Wi-Fi: Best Supporting Actor at CES 2009

By Lisa Phifer

January 14, 2009

Wireless HD and video content distribution took center stage at CES this year, and Wi-Fi played a critical, but quiet, supporting role in a full and varied cast of new wireless products--ranging from robotic spycams to netbooks to digital picture frames--that made their debut.

Wireless High Def TV. Internet audio/video content navigation and delivery. IP multi-media storage and streaming. Digital photo frames and netbooks. At CES 2009, Wi-Fi was everywhere—and nowhere.

At the world's biggest consumer electronics event, the focus is on splashy interfaces and user-visible features. Network plumbing tends to take a back seat. But never before has wireless been more pervasive or essential to realizing manufacturer visions. And that includes Wi-Fi—especially this year's better, faster 802.11n products.

Kodak had the most visible Wi-Fi presence, splashing "WiFi My Way" [sic] across a huge digital video billboard at the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall 3 entrance. The importance of wireless was highlighted in several keynotes, including Sony CEO Howard Stringer’s where he said the future of consumer electronics depends upon hassle-free plug-and-play connectivity. To that end, he predicted that 90 percent of Sony’s product lines will connect wirelessly by 2011.

But Wi-Fi was just one of many (largely complementary) wireless technologies at CES 2009. Bluetooth-enabled peripherals were abundant. Z-Wave and ZigBee home automation products were plentiful. 3G-capable smartphones and tiny netbooks were definitely hot. [For more on home automation, click here.]

However, the biggest splash was made by Wireless HD (WiHD)—a new wireless video area network (WVAN) technology to replace the HDMI cables that tether today's consumer electronic devices. Backed by Broadcom, Intel, and all top TV manufacturers, WiHD transmits at 60 GHz to carry uncompressed HD video, multi-channel audio, intelligent format/control, and content protection, delivering 1080p resolution at distances up to ten meters.

Behind this A/V-focused hoopla, Wi-Fi played a quiet, but increasingly ubiquitous role. 802.11b/g home network connectivity has become a staple in many consumer electronic segments—products were almost as likely to have Wi-Fi as they were to have Ethernet. Manufacturers emphasizing Wi-Fi were usually those announcing 802.11n products—especially for in-home video distribution. Several of this year’s CES award-winners incorporate Wi-Fi—but differentiate themselves based on how they use wireless to increase convenience and simplify access to Internet content.

Hitting a blue note

When it comes to in-vehicle technology--locationing, mobile video, speakers/receivers, and security systems—Bluetooth was virtually synonymous with wireless, followed by GPS-enablement and satellite-based content delivery.

For example, Parrot demonstrated a plethora of in-vehicle Bluetooth devices, including the new MKi9100 ($299)—a hands-free system that pairs with smartphones, synchronizes phonebooks, and streams digital music. Other new Parrot Bluetooth offerings include the MiniKit Slim ($99), a three ounce battery-powered portable speakerphone, and the SK4000 ($199), a hands-free motorcycle kit composed of a helmet headset and handlebar wireless remote.

In-dash computers and netbooks were popular this year. For example, Dashboard Devices launched its ENV automotive entertainment and navigation system ($2799), which combines a dashboard touch-screen with an under-dash Intel Core 2 Duo PC, complete with GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi connectivity. The ENV runs any Win32 application, including navigation, voice-activated softphone, and media player. Wi-Fi can be used to interact with the ENV's Web browser and (when paired with a GSM modem) the Internet.

The only truly Wi-Fi-oriented product we stumbled across in the vehicle exhibits area was the PosiMotion G-Fi ($179). This tiny GPS-enabled, battery-powered Wi-Fi router connects to nearby 802.11b/g devices in Ad Hoc mode to support mobile multi-player games and location-aware applications on devices, such as the iPod touch that lack their own GPS. At first glance, the G-Fi appears similar to Novatel's recently-announced MiFi, but without a 3G Internet uplink. [For more on in-car Wi-Fi, click here.]

Your wish is my command Control4.jpg

Among the home automation and control products on exhibit at CES 2009, wireless frequently translated into Z-Wave or Zigbee (802.15.4). Both are long-battery-life, low-duty-cycle wireless technologies used by monitoring and control products, including wireless sensors (security monitors, rain gauges, motion detectors) and control devices (thermostats, timers, remotes) used to trigger lighting, heating, and security systems inside the home.

For example, in the Z-Wave demonstration area, Schlage showed off its new LiNK system. LiNK uses any smartphone or laptop to unlock doors, turn on lights, and control security cameras inside your home. A LiNK bridge must be connected to your Internet router to relay SSL-protected control commands to Z-Wave-enabled devices up to 100 feet away. "Starter kits" consisting of a bridge, keypad deadbolt, and light controller retail for $399.

