Tech '09: The Hottest Rock Gadgets on the Horizon

From smartphones to Internet radio receivers, a full report from the Consumer Electronics Show

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So much for predictions that a prolonged recession and continued budget cutbacks would cause annual tech and gadget confab the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held last week in Las Vegas, to short circuit. Despite a 22 percent drop in attendance, even lingering economic fears couldn't keep an estimated 110,000 industry insiders and journalists eager to sample tomorrow's technology away. Palpable undercurrent of uncertainty — manifested in tamer boots, decreased foot traffic and readily available cabs and hotel rooms — aside, the countless gee-whiz electronics on display likewise mirrored manufacturers' optimistic attitudes towards 2009.

While it was clear some companies are anticipating continued demand for high-end devices (see Motorola's $2,000 stainless steel cell phone), it's sheer practicality, not pioneering design, that's expected to make headlines in coming months. While executives alternately trumpeted products as larger or smaller, more feature-rich or streamlined, in truth, the future isn't about faster 240Hz television refresh rates or digital cameras with integrated Web browsers. Rather, the following watchwords effectively summarize the state of high-tech in '09: Slimmer, greener, wireless, connected and more intuitive.

Shrinking form factors were visible everywhere from 0.85mm-thick Organic LED TVs capable of enhanced color output to the world's first portable Blu-ray player and micro projectors which fit in your pocket. Increasing demand for Energy Star compliance and lower power consumption is also evident across the board. There's Sony's eco-friendly Bravia VE5 television sets, Motorola's Moto W223 Renew cell phone (made from recycled bottles) and Energizer's new oxygen-activated Prismatic zinc-air batteries, which purportedly power gizmos three times longer than alkaline or lithium ion counterparts. But it's music and video lovers, blog-a-holics and everyday shoppers who'll benefit most from current sea changes, as wirelessly interconnected TVs, set-top boxes, storage solutions and portable media players bring streaming audio/video to mainstream prominence.

Witness iRiver's stunning Wave-Home, a kitchen-friendly, touch-screen multimedia hub that doubles as a wireless Internet-powered (VoIP) phone, Web surfing tablet, digital music player, photo viewer and videoconferencing solution. Due for launch by year-end, like Kodak's Theater HD and Netgear's Digital Entertainer Elite, set-top boxes that beam tunes, photos and YouTube shorts from room to room, it could become an essential home network purchase. Internet-ready HDTVs, enabling wireless access to audiovisual content from the Web or PC hard disk (including services like Pandora, Rhapsody, Netflix, Blockbuster OnDemand and Amazon) such as Panasonic's G10 series, Sony's Bravia XBR9 lineup and Vizio's Connected HDTV models, are also anticipated to enjoy growing prominence.

For tech-savvy audiophiles, the party's just getting started. Here's a guide to the most rockin' gadgets heading your way:

• Palm Pre: A touch-screen smartphone employing the new multimedia- and online-friendly WebOS operating system, designed to let you shuffle active program windows like a deck of cards. Potentially capable of unseating rivals the iPhone, BlackBerry and G1, it offers wireless on-demand song downloads from the Amazon Music Store.

• Sirius MiRGE: The best two-for-one deal on satellite radio yet: Meet the first receiver with the ability to seamlessly jump between XM and Sirius broadcasts.

• Samsung P3 Media Player: Tap or swipe the 3-inch, touch-sensitive 16:9 widescreen display on this portable audio, video and photo player to literally feel good vibrations while accessing digital content, FM radio and voice recording options. The slick-looking models will ship in 4-32GB sizes.

• SanDisk slotRadio: Aimed at the entry-level market, said low-cost ($99.99 with music card) portable MP3 player cum FM radio runs microSD cards preloaded with 1000 songs in all genres by Billboard topping artists. Extra cards run $39.99, with artist and track info displayed on an attractive 1.5-inch OLED screen.

• Creative Sound Blaster for iTunes: A Flash drive-sized USB add-on for computers that enhances audio quality and enables wireless transmission of digital ditties to headphones, receivers and speakers from Mac or PC. The gizmo works with both iTunes and unprotected MP3 songs.

• Cisco Media Hub and Wireless Home Audio: The former is a family of networked, high-capacity storage devices that warehouse and provide a one-stop hub, wirelessly accessible via PC or remotely through Web browser, for music, movies, pictures and more. The latter, a line of streaming audio devices — including an amplifier, stereo-attachable player, standalone music system and touch-screen remote — which can be mixed and matched to enjoy songs in any room of the home.

• VTech IS9181: A manufacturer primarily known for cordless phones and educational electronics extends its reach with this WiFi Internet radio receiver with integrated 3W stereo speakers and 10W subwoofer with class D amplifiers. Music fans can access 11,000 free online stations, wirelessly stream digital audio from Mac/PC and connect to MP3 or CD players via built-in 3.5mm jack.

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