If we're talking about technology, change can't be far behind. It's no different when predicting what the new year holds for personal electronics and home entertainment. Will we see smaller laptops, one high-def disc format, cheaper flat-panel TVs? The International Consumer Electronics Show previews tech trends each year, but I simply couldn't wait for the gargantuan event, which starts Saturday with press previews in Las Vegas. So I picked the positronic noggins of two techno-holics who have been to CES and many other shows like it: Ben Higginbotham, director of new technology for the Eden Prairie-based website Technology Evangelist, and Dan Ackerman, a New York-based senior editor for CNET. Read on to see what techno trends we see for the coming year.
Major shaker: HDTV highs
A federal mandate to switch to digital-only TV broadcasts by February 2009 will fuel a huge boom in HDTV sales -- "like we've never seen before," Higginbotham says. Popular LCD and plasma flat-panel displays, in particular, will come in bigger sizes for less money and produce better image quality. "When you go into stores, that's all they're going to have. They're not going to have the old tube TVs anymore," Ackerman says.
That federal mandate also will be on the minds of many consumers who don't want to upgrade to HDTV. Government-issued coupons will make it easier for analog stalwarts to buy heavily discounted converter boxes, which are needed to watch digital programming on older sets. "That's a red herring if anyone's worried about the switch," says Dan Ackerman, a senior editor for CNET. "No one is going to be left with no TV to watch."
No more war
There will be no winner in the war between Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD. There simply isn't enough difference between the two high-def disc formats. Instead, consumers will gravitate toward a single device that can handle both formats. Hybrid drives in computers will be the first to catch on before universal stand-alone players follow suit in homes.
High-definition content will spiral out of control, not only in broadcasting but online, too. The latter will re-energize interest in devices such as the Slingbox and Apple TV that allow content to be shared between computers and TVs. "The future of television is going to be online," says Ben Higginbotham, director of new technology for the website Technology Evangelist.
Home-theater projectors will continue to be a niche product, even though, as Higginbotham says, "they are the best bang for your buck." HDTV sets are where the action is.
Major shaker: Lap of luxury
Laptop computers are going to take off. At home and in the business world, more people will use their laptops with a dock that has a normal keyboard and monitor instead of using desktop computers, whose sales will continue to decline.
Apple will introduce an ultra-portable -- thin, light -- laptop with an 11- or 12-inch screen, reversing a trend from a few years ago when laptops strived for bigger displays. "They'll be perfect for travelers and people on the go," Higginbotham says.
Windows Vista, Microsoft's new operating system for PCs, will continue to be slow to catch on. In fact, Ackerman recommends not upgrading from Windows XP on your current machine; go with Vista only if it comes installed when you buy a new PC.
As part of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, expect to see more inexpensive portable computers, such as Taiwanese maker Asus' Eee PC for $300 to $400. "They're not full-fledged computers, but if you keep your expectations modest, they're a ton of fun," Ackerman says.
Power efficiency will emerge as the major issue of so-called "green technology," which Ackerman calls a marketing fad. There will be growing concern over how much power devices consume rather than how they are made.
No need to worry about replacing that new Wii (controller pictured at right), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo DS or PlayStation Portable for a while. No new video-game system is on the horizon.
Back in stock
Nintendo's highly popular Wii home console and DS portable system will become easier to find as demand lessens and production problems are reined in.
Although the game systems aren't being replaced, you'll continue to see changes in configurations -- bigger hard drives, slimmer designs -- and price drops.
iPhone inroads The iPhone (pictured at right), which already is the most popular "smart phone" in the United States, will make a splash among business users and improve its wireless capabilities. But don't expect an unlocked iPhone -- which would work with any carrier, not just AT&T -- anytime soon. More flexibility Consumers and legislators will push for cell phones that can be used with any provider, not exclusive models. Users want the capability to take a phone they bought, say, through Verizon and switch to T-Mobile if they so choose. PLAYING Reading room E-books' time is coming, but Amazon's highly touted wireless reading device, the $400 Kindle, pictured at right, isn't the answer in its current form. "It feels like a cheap Fisher-Price toy from the 1980s," Higginbotham says. "They have to streamline the design, make the screen bigger and cut the price at least in half." That could happen by the end of the year.
After a recent overhaul of the iPod line in September, don't expect major changes for the popular music players -- although Apple will probably integrate more of its touch technology.
You'll start hearing more about wireless power. It will allow you to place an electronic device on a mat or a specially built desk and have it power up without any cords or batteries. "I don't think it will take off in 2008, but it should start shipping this year," Higginbotham says. "The technology has to start somewhere."
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542