CONSUMER ELECTRONICS SHOW: CNET editors cover the Next Big Thing
What's next for Wi-Fi, plus Bluetooth and 3G
By Allen Fear
(December 15, 2004)
Technology trade shows are where bleeding-edge prototypes vie for cutting-edge status and marketing executives sculpt consumer demand out of thin air. This gives most tech trade shows a surreal quality, but when you mix the largest consumer electronics show on the planet with the go-for-broke energy of Las Vegas, you get the electric Kool-Aid acid test of the tech space: CES.
Navigating CES's vast maze of booths, demos, and press conferences is like being lost in a fun house the size of the Astrodome. Distractions await you at every turn--a tchotchke, a door prize, a free software trial, a party invitation, a cocktail served by a motley crew of CEOs, PR consultants, and booth bunnies all impeccably on message and all radiating a Stepford-like bliss about some newly minted digital gizmo. Though they're not easy to find amid the bustle and hype, there are always signs of things to come at CES, the technology that will shape the way we work and play in 2005 and beyond. The trick is to know what to look for, and there's a lot to watch for in networking. Wi-Fi is gearing up for a major upgrade, wireless USB is on the horizon, mobile broadband is becoming a reality, and Media Center Extenders designed to work with Microsoft's Media Center PC are making their CES debut.
Wi-Fi's new flavor: 802.11n
Today's Wi-Fi gear has limited range, is highly susceptible to interference from cordless phones and other wireless devices, and is much slower than old-fashioned Ethernet. All this is set to change in 2005 with the advent of 802.11n. The standard is still being ironed out, and the IEEE doesn't expect to ratify it until 2006, but expect to see products based on 802.11n's powerful smart antenna technology called MIMO this year. The 802.11n standard promises to deliver faster throughput than Ethernet and double the range of today's Wi-Fi gear. We recently tested the first such product, Belkin's Pre-N router, and we understand why it's creating such a stir. With fast speeds, long range, and strong resistance to interference, 802.11n gear may finally deliver on the promise of home-entertainment networking.
Ultrawideband and Bluetooth
Bluetooth has been a hot topic at CES for years and has made some headway in the consumer electronics market, mostly in the form of battery-driven earbuds for cell phones. This year, expect to see Bluetooth built into cars, which will enable hands-free cell phone use and MP3 file transfers. Unfortunately, Bluetooth lacks the bandwidth necessary for high-speed networking, but a new technology called WUSB, or wireless USB, promoted by a consortium made up of heavy hitters such as Intel, Microsoft, HP, Philips, and Samsung, promises to make low-power, high-speed networking a reality this year. Expect to see WUSB built into everything from cars to camcorders.
Broadband is in the air
Since 3G is cellular providers' answer to DSL and cable broadband, we expect to hear a lot about it at CES 2005. With speeds ranging between 250Kbps and 500Kbps, 3G services are slower than DSL, but they have the advantage of mobility. Not only can you tap into your 3G connection wherever you might be, you can also use it while you're in transit, in a taxi speeding to an appointment or on a train during your commute to work. Verizon and AT&T started offering their long-anticipated 3G services to customers in select metropolitan areas in 2004. If it's not already available in your area, that could change in 2005. We used a Novatel Merlin UMTS modem to test AT&T's service last year in San Francisco, and we were impressed. During CES in Las Vegas, we'll try out Verizon's 3G service with a flashy Sierra Wireless AirCard EVDO modem.
Wireless entertainment networking
Entertainment networking made a splash at last year's CES, but most of the products we've seen so far have fallen short of our expectations. Microsoft hopes to change that in 2005 with its new Media Center 2005 OS in combination with Media Center Extenders from a host of vendors. The Extenders will connect a Media Center PC to entertainment gear, such as TVs, stereos, and Xboxs, allowing you to enjoy media you have stored on your PC on multiple devices. We like the idea but are skeptical about whether the 802.11g wireless technology built into the extenders we've seen so far is robust enough to handle the demands of both data and entertainment networking. Be that as it may, we expect to see shiny new Media Center Extenders at this year's show.
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