Hot Tech for 2009

By Nevin Buconjic
For Fresh Magazine
(Originally published – January 2009)

In January of each year the world gets a glimpse at the next generation of great technology at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  It is this year’s show that serves as part inspiration for this article, as well as other observations I have made in tech.  Below are only a few of the products that I feel will be hot in 2009:

Netbooks

Last year a new genre of laptop computer was introduced – dubbed the “netbook”. These small (7 – 10 inch screens) devices are essentially miniaturized notebook computers which are useful for surfing the Internet, email, listening to music and other casual computing activities.  Because the devices are relatively underpowered they cannot fully replace a “real” laptop but have proven to be immensely popular, with price points of between $299 – $499.  Beginning with 7 and 8 inch screens, more recent models have expanded to 10 inch screens, making them much more user friendly.

Netbooks have quickly proven themselves as popular and now most of the top PC companies have released models.  The only major holdout remains to be Apple, which said it would continue to watch the space develop.  There was speculatation that Apple would announce a netbook at the recent MacWorld event, but alas this did not happen.  2009 should prove another successful year for the netbook category as these tiny devices continue to improve in both style and capability.

Touch Screen Computing

Millions of iPhone owners have proven that consumers like touch screen technology. Competing smartphone models have been introduced by numerous competitors such as Samsung, LG, HTC and more recently Blackberry.

Another technology that never fully caught on (tablet computing) touch screen computing has begun a resurgence in popularity.  Microsoft has had a Windows Tablet version for several years now, but recent devices have fully embraced “touch” and consumers finally seem ready for it.

HP recently introduced several sleek “All-in-one” touch screen computers (up to 25” screens) that allow users to move objects, open windows, edit photos and much more using their fingers instead of a mouse.  Microsoft itself has developed a Surface computing device which resembles a table – but the entire surface is a computer screen that responds to touch!

Net Connected TV’s

Fresh off the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, almost all of the major TV manufacturers (Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic) have announced net-enabled TV with direct access to streaming movie or video services such as NetFlix, Hulu, YouTube, as well as streaming news, weather and more.  These TV’s have built in Ethernet (some also have wireless capability) allowing for direct connection to the Internet.  Direct access to streaming movie services could mean a world of hurt in the future for video rental chains such as Blockbuster, Rogers Video and others.

Ebooks

Once thought to be the next big thing — Ebooks have been kicking around for at least a decade.  An interesting idea – a digital copy of books you can read on a handheld device — they have just never fully caught on.  But 2009 might be the breakout year for the ebook.

Amazon.com’s Kindle ebook reader was introduced in November 2007 and sold out in 5 hours.  With more inventory, sales resumed in 2008 and the company has had difficulty keeping the unit in stock ever since.  An endorsement from Oprah in October – as one of her favorite products – created another four month waiting list for the device.  Oprah’s endorsement may have finally opened the market to mainstream consumers – which represents a huge market opportunity compared to traditional buyers of these devices.

Amazon may have achieved what no other manufacturer in this space has done before – not only making a device that is easy to use but one that has easy access to a large inventory of new digital books.  With over 200,000 titles currently available for download using the device’s free wireless service, consumers can purchase ebooks for typically much cheaper than printed versions (New York Times best sellers are only $9.99).  Unfortunately, the Kindle is so far only available in the US, where it offers the free wireless service.  Hopefully in 2009 they will expand to other markets, including Canada!

Although unconfirmed, some analysts estimate that Amazon may have sold up to 1 million devices to date.  Sony’s latest readers have also been selling well, and smartphones such as the iPhone are also proving to be capable and popular devices for downloading and reading ebooks.  In 2009 it is expected that Amazon will release the next version of their Kindle device and a number of other companies are set to release readers as well, to capitalize on the ebooks growing popularity.  Even with increasing sales, ebooks still represent less than 1% of book sales, but this may be the year that things begin to change.

Blu-Ray High Definition

Last year at this time, Blu-ray finally defeated its rival, HD-DVD, in the high definition (HD) war.  Now that consumers were not forced to choose sides in the war of competing technologies, Analysts predicted that Blu-ray would explode in popularity.

Blu-ray HD video was finally poised to take the reins from DVD in the consumer video market.  But so far consumers continue to overwhelmingly support DVD.  The trouble with HD is that consumers faced a double whammy – requiring both an HDTV and a Blu-ray player – both being costly investments.

