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Tech-ing It To The Limit

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The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is over 45 years old. This year, the show was the target of a lot of moaning and groaning, though over 150,000 people did attend it in Las Vegas. One thing people cribbed about was that many of the big tech companies were not there — at least not directly. Apple and Google have their own shows. And Microsoft, which until last year had a key presence at CES, exited the show, though Windows 8 was present everywhere. Nokia and Research in Motion weren’t there directly either. RIM will be launching its BlackBerry 0S and devices later this month at its own event. 
 
Much is showcased at CES that never makes it to the market, so many question the true relevance of the show. While it is true that individual gadgets and devices may not turn up on the shelves soon, if at all, the broad trends can be seen between the lines, as you’ll see from this selection of devices and technologies.
 
Television Takes Centerstage
Very much as expected, CES, which isn’t essentially a smartphone show, had a feast of other tech, showing the world what could be coming in the future. Samsung showed off a suite of innovative TVs, one of which is actually quite decidedly curved. The OLED technology used in this prototype uses colours by illuminating them directly with electricity. Think of it as the next step up from LCD and plasma. But what’s with the curve? That’s supposed to make for an immersive panoramic viewing experience while actually aligning the image more precisely, making it more life-like. Looking at a landscape, for example, is supposed to feel like you’re surrounded by it.  This beautiful TV is too expensive to make and even more so to buy, so it won’t be in the market anytime soon. 
 
Considering it’s Apple that’s always lauded as the best designer of products and a TV set of some sort being launched by the company sometime in 2013 is often talked about, it’s interesting that Samsung has come out with beautifully designed and feature-filled TVs. They’re thin and almost bezel-less and described as ‘floating’ by those who’ve seen them. Among them was a 110-inch 4k ultra high definition TV, another prototype. Very crisp and clear, obviously, it hangs on an easel and can be tilted.
 
In their 55-inch KN55F9500 OLED TV, Samsung has brought in a new multi-view feature. Yep, you can watch two shows or videos at the same time. While that’s interesting, it also means you have to wear headphones and glasses. Whether that’s being socially anti-social or alone together, you can decide. All agree that this piece of tech will pop up in TVs soon enough but no announcements on that yet. On its Smart Hub, the smart TV interface, Samsung has developed features to help users navigate, discover and view content more smartly. The TVs will face-recognise users and will recommend content. Using voice recognition and gestures (already present in Samsung’s Smart TVs), users will flip through panels of content and become better couch potatoes.
Sony’s 2013 Flagship: The Xperia Z
People were very excited about the Sony Xperia Z even before CES. Many have asked me if I could confirm
The Xperia aesthetic is quite elegant to begin with and now it’s a whole 5 inches of clean-cut lines and slightly rounded corners on a 7.8 mm thin glassy phone. Sony dubs it the ‘Omni Balance’ design because everything is in parallel lines and precise. The Z has a beautiful 1080 x 1920p screen. Pixel density is 443ppi. It’s tricked out with Sony’s Mobile Bravia 2 technology, which is when the phone senses the environment you’re in and adjusts the screen for better viewing — not just brightness. the final price which, of course, I can’t as it’s not yet on the market. Everyone is seeing the Z as Sony’s answer to the wildly popular Samsung Galaxy S3 and the iPhone 5. That would mean it would need to have something unique and interesting about it. And it does.
 
Incidentally, if the phone drops into water, it isn’t the end. The smartphone won’t even turn off, but emerge out of the experience unscathed — as long as you don’t leave it in there for more than 30 minutes. It’s also dust resistant.
 
To make good use of that screen is a 13 megapixel camera, believed to be the standard for 2013. This has a few tricks up its sleeve too. You can shoot HDR or high dynamic range videos, not just photos. This means greater depth and evenness. The camera also auto selects scenes depending on what it’s seeing — one setting for text, another for face, etc. 
 
That large 5-inch bright screen is going to gobble up battery, so you have a 2330 mAh non-removable battery on board. But, and here’s another trick, you have a new ‘Battery Stamina’ technology which optimises battery life by shutting off apps when the screen is off. You can control this, of course. I can’t say whether this goes beyond some of the Android apps that help you prolong battery life. One will have to wait for a review unit.
 
