Electronic Design

Highlights From CES, Part 2: Personal Communications and A/V Devices

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the large flat TV and monitors were great for viewing video and other A/V content from your easy chair or couch. However, when you want to take your content on the road, you have an ever-growing choice of devices that let you capture, store, and play back photos, music, and video. MP3 music players, a fairly new category of personal media players, and Digital still cameras (DSCs), that can handle video, music and still images were in abundance at CES.

Dedicated music players using the MP3 compression standard have been with us for half-a-dozen years, but in the last few years, the Apple iPod has breathed new life into the arena and with its latest implementation, the video iPod, has turned a small market niche into a major category of entertainment products. At CES there were probably close to 100 new dedicated media players introduced by both large and small companies, not counting the latest high-end “convergence” cell phones that include MP3, video capture and playback, and TV viewing capabilities. Additionally, DSCs are advancing with 6 to 8 Mpixel imaging sensors now becoming the high end of the mainstream product families, and 3 to 6 Mpixel cameras now the lower end of the mainstream.

Some of the portable A/V products in these areas that caught my attention include the U10 audio/video flash-memory based player from iriver America Inc., a trio of devices from LG (the FM30, JM53, and PM70 media players), a pair of devices from Philips (the HDD1850 and HDD6330), the Archos AV 500 portable digital video recorder and photo viewer, and its Gmini XS 100 music player, the Panasonic SV-MP020 music player, Sansa e200 from SanDisk, the Sony-Ericsson model 810 Walkman cell phone, the Sanyo MM-9000 multimedia phone, and the Nokia 6233 camera-based cell phone with audio player, just to name a few.

The iriver U10 is 2.7-by 1.8-in. device that packs a 2.2-in. color display and is Microsoft “PlaysForSure” verified and support Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10 (Fig. 1). The player incorporates the Macromedia Flash software for its user interface and to provide content such as animation and games. It employs simple control switches built into the frame that surrounds the screen and a very simple and intuitive control interface.

The system comes with either 512 Mbytes or 1 Gbyte of embedded flash memory and support MP3, WMA, and OGG music files, MPEG4 simple profile at 15 frames/s, non-progressive JPEG images, Macromedia Flash Lite 1.1 games and animation, and includes an integrated voice recorder, a digital FM tuner, and enhanced 3D audio (SRS WOW). Data transfers are done over a USB 2.0 interface. The 1 Gbyte version sells for $249.99, while the 512 Mbyte unit goes for $199.99.

The matchbook sized FM30 from LG is loaded with advanced features to enhance the consumer experience. First, it packs a battery capacity that can power up to 60 hours of continuous music playback, reducing the hassle of frequent recharging. With a storage capacity of 1 Gbyte, the player can store up to 250 songs, 100 music videos or 1,500 photos. The unit can also play multiple music files, including MP3, WMA, OGG and ASF, as well as MPEG4 video. Its 1.77-inch 260k color OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screen provides vibrant images for video and photos. Only 2.4 inches tall, 1.6 inches wide and 0.55 inches deep, the tiny FM30 can be turned into a “fashion accessory” via an attachment that allows the user to wear the player around the neck (Fig. 2a).

Although smaller than many cell phones, the LG JM53 packs quite a multimedia punch. An internal 8 Gbyte drive stores up to 2000 songs, 800 music videos or 12,000 photos and an internal battery delivers a playback time of up to 30 hours. The unit can play multiple music files, including MP3, WMA, OGG and ASF, as well as MPEG4 video. It incorporates the same OLED display as the FM30, but is slightly larger, at 3.9 by 1.9 by 0.55 in. (Fig. 2b).

A hard-disk based system, the LG PM70 portable media center can record, store and play, music, videos and photos from its 30 Gbyte hard drive. Its 4.3-in. widescreen display is ideal for viewing movies on the go, and high-quality built-in stereo speakers complement the widescreen display (Fig. 2c). The system also incorporates innovative personal information management (PIM) technology, giving users the ability to sync with Microsoft Outlook and store and view contacts and his/her calendar, and even read email without a PC while traveling.

