CES 2009: Show Wrap Up

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The 2009 Consumer Electronics Show came to a close in Las Vegas today, with those who’d held out until the bitter end finally forced to pack their bags and head home. With most of the press conference, product launches, and demos out of the way early on during the show, however, we’ve had a little time over the weekend to process what we saw at CES over the past few days.

CES 2009

Even in a year where the down economy saw all but the most confident (or foolhardy) manufacturers scaling back their booth presence and reining in outlandish concept development, CES was as it always is: part carnival, part theater fire mob scene, part collection of engorged product displays, and all about electronics. At the end of a long week, we still have a few topics to cover and large-level issues to address related to what was seen and discussed this week in Vegas.

Small show or no?
I predicted a little while back that this year’s expo would be a smaller show across the board than its counterpart from 2008. And compared to a PMA or a Photokina, CES’s point-and-shoot heavy announcement lineup may generate a lot of user-friendly, market-ready models, but rarely is capable of building the kind of frenzied excitement that marks new product launches at the photo focused shows.

On the one hand, the fact that several camera manufacturers decided to not even make a token appearance on the show floor this year reinforces the point that even some established players are nervous about what 2009 will bring in the consumer electronics market. At the same time, looking back on the number of photo-related product announcements from this year versus last, CES 2009 had the largest and most wide-ranging slate of new camera models we’ve seen in a few years – about twice as many as we covered in 2008.

Obviously, then, there aren’t less cameras to go around coming out of CES. Rather, the difference lies more in the underlying technologies. Last year, for instance, we were able to call out wireless file transfer and CMOS imaging technologies as two developments to watch in the camera market in 2008 based on what we saw at CES. With contracting budgets, predictions for 2009 won’t be nearly so easy to nail. In fact, based on what I’ve seen so far in terms of new models and concept technologies, the coming months may well prove to be the slowest in recent memory for fundamental developments in basic camera systems.

CES 2009

Sure, huge zoom lenses represent their own kind of technological advancement, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we saw not one, but two 10x zoom compacts launched at CES as well. But while both of these developments will probably appeal to the ever-larger cadre of camera buyers who are now shopping for a second (or third) rather than first digicam, they don’t seem poised to change point-and-shoots the way CMOS sensors have changed and are changing the DSLR space.

One exception to this rule may well be video capabilities for DSLRs. Although there weren’t new products focusing on this technology at this year’s show, it’s fair to say that several other DSLR manufacturers seemed to be talking a lot about Canon and Nikon’s respective moves into DSLR movies in the second half of 2008. Does this kind of seemingly casual conversation portend more? Hard to say, but it’s impossible for me to believe that every other interchangeable-lens camera maker is assuming that DSLR video is a fad that will simply pass. It doesn’t take a huge intellectual leap or the possession of proprietary knowledge to propose that Canon and Nikon will have company in this niche before the end of the year: if nothing else, Panasonic has already talked openly about getting in on the game with the successor to the G1, and their conspicuous absence from the product announcement fray only heightens anticipation about what they might be planning.

But beyond this obvious trend, while we have a lot of new models and refreshes to follow up with once the dust from CES settles, there’s yet to be a strong suggestion as to what device or technology, if any, will fundamentally change the way we take pictures in 2009.

Big news in photographer-friendly notebook hardware
We saw some great camera stuff at CES, but it’s no secret that this show is more about electronics (hence the name…) than the imaging subset thereof. That doesn’t mean, though, that there weren’t some exciting computer hardware developments that will have an impact on the digital photo world going forward.

First up is the update to Lenovo’s huge, costly, and very powerful mobile graphics workstation, the ThinkPad W700. The new W700ds uses mostly the same core components as the predecessor that I had the pleasure of reviewing, but adds something unusual: a second screen slides out from the right-hand side of lid, providing additional screen real estate that Lenovo hopes will get Photoshop users and other graphics pros fired up.

CES 2009

NotebookReview.com editor and frequent DCR contributor Jerry Jackson managed to pry a W700ds from Lenovo just prior to the show for a first look, and while the W700ds remains “a little too thick and heavy” – not to mention expensive – “for most consumers,” the second 768×1280 half-screen provides a great place to dock tools in image editing software, or shuffle project windows between your calibrated main work space and a second staging area. Overall, if you can come up with the cash and tolerate the weight, the W700ds offers even better graphics performance than the original in a physical device that was purpose built with working photographers and very serious hobbyists in mind.

In the world of photography, Apple’s minimalist Macintosh designs have ruled the roost among many buyers for a long time – making their competent, aesthetically pleasing notebooks the preferred hardware of many graphics pros. To this audience, the words “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” haven’t usually come as good news.