Many home automation products incorporated multiple wireless and wired technologies to reach all of the components required for a complete solution. For example, Control4 demonstrated its new HC-1000 Home Controller ($2995, pictured above), which interfaces with home theater receivers, DVDs, DVRs, PCs, and other sources of digital content throughout your home. All content is accessed through a Wi-Fi-enabled mobile or in-wall touch-screen Navigator panel. One touch selects the content you want to play; the HC-1000 determines where the content is located and turns on the necessary A/V components, reached via Ethernet, Wi-Fi, serial, IR, or ZigBee.

AVer Media took home the CES 2009 Best of Innovations Award in the Integrated Home Systems category for its new EB1704HB WiFi-4 security system ($1599). The EB1704HB combines four pre-configured wireless IP cameras (CCD or CMOS format) with a turn-key Network Video Recorder that includes an embedded Wi-Fi router. Motion-activated live video feeds are stored on the NVR and can be accessed remotely through WebViewer or PDAViewer programs. This is a great example of a product that clearly depends upon Wi-Fi to accomplish its "turn key" goal—and yet barely mentions 802.11 in product literature.

Showing on the big screen

Inside the home theater pavilion, vendors including Samsung, Toshiba, LG, Panasonic, and Sony showed off their latest video innovations, including ultra-thin LCD and plasma displays, set-top boxes, DVRs, speakers, theater accessories, and Internet radios. Here, the big news was wireless content delivery to and throughout the home, especially Internet video (YouTube, Amazon, NetFlix et al) and wireless HDMI.

For example, Toshiba announced a new line of A/V devices with network player capabilities, based on the Intel/Yahoo! Widget Channel and Microsoft’s Extender for Windows Media Center. These products will be delivered both as a standalone Network Player and built right into selected Toshiba REGZA LCD TVs in the second half of 2009 (prices TBA).

Panasonic's VIERA Zone demonstrated how the TC-P54Z1 LCD HDTV (3Q09, price TBA), a new one-inch thin flat panel, can be connected and controlled wirelessly – for example, using WiHD and a Panasonic VIERA CAST web menu to stream video from on-line sources like Amazon. Panasonic also showed off its VIERA Link, a wireless remote control system for all connected AV equipment. Finally, uncompressed audio was streaming over 2.4 GHz to SC-ZT1 Wireless Surround Sound speakers (2Q09, price TBA).

At the LG Connected Home demo, a 42LH50 LCD Broadband TV (2Q09, price TBA) served as an Internet portal and multimedia distribution center for the entire room. A/V content was shared over Ethernet or Wi-Fi (802.11n) between LG's Wi-Fi-enabled BD390 Blu-ray player, GigE-connected N4B1 Network-Attached Storage, and WiHD-attached LH85 Wireless Full HD 1080p HDTV. Here again, prominent focus on wireless connectivity—achieved by combining several different technologies as appropriate for each type of device.

Contrast these with the Wi-Fi-centric approach taken by Compositor. At ShowStoppers, this company unveiled its MeeBox (price TBA), an 802.11b/g network-attached media storage appliance that streams HD content over Wi-Fi to other home network devices, including meeTVs and meeCeivers. The latter is an 802.11g video receiver that connects to your traditional HDTV via HDMI, delivering MPEG2 1080p video at speeds up to 30 frames per second.

Finally, a few vendors focused exclusively on eliminating just the HDMI cable. For example, Gefen demonstrated a pair of Wireless Extenders for cable-free connection of Flat Panel Displays and Monitors. The Wireless for VGA Extender (price TBA) delivers video up to 720p and two-channel audio to monitors up to 33 feet away over 802.11, while the Wireless for 1080p HDMI Extender ($999) uses 60Ghz UWB to deliver HDTV at top resolution up to 30 feet.

Say cheese

Hundreds (if not thousands) of camera phones, digital cameras and camcorders, storage media, and photo printers were on display at CES 2009, but the most populous digital imaging device was clearly the digital picture frame.

Digital picture frames ran amok at this event—virtually all Wi-Fi-enabled. With so many frames competing for attention, vendors are working hard to differentiate their offerings:

  • Parrot's Specchio ($500) is a work-of-art photo frame that serves as a mirror when turned off and provides wireless upload over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or Near Field Communication (NFC). In the latter case, just slide your NFC-capable mobile phone against the back of the Specchio to transmit photos to the frame or the Internet.
  • GiiNii’s PixPlus Source (3Q09, $150) is a Wi-Fi-enabled 10-inch touch screen frame that accepts RSS feeds, delivering personalized content from partners like FrameChannel and HowStuffWorks. For example, HowStuffWorks can display new recipes on the frame each morning—if one looks appealing, simply touch the PixPlus to view ingredients and step-by-step instructions.