I stated in a previous article that I believed the price for Blu-ray players would need to come down to $200 (from $600-$1,000) before sales would pick up.  This has happened just recently and along with the dramatic reductions in the cost for HDTV’s, I believe that Blu-ray has finally reached a price point that will register with consumers. Unless the economy continues to take the wind out consumer spending, Blu-ray should experience greater success in 2009,

Conclusion

I have briefly discussed only a few products that I think will be hot in 2009.  As technology has proven throughout the years, it just keeps getting cheaper, better and faster.  By this time next year, we are bound to see even more exciting developments in computing, gaming, home audio/video, GPS, smartphones and more.   Here’s to another exciting year in tech!

Blu-ray Wins the High-Def Format War But Does Anyone Care?

By Nevin Buconjic
For Fresh Magazine
(Original Print Date – June 2008)

In my previous article about the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD war last year, I described the stunning quality of both formats and how either was an excellent successor to standard DVD.

At the time, both formats were battling for supremacy – essentially Sony (Blu-Ray) vs. Toshiba (HD-DVD). The key to winning was the support of the movie studios which provide the movie content. Blu-Ray had the majority of the studios, but their hardware was significantly more expensive than HD-DVD players, and HD-DVD had other significant advantages.

None of this mattered anymore of course, once Warner Brothers announced in January 2008 that they would stop supporting HD-DVD after May 2008 — this would mean Blu-Ray had the support of 75% of the movie studios while HD-DVD would be left with only 25% . The stunning announcement blind-sided Toshiba and resulted in the cancellation of the planned release of their latest HD-DVD models, in order to give the company time to regroup. But the writing was now on the wall – how long could HD-DVD survive? The result was an announcement within weeks that Toshiba would stop production of all HD-DVD products. Sony and Blu-Ray won the war. No one predicted it would be over so soon.

The Internet was a buzz with news sources and blogs touting that the future of High-def was now clear – and consumers were set to benefit. With only one format to choose from, consumers would now have nothing holding them back from upgrading to the next generation of video.

But the expected surge in Blu-Ray sales has not materialized. In fact, following the Warner Brothers announcement, even though Blu-Ray was declared the winner, sales of stand-alone Blu-Ray players actually decreased by 40% from January to February followed by a slight increase of 2% between February and March.

So what of the anticipated rush of new consumers? Well it turns out that most consumers think that standard DVD is still good enough, and see no compelling reason to upgrade to High-Def at this time. More and more consumers are buying up-converting DVD players, which play regular DVD’s and “upgrade” the resolution from standard 480i to a 1080i HD resolution. In my experience the improvement isn’t impressive, but it is noticeable.

Another factor in Blu-Ray’s slow uptake could be the price. Since its declared win, the price of stand alone Blu-Ray players have actually increased. With no competition, perhaps the Blu-Ray camp is no longer in any rush to lower prices. With players starting at about $399, I still think High-Def is a niche market for audiophiles and early adopters. But once we see prices down around $200, the masses are more likely to jump on board. As always, you still need an HDTV to notice the benefits – this means splurging for a nice big LCD or Plasma TV.

In my previous article I had suggested that for anyone wanting to upgrade to HD while minimizing their risk, they should stick to the Xbox 360 with HD-DVD attachment or the Sony PS3 with built in Blu-Ray. I had both and was happy with either. Although I had been rooting for HD-DVD to win, I am ok with how things ended – in fact I have been picking up my favorite movies in HD-DVD on clearance racks for about $10 compared to the same Blu-Ray versions which sell for $28-40 each.

In case you are wondering which models are the best, the PS3 is still the best Blu-Ray player on the market, as it is currently the only Blu-Ray player to support the new 2.0 standard – which brings picture-in-picture and online functionality to Blu-ray discs (two things HD-DVD had from the start). Therefore I still highly recommend the PS3 as your Blu-Ray player of choice – especially if you are looking for a next-gen console to boot!

So now that the future has been decided, do yourself a favour and take your video viewing to the next level. If you have or are planning to purchase a new HDTV, I highly recommend moving up to Blu-Ray – you won’t be disappointed!

Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD – Welcome to the Format War

By Nevin Buconjic
For Fresh Magazine
(Original Print Date – March 2007)

As DVD’s approach their 10 year anniversary, they have become so common and affordable that we find DVD players everywhere – our computers, our home-entertainment and stereo systems, even in our cars! In fact the technology has become so inexpensive, that DVD players can be had for as cheap as $30 and portable units with LCD screens less than $100.

But a new revolution is upon us. High Definition (HD) television sales are now leading the change to High Definition DVD formats. HD provides significant picture quality improvement over standard DVD, and with the growing popularity and increasingly lower cost of large screen Plasma and LCD televisions, consumers want more and more HD content.

