We should have listened to Ralph Kramden when we had the chance, way back in 1955. He knew what was going to happen, you see.
Ralph was there, right at the beginning - trying to avoid investing in a TV set despite the social pressure being applied to him by his wife, friends and society. He did his best to avoid it, going so far as to drag his buddy Norton into going halfsies on a set (http://tinyurl.com/y2vn9z). And why? Because he knew: Once you start in with the technology stuff, you won't - you can't - stop. Not until you've handed over your last dollar to another company hawking this year's latest "device," that is!
How do we know what we're expected to spend our money on this year? Just where does all this "hawking" take place? In Las Vegas, Nevada, during the first or second week of January each year, that's when. Welcome to the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which has turned into the premiere event in the electronics/computer industry, with companies saving their best and brightest creations for the annual bash that now sets the tone - and the standard - for consumer electronic devices that will appear in the near future. I was privileged enough to be able to attend one a few years ago, and not only are they really interesting - they're fun.
CES exhibitions also are potentially very damaging to your wallet - when you're in the hall, or just reading about the great stuff that was presented at the latest edition of CES, you feel like there's a magnet pulling your wallet out of your pants - and it's all you can do to hold onto it. Don't work too hard trying - sooner or later, all of us submit to the siren song of the new, brave digital devices that promise to be "the one" that will take care of our organizational, entertainment, computing etc. problems. And we, ever the optimists, are more than willing to give it a shot.
Many times at major media events like CES the glory belongs to the company or presenter that shouts the loudest, gives away the best "stuff" (nowadays, T-shirts and candy don't cut it for reviewers) and those with the best publicity agents. But, as we often find out in life, the best quality products are the ones that don't have to shout their presence at the public. And, in two cases at least, what has been pegged by the tech media as "the" product might not be the product for you.
The highlight of this year's show (just concluded last week) was, by all accounts, presented by a company that didn't even have a booth at CES - Apple, which introduced its new iPhone via video linkup from the simultaneous-running Macworld in San Francisco (another great show to attend if you ever get the chance). iPhone, ready at last after more than two years of rumors and vapor-protottypes. If you're looking for an integrated phone - one that will work worldwide under all GSM networks, that has technology for remote Internet surfing (built in Wifi) and full synchronizing of name, address, schedule etc. from your PC, Mac or online Yahoo account - this could be the phone for you (It also works as an iPod, playing music, video etc.).
For Israeli users, the iPhone would definitely make a great conversation piece and a very cool cell phone - but I'm afraid that because of the technological limitations (arbitrary, to be sure) and and insane pricing structure we have to contend with, the Wifi, Internet surfing etc. services would just be too expensive, even for people who had the means to go to the US and buy an iPhone (you can reserve one already at http://www.apple.com). Of course, what else did you expect from the local cell phone outlets, all of whom charge hundreds of dollars (not shekels) for "plan" phones (mostly old models) that phone companies in other countries give away as promotions.
But all is not lost. The most useful feature in this year's phones for local users is the iPod/MP3/4 component, and there were a number of phones that emphasized the music side of their capabilities - like the Samsung SGH-F550/F300 cell phones (http://tinyurl.com/y4rblk), which have lots of memory and storage space for music and/or video, depending on the model. Previous Samsung SGH models have easily been adapted to the local market, and even if they don't end up being sold here, you'll probably find them cheaper than the iPhone when purchased abroad (it also looks a great deal like an iPhone).
There was plenty of other stuff at CES that can come in handy and look to be worth parting with your hard-earned cash for.
Another long-awaited product that was popular at the show also came from Apple, as the company introduced (also via Macworld video) its also long-awaited set-top video box, called Apple TV. It's a combination Tivo/video and audio server, with its own 40 GB hard drive, and wireless and Ethernet networking to bridge between computers (up to 5) and a TV. Everything runs intuitively, via iTunes (mac or PC) and the Apple Remote device. But, the requirement by Apple TV that it be hooked up to a high-density TV (720p). This development turned out to be a bit of a disappointment to people like me, who were hoping to install one of these on their home entertainment systems in order to be able to finally be able to watch computer video (AVI etc.) files on a TV set without spending endless hours figuring out wiring systems and codec definitions between PC and TV. That privilege, however, will now belong only to those who invest in a widescreen HDTV - and I've got a long list of stuff that I "need" before an HDTV with the little amount of money I can spare for these things.
Fortunately, and despite the Apple buzz, other companies were able to present - and get attention for - their own innovative products. Netgear had its own set-top box, which, at $349, is more expensive than Apple's $299 TV box - but it will connect and play on any TV of any resolution, making it a much more practical buy (http://tinyurl.com/ygjkbh). The literature emphasizes the advantage of using the box with an Intel Viiv processor-based computer, but that's only if you want to take full advantage of a subset of services Viiv-based Windows computers offers - otherwise, any XP PC should be just fine.
Personally, I would love an iPhone or an Apple TV setup, as both would complement my other Macs and fit just fine onto my network. And the idea of a cell phone that works with iTunes or a box that streams seamlessly to a TV set is great, as well. But going for the first class stuff costs first class money - you can get just as good a product for a lot less money, allowing you to have your digital fun and get the product "everyone" is going to be getting this year, without breaking the bank.