Capable of showing images on a color display and playing the latest music simultaneously, the Philips HDD1850 features 8 Gbytes of storage for up to 4000 songs or 2500 pictures while the HDD6330 features a capacity of 30 Gbytes. Both players feature backlit sensory touchpads and the company’s acclaimed SuperScroll system for speedy and precise navigation through a music collection (Fig. 3). Listeners can just tap or drag their finger along the touch-sensitive strip to maneuver through their library of music and photos. Intuitive graphic icons, as well as album art, help illustrate menus and music tracks, while music collections are arranged into easy-to-understand categories such as artist, album, genre and playlists. The players also include a voice recorder function offering the ability to create reminders throughout the day and retrieve them at a later time. A built-in FM tuner allows users to hear traffic reports or catch up on talk radio programs. The jukeboxes are PlaysForSure compatible with a number of the leading online music download services. Built-in rechargeable batteries on the HDD1850 last for up to 18 hours, while batteries in the HDD6330 will play for more than 15 hours before needing recharging. The players also include a speed charge capability where one hour of charging delivers 70% capacity. The GoGear HDD6330 is currently available and has a suggested retail price of $279. The HDD1850 will be available in May 2006 and will have a suggested retail price of $249.

Allowing users to capture and play digital videos on the road, the Archos AV 500 comes with either 30 or 100 Gbytes of storage and a 4-in. high-brightness LCD display with 720 by 480 pixel resolution (Fig. 4a). Able to fit in a pocket, the AV 500 can record directly from a camera, TV, VCR, DVD player, cable box or satellite receiver and hold up to 400 hours of video in either WMV or MPEG4 formats. A USB 2.0 port allows users to transfer photos from digital cameras or media files from a computer and an auto-sychronization capability with Windows Media Player 10 permits the system to play protected WMA audio files. The 30 Gbyte version sells for $499.95, while the 100 Gbyte version goes for $699.95.

For music files, the XS 100 from Archos comes in a 4 Gbyte hard-drive implementation that weighs in at just 2.8 ounces and is shirt pocket sized at just 3.6 by 1.7 by 0.5 in. (Fig. 4b). A grey-scale 1.5-in. LCD display helps keep the cost down to just $139.99, which makes it one of the lowest cost hard-disk based players. The system can play MP3s, WMV, WMA, and protected WMA files and includes Microsoft PlaysForSure support. Not only can the system store and manage music, but it can also serve as computer file storage when connected to a computer over its USB 2.0 port.

About the same size as the XS 100, the Sansa e200 flash-memory-based music/video player series from SanDisk comes in 2, 4, and 6 Gbyte versions with a 1.8-in. color TFT LCD screen (Fig. 4c). Housed in a sturdy titanium alloy case, the players support the Microsoft PlaysForSure standard and incorporate software that provides a slideshow function that allows you to simultaneously view photos and play music. An FM tuner in the system allows on-the-fly recording to save favorite songs or programs and a microSD memory card slot allows the memory capacity to be expanded. The slot also supports the company’s TrustedFlash and gruvi content cards that can be shared with mobile phones. The e200 series players are a bit more expensive than the XS 100, with prices ranging from $199.99 for the 2 Gbyte version to $299.99 for the 6 Gbyte model. Expect the e200 players to be in stores in March.

With 2 Gbytes of embedded flash memory the SV-MP020 from Panasonic squeezes a full MP3/WMA player into a footprint about size of a tube of lip balm (Fig. 5). To help simplify downloading of MP3 or WMA files from a PC, the player includes a “Drag and Drop” feature, which allows users to easily download and transfer music files directly to the unit. A single AA alkaline battery provides up to 75 hours of playback time and a two-line LCD provides audio data.

Although stand-alone media players provide plenty of capabilities, for those of use already carrying a cell phone, packing a second device starts to become a nuisance. Thus today’s cell phones are being called on to do more. They already pack cameras, some with resolutions that rival mid-range consumer DSCs. And now they are starting to pack MP3 players, video playback capabilities, and even TV receivers. Some of the latest music/video phones include the Sony-Ericsson Walkman 810, the Motorola Rokr, the Sanyo MM-9000 and MM-7500, the Nokia 6233, and still others.

Weighing in at just 110 grams, the Nokia 6233 cell phone provides WCDMA 2100 and GSM900/1800/1900 operating modes, a 2-Mpixel camera and quarter VGA color screen. It also packs a digital music and video player and stereo speakers, thus providing a complete entertainment and communication system in a single device. The phone is also Bluetooth capable and via a utility called SyncML, the phone can synchronize calendars, contacts and to-do lists with a host computer. A hot-swappable micro-SD memory card with capacities of up to 2 Gbytes can provide storage for 1000 songs.

Also sporting a 2 Mpixel camera the Sony Ericsson W810 Walkman phone supports both MP3 and AAC music file formats (Fig. 6a). The phone handles quad-band GSM, GPRS, and EDGE standards and comes with a 512 Mbyte memory stick for music and image storage (memory sticks can be upgraded to capacities of up to 2 Gbytes). Video recording using MPEG4 as well as video playback and streaming can be done on the phone.