Another thing to be checked out is how the Xperia Z works with NFC. I know everyone’s been talking about NFC since forever, but it’s been shown to work well with things like tapping the phone on headphones to turn the music on, for example.
 
Other specs on the Xperia Z include a 1.5 GHz quad core Snapdragon S4 processor with 2 GB RAM. So it’s not only Sony’s first almost-phablet but its first quad core as well. There’s a microSD slot to expand the 16 GB storage by another 32GB. It runs Jelly Bean 4.1 which should hopefully be 4.2 by the time it arrives, bringing with it some nice additional features. 
 
The Xperia Z will be in India in March. The black and white versions will be available but one can’t say for sure about the other colours as it seems colours don’t sell as well as they do in other countries, a fact that continues to shock me. We don’t have a price yet but there’s no reason for it to cost less than the phones it’s competing with. 
 
One Large Phablet
The other phone being talked about — if one can call it a phone — is Huawei’s huge 6.1 inch whatever. Of course, seeing how fond I am of large screens, I’m sure to like it, but 6.1 inches is pushing the envelope a bit if you want to keep the gadget in the smartphone category. But no one defines the boundaries of the new genre of super large phone-tablets, so there’s nothing to stop a company from trying what it wants. Huawei’s Ascend Mate was also much anticipated before the CES show and it actually dwarfs the Note II, being just an inch short of what everyone agrees are tablets. And yet, it looks light and thin.
 
The Mate has a lovely big 1280 x 720 pixel LCD IPS display with approximately 241 ppi density. And it’s a powerful gadget running on a 1.5 GHz quad core processor with 2 GB of RAM and a huge 4050 mAh battery. It has a light interface on top of Android 4.1 and a collection of preloaded apps. It has an 8 megapixel, 3264 x 2448 pixel camera and a secondary 1 megapixel one. But mostly, it’s just large. 
 
Tablets Size Up For CES
Last year, CES was awash with tablets, all vying to compete with the iPad. The rest of the year saw the tablet-isation of the computing world. Tablets also clashed head on with laptops and desktops, with tablets winning. Now tablets are trying to find differentiating attributes as they also compete with each other. So guess what some of them decided to do at CES 2013? They go into size overdrive. Lenovo showed off a huge Table PC called the Idea Centre Horizon. It’s a whole 27 inches of touchscreen, which becomes multitouch when laid flat and a Windows 8 touchscreen when vertical or tilted. This is a beautiful screen and really shows off Windows 8 but, of course, you’d have to wonder how you’d use it. One idea is for a family to play games together on it.

Another is for it to be used in the workplace when several people need to look at or work together on something graphical. Asus and Vizio also showed large Windows 8 tablets, or rather, all-in-ones.
 
Two-Faced Phone
The Russians have come up with a fascinating concept for a two-screen phone. And when you see the
design you see the sense of it. Why should the back of a phone be doing nothing? One may as well put it to use in some way. The YotaPhone has a regular Android screen on the front while there is an e-ink screen on the back. With a single gesture, like a shortcut, you can enable certain information on the back screen. For example, you could display a map and keep it there while you do other things on the front screen. The same can be done with a boarding pass or ticket. It’s only a thought but a good one.
 
Flexi Screen
There has been talk of a flexible screen from Samsung for a while now. And at CES 2013 it debuted. Using OLED on a plastic form, Samsung has come up with a bendable phone which could be in widespread use in the future. It looks as bright and nice, but is still a concept to be developed. If you’re wondering what problem a flexible screen is trying to solve, then think of how much you’ve wished for an unbreakable phone. Rolling up the phone could also mean you could fit a bigger screen on a more portable form. The flexibility also has implications for being able to show information in different ways.

Cold Connect
Lots of smart appliances, robots and home security gadgets were showcased at CES. Simplicikey, for example, is an app which lets you remotely control who comes into your home by letting you give permitted people a code to get in. Another device lets your plant send you a message when it needs to be watered. And then, from Samsung, which rather dominated at CES, there’s a smart fridge. T9000 includes integration with Evernote (so you can look at what you want to remember), and read-only Twitter. I’m not sure Indian homes are ready for Evernote-ready fridges, but then the Evernote-ready fridge doesn’t have an announced launch date yet either.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 28-01-2013)