In comes the successor to DVD…except we have a little problem. Two different formats are vying for the title of next generation DVD. They are Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Both formats can provide the highest level of HD quality – 1080p to be exact. With resolutions of 1920×1080 vs. standard DVD resolution of 720×480, the sheer detail and picture quality of both HD formats is remarkably better than DVD. Next time you are in a department store or local Future Shop, take a minute to watch either format playing on a 50-inch LCD or Plasma TV. You will be blown away by the picture quality and sound.

You might be asking yourself, what is the problem if we have two excellent formats to choose from…choice is good right? Choice is good AFTER a technology has been standardized. The problem is, if customers have to worry about which format will win in the end, it will dramatically slow the adoption of a new HD format. Who wants to be stuck with the losing product after spending close to $1,000 on a player?

Many writers point to the “Beta vs. VHS” wars in the 1980’s as an example of format war. If you are saying to yourself, “what the heck is Beta”, then this proves the point. In the early 1980’s Sony introduced the Betamax format to compete with VHS. Beta tapes were smaller and had a higher quality picture, but in the end VHS won the war, and reduced Beta to the junk pile. The lesson is that quality and technological superiority does not always ensure success. In fact, Sony has a history of delivering technologically superior products but some have been marketing flops. Just look at Sony’s Mini-Disc in the early 90’s, and their current Memory Sticks (which compete against CompactFlash and SD), which are essentially only used in Sony products.

That being said, Sony is the inventor and lead promoter of Blu-ray technology. But it has managed to bring together a large group of supporters this time around including Dell, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, Mitsubishi Electric, Panasonic, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung Electronics, Sharp, TDK and Thomson. There are also a number of content providers supporting Blu-ray including Sony Pictures Entertainment, MGM, Walt Disney Company and its home-video division Buena Vista Entertainment. In addition, video gaming giant Electronic Arts, and Vivendi Universal Games have both shown support.

The main backer of the HD-DVD format is Toshiba along with NEC and Sanyo. An impressive list of entertainment content companies have also thrown their weight behind HD-DVD, including Paramount, Universal Studios, Warner Bros., along with New Line Cinema. Microsoft has also joined the HD-DVD camp, producing a $200 add-on unit for its Xbox360.

What’s the Difference?

Both formats offer six times the resolution of traditional DVD, high quality surround sound, interactive content, and copy protection built in. The main difference is the storage capacity and production cost of the product itself. HD-DVD holds 15GB on each layer (up to 30GB per disc). Blu-ray on the other hand holds 25GB per layer and up to 50GB per disc. Based on capacity alone, Blu-ray is the clear winner, although that capacity comes with a price. While HD-DVDs can be manufactured using the same production facilities as DVD’s, Blu-ray requires costly new manufacturing processes resulting in higher costs. Both formats are backwards compatible with standard DVDs, so you can still watch your collection of DVDs.

Next-Gen Consoles

One factor that could influence the outcome of the format war is the fact that Sony has included Blu-ray in its new PS3 console. The company delayed the launch of the console in order to be able to include the new technology. The move, which was widely criticized and significantly raised the price of the units, could result in a significant advantage for the Blu-ray in the end.

To date Sony has sold over 2 million PS3’s world wide (700,000+ in the US) and with this number Sony claims to have surpassed the number of HD-DVD units sold to date. This significantly outstrips Microsoft’s HD-DVD add-on unit sales of about 100,000 in the US alone. Recent reports also show that Blu-ray movies have begun out selling HD-DVD by about 3:1.

Conclusion

Only time will tell which format will come out on top, but some companies aren’t waiting to find out. During the Consumer Electronics Show in January, LG Electronics unveiled the Super Multi Blue player, which can play both formats. In addition, Warner Bros. has announced plans to release the Total HD Disc, which can carry both formats on one disc. Both products should help to alleviate the fear of choosing a format while the battle is still being fought.

So what should you do if you just can’t wait unil there is a clear winner? Because the cost of either format’s player units are still so expensive ($600 for HD-DVD and $1,000 for Blu-ray), my suggestion would be to go with the consoles. If you already have an Xbox 360, for another $200 you can get an HD-DVD drive, with free movie and remote control. And if you are a PlayStation fan and can afford it, the PS3 ($550 – 650) will give you a Blu-ray player for far less than the cost of buying a standalone player.

But don’t forget you will need an HDTV to be able to enjoy either HD-DVD or Blu-ray, so if you don’t own one yet, perhaps you should start there.

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