Sanyo’s MM-7500 backs off the pixel count to 1.3 Mpixels, but adds walkie-talkie style “push-to-talk” communications and camcorder capability (Fig. 6b). Through the PictBridge software included in the phone, pictures can be printed directly from the phone to a compatible printer, eliminating the need to send them to a PC over the cellular network. Working on the Sprint network, the phone packs a simple interface to download songs from the Sprint music Store and save them on the handset’s internal memory. The phone also lets you watch live TV on-the-go, with full-motion video and vivid sound, on its 260k color 1.12-by-1.4-in. LCD display. The phone also packs a small, external color LCD, measuring 0.79 by 0.54 in. Also packing a 1.3 Mpixel camera, the Kyocera Slider Remix KX5 for Cricket customers can take their music, camera and mobile phone with them in one simple device. The KX5 unites a 1.3 Mpixel camera, a digital music player and games with a large 176 by 220 pixel, 260k-color, screen on the phone's signature sliding faceplate. With an expandable memory slot for microSD cards of up to 512 Mbytes, hours of MP3, WMA or AAC formatted songs can go on the road. The phone is also Bluetooth-enabled, allowing users to talk hands-free and wire-free while in their cars or simply walking down the street. Some Bluetooth accessories for cell phones include a microphone/speaker system for the car. Developed by Iqua, the “Snake” mounts on the back of your car seat at the base of the headrest and perfectly positions the microphone and speaker for hands-free operation while in the car (Fig. 6c). Battery powered, the Snake has a talk time of up to 10 hours and a standby time of 300 hours from internal rechargeable batteries. The Snake allows you to answer/end/reject calls, redial the last dialed number and activate voice dialing. Available in either a plastic or leather version, the Snake sells for $149 and $299, respectively.

From Gennum comes a DSP-based dual-microphone Bluetooth headset, the nXZEN Plus. The dual microphone approach, combined with the DSP provides a nearly four-fold reduction in noise compared to almost every other Bluetooth headset in the market (Fig. 6d). It also comes with an adaptor to plug the headset into an MP3 or CD player for stereo sound, while still being able to answer incoming calls with the push of a single button.

Combining a DSC and an MP3 music player in a credit-card sized package the Digimax i6 from Samsung can capture 6 Mpixel images with a 3X optical zoom capability (Fig. 7a). Through the Digimax Converter software included in the system, it allows users to play movies and MP3 files. The software seamlessly converts MPG, AVI, MOV, WMV and ASF files for viewing on the i6 and for music-on-the-go, the software can also convert MP3 and Wave audio files. The camera comes with 45 Mbytes of internal memory and ear buds to listen to the music. Suggested retail price for the i6 is $299.99 with available in February.

The i6 packs a 2.5-in. LCD display even though the entire camera measures just 3.7 by 2.4 by 0.7 in. Video can be captured with VGA resolution at 30 frames/s using MPEG4 encoding, and an image stabilization scheme automatically detects and corrects minor lateral and vertical camera movement. A special macro mode allows the camera to automatically adjust distance and focus between 5 cm to infinity, and a super macro mode enables subjects to be photographed up to as close as 1 cm.

Although it doesn’t pack a music player, the latest DSC from Kodak, the V570 5-Mpixel camera packs a dual lens configuration to allow users to take both ultra-wide-angle and zoom photos with a camera that does not require a large protruding lens. The Retina dual lens system provides users with a 23 mm wide-angle lens and an optical zoom lens (39 to 117 mm) in a sleek package (Fig. 7b). The all-glass Schneider-Kreuznach C-Variogon prizm lenses never extend from the camera body, while allowing uses to capture scenic landscapes to dramatic portraits and close ups.

In addition to the novel dual-lens design, the camera includes a software utility for on-camera panorama stitching, which can automatically combine three pictures into a panorama photograph—with the ultra-wide view panorama mode, a 180-degree vista can be captured with just three shots. The camera can also capture TV-quality video, at up to 30 frames/s using MPEG4 encoding and write the data to its 32 Mbytes of internal memory or to a removable SD memory card. For viewing on the camera, a 2.5-in. high-resolution color LCD screen is built into the camera back. The suggested retail price for the camera is $399. when it hits the stores later this month.

Not quite a camera, music play or multimedia player, the Palm T/X from Palm Inc., is a personal digital assistant with image, video, and music playback, as well as wireless networking and Bluetooth connectivity. The PDA functions do all the expected calendar, calculation, contact management, document viewing, and other office functions, but the large color screen on the T/X is ideal for viewing photos and video clips, playing games, as well as for browsing the web and viewing email. With a retail price of $299. the T/X is a handy device for keeping on top of business and keeping yourself entertained.

TAGS: Components
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