January 21, 2014
Must-Have Electronics From CES 2014
When the CES show opened this month in Las Vegas, I thought it might struggle to outdo some previous shows, which displayed several blockbuster new products. Last year was an example of a somewhat flat year, and there was no reason to expect that this year wouldn’t be the same.
Highlights of past years are now in extension mode, including the iPhone, other smartphones, the iPad and its many siblings, 4K HD, and convertible tablet PCs. Some question whether the industry can match these earlier breathtaking innovations —that almost everything has already been done. This may be true to some extent, that previous killer apps will be followed by more evolutionary product extensions rather than whole new products. But don’t count out new innovations, which typically are not advertised beforehand.
Here is a wish list, some of which appeared at this year’s CES or may be launched throughout 2014:
- Truly functional wearable electronics, not just an appendage of a smart phone: Google Glass may fill that need, as would a wearable Bluetooth phone with voice recognition and appointment calendar, which could pair with your smartphone or work independently. Others may include medical devices that issue warnings, dispense medication, and upload data to your phone and doctor. Another would be an OTC programmable hearing aid and Bluetooth headset. (Imagine a $100 device that could replace one costing thousands!) For the connector industry, applications here will be limited to charging due to micro-miniature size constraints and wireless capability.
- A larger iPhone screen: While it didn’t appear at CES (Apple does not participate), such a device is almost a given for this year, probably in the fall. It will be an ~5”-diagonal Retina display that will attempt to differentiate itself from Samsung and others. A larger-than-9.7” iPad Air may also be in the offing, with additional Ultrabook-type features for serious computing.
- A new PC: Certainly this market is hurting, with all the ultra-mobile devices now out there. There is also the apparent shift from content creation to content viewing via the cloud that benefits tablet devices. We don’t know what this or these new PC devices will look like, but they will be more universally functional and powerful, while being intuitive like the iPad. They may also have a panoply of interconnect devices that would make the PC connector market whole again. Microsoft has introduced the Surface and acquired Nokia. It may also be looking at its huge stake in the PC business, where it would be a mistake to assume that the ballgame is over. Ditto for Intel, which must transition to ultra-mobile chips while retaining, as best it can, its PC dominance.
- 3840 x 2160 Ultra-HDTV: This is already here but it’s beyond the price range of most consumers. That will change. The displays are truly breathtaking, but a bit too sharp for some. Bandwidth is another issue, as is a lack of programming. Upscaling circuitry will solve some of this, as would better display adapters and DVDs made with Ultra-HD resolution. Pricing on these devices is coming down and will eventually replace 1080P. China is big in UHDTV, with more than 70% of the existing market now located there. UHDTV is forecast to ship 13 million units in 2014 and will increase from there as prices drop below $1,000 for 50”+ sets. Currently, the biggest issue is a lack of programming, which will come slowly into 2015, due to bandwidth and hardware issues. Apple has been cruising around the TV market and may yet introduce an Apple iTV product into a crowded TV field. Higher resolution and à la carte menus may be in the offing via iTunes. Intel is also rumored to be introducing a settop box with WiFi and à la carte programming capability, which goes against the vested interests in TV programming and delivery. Chinese companies aiming at the world market include Skyworth Digital Holdings and Sichuan Changhong Electric (source: The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2014).
- The new high bandwidth HDMI2 spec is waiting for these higher bandwidth opportunities.
- Interoperability between operating systems: Apple eventually learned their lesson and sales took off after they adopted Intel, Office, and the general PC circuitry layout. But there are still many roadblocks that force users to stay with a particular system. Most of Apple’s apps don’t support Android or Windows and vice versa. Amazon Prime Video can’t be seen on an Android device, and the new Windows phones are nice but are way behind iOS and Android in applications. Flash is one bugaboo that keeps showing up. It may take independent developers to bridge these gaps, which are annoying to say the least.
- The next-generation smartphone: Like the PC, we don’t know exactly what this will be. Wearable is one version. Seamless home automation and security is another, hearing-impaired and other medical applications yet another. Will the next generation of smartphones be evolutionary or whole new devices? The market is ripe for the next level of innovation.
- Connected HDTVs: The Samsung 40” Smart TV and others have hit the scene. They have built-in WiFi capability and a number of Internet-based applications, such as movie apps like Netflix or Amazon Prime, YouTube, health and fitness channels, and of course the Web.The Samsung model has four HDMI, two component video, two audio, one RJ45, and one optical audio I/O port. Visio, SONY, and others have similar devices. They eliminate the need for an external WiFi player and allow you to use mostly free Internet-based applications on your TV.There is one problem, however: Web surfing and text entry is very awkward. Why don’t these devices come with a keyboard or Bluetooth capability? It’s almost as if they don’t want us to use the system, except for TV and whatever else they have built into it. They will have to add this capability or surrender such features to Apple, Intel, or others as the TV market dances and merges with the Internet.
Connectors for Consumer Electronics
As the consumer, computer, and cell phone markets have converged, so have their connector applications. Due to convergence, several standard connector products are used throughout these market segments: USB, HDMI, RJ45, audio, video, LCD, SD, and others. As a result, manufacturers of these products sell across market segments even if they generally eschew low-cost consumer applications. In addition, because these are industry standards, there are knock-off products out there. Therefore, quality control is a major concern, and there tends to be source controls in place at many EMS suppliers.
In the fast-growing ultra-mobile segment, micro-USB and micro-HDMI appear to be the favorites. Internally, devices tend to be all surface-mount, with micro-stack, FPC, and FPCA assemblies. Processors and memory are direct-attached and batteries have trended in that direction also. Thus, most of these devices are not user-serviceable and tend to be designed for obsolescence rather than for repair. (iFixit.com specializes in this area and is a good source of info on mobile device teardowns. The iFixit iPhone 5S teardown can be seen here. I spotted approximately 20 connectors, which obviously help in the phone’s multi-vendor assembly process.)
As always, keep in mind that change happens rapidly in this industry, and what we see at today’s show may be tomorrow’s next big thing — or next big flop.
What caught your eye at CES this year? Tell John MacWilliams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John MacWilliams, Market Director, Bishop & Associates, Inc.
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