NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, February 2007
“Convergence” and Other New Technologies
By Ira Wilsker,
APCUG Director; Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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I recently had the pleasure to attend some events in Las Vegas that were affiliated with the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Several themes were evident at the events I participated in. One such theme was “convergence”.

It should come as no surprise to readers of this column that the formerly divergent areas of home computing and entertainment are coming together in a unified manner. This is what is known in the electronics industry as “convergence.” Many products were displayed and demonstrated that blurred the dichotomy of computers and entertainment. As televisions become more sophisticated, especially with the upcoming widespread advent of digital television transmissions, they have become more integrated with powerful microprocessors giving them computer-like functionality. Computers will be driving the programming of the new TVs, as well as their coordination with other household appliances, lighting, and security.

The very popular wireless data protocol family commonly referred to as “Wi-Fi” is being comprehensively integrated into home entertainment with the introduction of greater bandwidth and speed, especially with the fast new “802.11n” protocol. While the common wireless frequencies and channels have been widely used by cordless telephones as well as home and office computer users, the exciting new use will be the wireless connection of a variety of home entertainment and appliance applications. One demonstration across a busy exhibit hall demonstrated the range and bandwidth of just such an application. A very large diameter flat screen television was plugged only into a typical wall outlet power supply; there were no other speakers, controllers, wires, or other audio or video devices physically attached to it. Near the TV were the audio components of the home theater, with speakers divergently placed; there were no wires connecting the speakers to each other or to the TV. Across the room was a Blu-Ray DVD player with its output cables connected only to a cigar box sized cube with small flashing lights; this was a wireless 802.11n device that transmitted outstanding quality video to the TV, as well as concert hall quality sound to the audio system. The entire system was wirelessly interconnected across a large room, freeing the user from running yards of wires and cables around the living room, and allowing easy installation of the system along with the flexibility to place the components wherever desired. One component of the system, also connected wirelessly, was a digital video recorder which could be programmed to digitally record selected TV programs, for playback at a later time. Like other such recorders, already on the market, this device contains a computer type hard drive and more computing power than some desktop computers.

Another example of convergence widely displayed by several manufacturers was the continued enhanced integration of cellular phones with pocket sized computers. These new phones, some of which are now appearing on the market, have large amounts of storage for MP3 music, sophisticated programs and applications, data storage, a bright color screen, broadband internet access, and wireless connectivity both with short range Bluetooth and longer range Wi-Fi and broadband cellular connectivity. As many web services, such as Google and Yahoo, are now offering web pages explicitly sized for phone and PDA sized screens, it is becoming more convenient and practical to surf the net in a highly mobile environment. One such model integrated cell phone – computer was from Samsung. This model had a foldout keyboard, 30gig hard drive, five inch color screen, and could receive the next generation of long range wireless broadband known as WiMAX. What made this device nearly unique among integrated cellular devices is that it was running a full version of Windows XP, including Office applications, all in a size and format that can be carried in a purse or in a small belt pouch.

Another device that caught my personal fancy was also from Samsung. While a late stage prototype, I was told that it should be on the market very shortly. This device was an ultra portable notebook computer with a seven inch screen, a 30 gig integral flash drive (the capacity of a hard drive but with lower power consumption, more battery life, and more rugged), running a full version of Windows Vista, and weighing in at only two pounds. This device was full powered and full featured, including wireless connectivity, and will be marketed as a light weight replacement for the much larger notebook computer that many of us lug around.

This rugged small computer could easily fit in a typical woman’s purse as its total size and weight were about the same as a small hardcover book, and could be carried about as easily. On the small and relatively inexpensive area were the now ubiquitous USB flash drives that many of us commonly carry around with us to transport data and files between computers. While not totally new, many of these inexpensive flash drives had additional built-in features, commonly hardware and software to directly play MP3 format music. The drives had a tiny battery providing power, and a small plug to connect headphones. What was convenient was that the same USB device could be used to transport data and play music.

For those of you considering purchasing a new computer with Windows Vista, or upgrading an existing computer to Vista, some of the new USB flash drives are being produced explicitly for you. Windows Vista will be offering a new feature called “ReadyBoost” which will effectively increase the usable memory in a computer running Windows Vista by simply plugging in a compatible USB flash drive. Several manufacturers of memory products displayed USB flash drives that were labeled as “ReadyBoost Capable.” Other manufactures did not label their flash drives as such, but assured me that the faster new drives would work to improve Vista performance. Vista actually uses these compatible flash drives as additional memory, typically for cache (temporarily stored data), simply by plugging them in. Vista specifies that “ReadyBoost” drives must have at least 256mb available space, and meet certain read and write speed requirements. While not stated on their packaging, many of the newer large capacity and fast USB flash drives already meet the Vista specifications; those drives that do not meet the speed and capacity specifications are still fully functional with Vista as traditional storage devices. Considering the low cost of large capacity USB flash drives, and the utter ease of installation (simply plug it in to a USB port), this is an excellent way to improve the performance of computers with Windows Vista installed. Plugging in a ReadyBoost capable USB flash drive actually improves the performance of the computer almost as much as installing additional memory, but without the fuss.

The rapid evolution of personal technology is just amazing. Watch for exciting new or improved technology offerings. WiMAX, a long range wireless broadband service that can cover a small city, may threaten the established cable and DSL broadband providers with a powerful new competitor. An enhanced “HomePlug” offering will allow users to connect a variety of computing and entertainment devices by simply plugging them into the household electrical wiring (homeplug.org). Larger hard drives, such as the Hitachi terabyte drive (a thousand gigabytes), available shortly for under $400, will allow for entire libraries of movies and TV shows to be stored in the home in a single small device.

I keep saying to myself that this technology is astonishing and exciting. The technology items that we take for granted now were “gee whiz” only a few years ago. With what I saw that is on the way to the marketplace, household technology will continue to excite and amaze many of us for years to come.

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