Beyond the pervasive digital picture frame, there were many Wi-Fi-enabled products for budding photographers. For example, HP demonstrated a full-line of Wi-Fi enabled computers, phones, cameras, and printers, including the new Photosmart 8180 ($399), a color printer, scanner, and copier that can upload photos from your camera or smartphone using 802.11g or Bluetooth.

Sony's Cyber-Shot DSC-G3 ($499) won this category in CNET's Best of CES 2009, largely on the basis of its integrated wireless features. This 10 megapixel, 4X zoom digital camera combines 802.11b/g Wi-Fi with an embedded Web browser that not only lets you upload photos and videos, but lets you interact with Wi-Fi hotspot portal pages to get on-line in more places. The DSC-G3 includes three years of free AT&T Wi-Fi access to Sony's Easy Upload website.lgTouchWatch.jpg

Finally, the Eye-Fi Video Card (available later this year) took first place in the ninth annual Last Gadget Standing SuperSession. Like last year's award-winning Eye-Fi Explore, this Wi-Fi and GPS-enabled storage card offers hands-free geo-tagged digital file upload, including free access at Wayport hotspots. So what's new? The Eye-Fi Video will let cinematographers upload their HD-quality videos directly to YouTube. [Read a review of the Eye-Fi Explore here.]

Wireless in motion

Wireless mobile products ran the gamut from phones, notebooks, and netbooks to wearable computing devices, VoIP phones, and other wireless-enabled peripherals.

Although there were plenty of touch-screen iPhone wannabe's on display, the Palm Pre (1H09, price TBA) took home top prize in CNET's Best of CES 2009 competition. This smartphone combines a 320 x 480 touch-screen with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and a plethora of wireless interfaces: 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, EV-DO Rev. A or HSDPA, Bluetooth 2.1, and GPS. But it was Palm's all-new WebOS that won this award by supporting full-featured Web applications and combining messaging, contact, and calendar data from multiple online repositories.

While touch-screen phones are hot, they aren't the final word in smartphone innovation. LG used its keynote to unveil its flashy new LG-GD910 Touch Watch (price TBA, pictured above). This 1.43 inch 3G (HSDPA) wrist-watch phone will support video chat, voice recognition, text-to-speech, and text messaging. The Touch Watch is slated to appear first in Europe late this year.

In fact, some folks argue that mobile phones don't have to be connected to wireless WANs at all. Consider the new GiiNii Movit Mini (3Q09, $149, pictured right), an Android-powered 4.3-inch touch-screen "mobile Internet" device that comes with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This inexpensive "Android iPod touch" includes a Skype client and microphone/speakerphone to enable free VoIP calls at home, at work, and on the go using any Wi-Fi hotspot.GiiNii Movit Mini_High Res.jpg

Boingo Wireless and Skype also made several interesting announcements at CES 2009. Skype demonstrated its new Mac client, which provides not only network-independent Skype VoIP calls, but now seamless Internet access at over 100,000 Boingo Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide. A new "lite Skype" client was also announced for Android devices and Java-enabled mobile phones.

Not to be outdone, Boingo announced its new Boingo Mobile connection manager, which will come bundled on Motorola Q11 and Nokia N Series smartphones and be available for download to Nokia E Series and Sony Ericsson UIQ 3.0 handsets. Boingo Mobile subscribers will pay $7.95 per month for unlimited, global use of Boingo Wi-Fi hotspots.

Finally, netbooks—a product category that barely existed at CES 2008—were abundant at CES 2009. For example, Viliv displayed its new S7 (2Q09, price TBA), an Intel Atom-based mobile Internet device with 7-inch keyboard, swiveling touch-screen LCD, WiMAX, HSDPA, Bluetooth, and 802.11b/g. MSI demonstrated its new U120H ($999), an Atom-based 10" widescreen 1024x600 netbook that incorporates both WiMAX and 802.11n.

Let me entertain you

Many companies demonstrated Wi-Fi enabled Internet radios at CES 2009, including Cobra's CIR 1000A ($199), Grace Digital's GDI-IR3020 (price TBA), and Tangent's Quattro ($399). For example, Myine's Ira Wi-Fi Internet Radio (now, $129) is a turn-key Internet radio designed for non-techie residential users. This receiver uses the Internet to play back audio streamed by 11,000 free digital AM/FM stations and HD2/HD3 multicast channels. Just connect this tabletop radio to your home wireless router and tune into stations, filtered by location or genre.spyball.jpg

WowWee Technologies showed off its line of high-tech toys, including the Rovio ($299), a Wi-Fi enabled mobile Webcam that can be controlled and viewed remotely from any Web-enabled device (PC, smart phone, video game console). The company also introduced the Spyball (price TBA, pictured right), a remote-controlled Wi-Fi enabled spy-cam that can transform from a ball to a camera and back again, moving stealthily throughout a home. The Spyball captures video and still images, accessible over the Internet or through Wi-Fi Ad Hoc connections.

