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CES Vegas style

A blizzard of gadgets at CES 2005

By Daniel Sieberg

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LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- Perhaps the most surprising element of this year's Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, was outside the Las Vegas Convention Center: snow. Rare snowflakes were seen along the famed strip, prompting one person to sell "Vegas snowballs" on eBay.

Inside the halls, a flurry of gadgets lined the building's 1.5 million square feet of show space. CNN aimed to cover everything from the kitschy to the commercial, including an MP3 player sewn into a woolen beanie to the largest plasma TV in the world.

Every year, analysts look for trends to emerge from the huge gathering, which started with mainly TVs and stereos in New York in 1967.

CES is often a bellwether for hot items, and with the apparent disappearance of its Comdex cousin it's been thrust further into the spotlight.

To help gauge the pulse, we enlisted the help of editors from PC Magazine, CNET and Popular Science, a Time Warner sister publication. This combined approach provided a cross-section of the craziness, as thousands of people roamed the floor around us.

The editors' favorite products differed, but their overall opinion was while no one item dominated the show, products from previous years had now been refined with encouraging results.

For example, smarter digital cameras, cheaper flat-screen display technology and wearable devices that didn't just sound like a good idea.

One of the new products nearly every editor enjoyed was the 4.0 MP Kodak EasyShare-one digital camera. They liked the rotating 3-inch LCD touch screen display on the back, but the real draw was its wireless capability.

For an additional $100, a small wireless card lets you send photos to your computer or the Internet via a Wi-Fi hotspot. The camera itself retails for about $600.

A few of the editors agreed that one futuristic idea has finally arrived: the videophone. Motorola's OJO videophone lets someone make a visual phone call using a high-speed Internet connection.

It performs at about 30 frames per second, which is fast enough not to make grandma look jerky. It doubles as a traditional cordless phone and will cost about $700 when it hit stores in the spring.

But it's only practical if you buy two, or have a compatible webcam. Now you just have to decide whether you want to be seen.

'The biggest TV'

While many analysts agree that the high-definition technologies of cathode-ray tube monitors are better than other formats, the thinner versions always get plenty of buzz.

Many attendees found themselves mesmerized by the 102-inch plasma behemoth in the Samsung booth, which the company claimed to be "the biggest TV" in the world.

On a practical level, it's a long way off. It's not in production yet, and company reps wouldn't disclose a price. Samsung's 80-inch model will reportedly sell for about $45,000 or more.

LG Electronics had a dueling sign, touting its 71-inch plasma with full high-definition resolution as the world's largest screen that could actually be purchased today for $75,000.

Overall, analysts say it's going to take increased volume and a lower cost of manufacturing these plasmas to force prices to drop at a faster rate.

The day is coming when they're more affordable, but as one editor put it: Don't expect to buy a medium-sized plasma screen for under $1,000 for quite a while.

Gamers' lifestyle

Sony's attention-getter at CES was actually announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, E3, in 2003. But this was the first time that much of Western media could get their hands on the PlayStation Portable or PSP.

Setting its sights on Nintendo's dominant share of the handheld market, Sony's PSP also does more than play games. It also plays audio and video files, and acts as an organizer.

The editors we talked to liked the look of it, and the price, about $200, when it hits the United States in March. But it may be too bulky for some, and because of its proprietary format, Universal Media Discs, about the size of a small CD, users could be at Sony's whim for entertainment content.

Beginning in late 2001, Microsoft began touting its series of Smart Personal Object Technology or SPOT watches that receive data via MSN Direct like sports scores, news and stock results.

At CES 2005, Microsoft and companies like Suunto revealed the next generation, which are meant to be sleeker and more stylish. Prices for these new ones are about $300 and up.

CNN sat down with Microsoft's chairman and co-founder, Bill Gates, at one point to discuss the company's offerings at the show. He talked about the "digital lifestyle" or using the PC as a hub for entertainment. And he quelled rumors about Xbox 2 being unveiled at CES.

He did say the next generation of console gaming holds much promise, including improved online game play and enhanced graphics. For salient details, gamers will likely have to wait until May, when E3 takes place in Los Angeles, California.

Palm time

Another wrist device at the show is Palm-based. The Fossil FX2008 watch allows users to have a fairly basic monochrome PDA strapped to their wrists, and includes perhaps the world's tiniest stylus hidden in the watchband. It was introduced by Gates at CES 2003 but has been delayed until now. It will sell for $250.

Tiny is maybe the wrong word to describe the SanDisk USB memory card. You can store hundreds of photos and songs on one, then instead of needing a card reader to transfer the content onto your computer, you simply snap the hinge on the thumbnail-size card to reveal a flat connector that can be inserted into any USB port. It's expected to ship in a few months.

Not all technology at CES 2005 was pricey or far off. The Cold Heat soldering iron lets electricians of all skill levels solder in safety. The pen-like soldering gun heats up to 800 degree F in seconds and then cools to the touch in seconds once the soldering is finished. It retails now for $20.

And that's what CES is: a chance to see what gifts will be hot for this holiday season, all in this year's chilly locale of Las Vegas.

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