bill Gates himself even used a prototype as a prop during his CES keynote address. Already winning awards despite the fact that it won't be available until some time in the second half of the year, the Zen Portable Media Center is based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform and is designed to play music and movies on the go with a bold, home-theater-minded interface that might look familiar to the Windows XP Media Center Edition crowd.

Microsoft's Smart Sync technology purportedly allows quick (USB 2.0), simple transfers of Windows Media–compatible audio and video content from the PC to the Zen unit, with Napster and CinemaNow deals announced to help ensure that there's always something to watch or listen to.

Official pricing is still being calculated, but $499 for the 20-GB model is a wise guess. It should hold about 80 hours of Windows Media Video, 5,000 Windows Media Audio songs (it also supports larger MP3 files), or tens of thousands of JPEG still photos. At launch, 30- and 40-GB models should also be available.

The player has a small footprint of less than 6 by 3.5 inches, with a 3.8-inch, 320-by-240 color LCD screen. If the Media Center Edition's ease of use carries over to the Zen Portable Media Center and reliability is as high as it is for most Creative products, portable DVD players might have some serious competition as the mainstream entertainment gadget of choice. The Zen Portable Media Center also stands poised to do for movies what MP3 has done for music—except for the fact that, while CDs have long been ripped for portability, no such option is legally available for DVD movies to go. Will we have to buy—or worse, rent—all of our favorites yet again? Watch this space for the whole story, including a hands-on review in the months to come.

Zen Portable Media Center Pricing TBD
Creative Labs
(800) 998-5227
www.creativelabs.com

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