If your taste in toys runs a bit spicier, adult entertainment provider FyreTV announced its newest set-top BoXXX ($9.95 per month). This 6" x 7" device now uses 802.11b/g to connect inconspicuously to any Wi-Fi home or hospitality network, feeding subscription-based video content to any nearby TV.

Unwire your home

Home networking products at CES 2009 ranged from broadband modems and routers to media servers, network-attached storage devices, and video distribution systems. Here, Wi-Fi has clearly become a commodity. There were many inexpensive 802.11n Draft 2.0 APs, routers, PCI cards, and USB adapters on display from manufacturers like TP-Link, Netronix, Encore, Airlink101, and ASUS. However, there were several new Wi-Fi products that caught our attention in this category.

  • The Motorola CPEi775 (price TBA) builds upon the CPE150 now used by Clearwire, adding an integrated Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g router and two VoIP ATA ports to an ultra-thin, multi-colored WiMAX modem. This router uses integrated, adaptive high-gain antennas that do not need to be repositioned to optimize signal strength, and isolates Wi-Fi and WiMAX signals to avoid interference between the two.
  • Celeno displayed its latest 5GHz 802.11a/n system-on-a-chip (SoC) offerings, including the CL1300-VBA, a video bridge adapter reference design. This wireless video extender uses 4x4 MIMO antennas with client-agnostic beamforming. Four HD video streams can be delivered with guaranteed QoS to wireless media servers, DVRs, multi-media PCs, and IPTV home gateways up to 150 feet away.
  • D-Link announced its new Xtreme N 450 Dual Band Router (price and availability TBA), which uses 3x3 MIMO with simultaneous dual-band 2.4 and 5 GHz operation to achieve a top link speed of 450 Mbps. But this product was to some degree over-shadowed by the glitzier Xtreme N DIR-685 (2Q09, $249), an "all-in-one" 802.11n router with network attached storage (NAS), USB printer/scanner SharePort technology, and a 3.2-inch LCD digital photo frame/display.
  • TrendNET’s tiny 2.5” x 3.25’ x 0.75” TEW-654TR ($90, pictured right) is 300Mbps Wireless N Travel Router comes with a thin 3-foot Ethernet cable (for 10/100 uplink) and can be powered by USB or the included power adapter. TrendNET also announced a 450 Mbps Wireless N Gigabit Router, the TEW-773GR (3Q09, $199), which will combine 3x3 MIMO with GigE LAN/WAN ports.TrendNET-TEW-654TR.jpg
  • Surprisingly, the CES 2009 Best of Innovations Award here did not go to a 3x3 router, but to a dual-radio 2x2 product. Netgear's RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router (2Q09, $179) uses a 680 MHz CPU and rate adaptive QoS algorithms to make the most of its simultaneous dual-band 802.11n radio and eight internal antennas. Netgear representatives say the unit has a top link speed of 600 Mbps (300 per band), yielding 300 Mbps of actual throughput. This router was the cog in the company's "connected lifestyle" demo that included Netgear's new EVA9150 Digital Entertainer (2Q09, $399) – a dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n digital media player. These products work together to move photos, movies, music, and other digital content quickly throughout the home.
  • Finally Linksys by Cisco announced its pitch for the home entertainment space. The company's new 802.11n-based Wireless Home Audio product line is composed of a Conductor (the DMC350 Wireless-N Digital Music Center, price TBA), a Director (the DMC250 Wireless-N Music Player with Integrated Amplifier, $449), and a Player (the DMP100 Wireless-N Music Extender, $299), and a remote Controller (the DMWR1000 Wireless-N Touchscreen Remote, $349). Together, these components use 802.11n to deliver audio to any room in the home—you can even stream different music to customized “zones." A two-room starter kit (Director + Player + Controller) is expected to retail for $999.

These products illustrate the growing importance of Wi-Fi as a consumer electronics infrastructure technology—as well as its role in delivering high-quality, but hassle-free, home entertainment. The economy may slow market enthusiasm for some of these new offerings, but these companies have a clear vision for the future—one in which everything is not just wirelessly connected, but able to freely locate and share content. For consumers still struggling to understand their home theater's remote, this improved integration will be a blessing.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. A frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet, Lisa has been a bleeding-edge adopter of network-enabled consumer electronics for over 20 years.



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