As they say, though, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and in many ways that’s exactly what Dell has done with the new 13 inch, brushed metal Adamo.

CES 2009

J. R. Nelson, editor of one of our sister sites, got an exclusive first crack at the new machine, and his hands-on time with this new Apple-esque luxury notebook suggests that this may be the Windows machine that the boys out in Cupertino have feared. We aren’t able to talk hard specs at this time, but everything in the NBR write-up points to a very capable final version of the machine that should get high marks for photo editing performance. Plus, you get ultrathin portability and a visual package that should appeal to creative types.

It will be interesting to see whether Dell attempts to go head to head with Apple in chasing purchasing dollars from amateur and pro photographers. And specifics of the hardware under the hood – and the price on the box – should determine just what market Dell is trying to reach with the new Adamo. But even on styling alone, Dell’s latest is both surprising and exciting.

Year of the multi-function device, redux
Every year for the last few, it’s been the same story: electronics manufacturers hail this year as “the year of the multi-function device,” and being gullible, we look at some shiny new products and get lulled into a mindless repetition of this proclamation. And then we go right back to reviewing largely single-function digital still cameras (well, maybe two if you count the generally weak video performance found in most these days…) and forget all about multi-functionality for another year. To those who refuse to concede that we’ve been here before, I need only direct you to last year’s strange disappearing act put on by the Samsung i8 for reference.

It’s another year, and in spite of the fact that the compact camera has (if certain manufacturers are to be believed) been a doomed device for years, we get another full board of single-purpose compact cameras – and a few multi-function devices hanging on just for good measure. So while I refuse to believe that small cameras will lose much ground to devices that can both take pictures and do other things (play MP3s, shoot camcorder-quality video, browse the internet, print photos, make coffee, etc.) in 2009, a few CES launches showed off some interesting technological interconnections that may be worth watching.

Just when you thought Polaroid had fallen to the lowest depths of blister-pack camera manufacturing, the company manages to pull itself out of the ashes with a very interesting, if questionably pratical, concept camera.

CES 2009

There have been rumblings about the new Polaroid PoGo instant-print digital device ever since Polaroid announced that it was killing off its instant film business in 2008. The new model combines a digital-zoom only, 5 megapixel camera with one of Polaroid’s portable printers into a device about the size of a paperback book that can both take a print photos on the go.

CES 2009

At two by three inches, the photos themselves are small; using technology and special inkless paper licensed from thermal imaging developer ZINK, the images are also of average quality at best. Indeed, the samples we saw at Polaroid’s CES booth had a slightly flat, washed out look – which, to put a positive spin on it, keeps them very much in the low-fi spirit of the original Polaroid instant cameras.

With a price around $200, and a cost of some under 50 cents per shot to keep the PoGo in prints, the novelty may wear off too quick to justify the cost, but the fact that you can also print images from other cameras via the device’s SD slot – providing the functions of Polaroid’s recently released ZINK-based portable printer as well – may help this camera’s value proposition.

Kodak also was also pushing a somewhat unique multi-function device at CES this year, which caught our eye in browsing around the manufacturer’s display.

CES 2009

The ZX1 combines functions of an HD video camera and rugged/water-resistant still camera into a single device with one of the most intuitive and easy to manage interfaces I’ve seen. This thing takes Point and Shoot to whole new levels, with just a few selections for the kind of shot or video you’re capturing managed through an interface that’s reminiscent of a simplified cell phone.

CES 2009

Even if the still pictures it takes are of average quality, the ZX1’s 720p video samples looked pretty darn good, especially from a fashionable, ruggedized device that somehow manages to still come in at only around $150. Kodak hasn’t always earned high praise from us, but a brief hands-on with the ZX1 has me pretty well convinced that cell-phone pic/video snappers will find this camera to be both fun and worthwhile. Plus, an optional helmet mount already has me thinking about ways to test the camera’s outdoor credentials and nullify my life insurance at the same time.

Until next time…
In the camera world, CES is usually only the beginning of a model release “season” that, if previous years are any indication, should run all the way to March’s PMA show and perhaps even beyond. Between what was made public this week and what’s on the horizon, we’ve got an awful lot to cover, so it will be back to our normal product review publication schedule next week. In the meantime, if you’ve missed key announcements from CES or just want a recap on everything that we saw on the show floor, our CES 2009 News Headquarters will remain open for business – serving up links to our entire body of CES coverage, plus those last few product launches that we’ll get around to following up on in coming days.

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