The Big Picture

Gigantic TVs, high-capacity DVDs, and hi-def video at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show.

The sexiest products at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas weren’t the usual phones, laptops, and subwoofers. The hot items this time around: Anything that plays or produces bigger, better, and more flexible video.

Keynote speakers from Yahoo! and Google—neither of whom manufacture consumer electronics, by the way—promised that their companies will soon make it possible to watch television without your pesky local cable provider getting in the way. The popularity of gigantic flat-panel TVs has convinced Internet companies and gadget makers alike that consumers will spend money on content for these television sets. And we’re not talking grainy, sputtering Internet video. Companies like Google want to deliver fat, high-definition shows and movies that you can shuttle around the house and watch on the go.

Panasonic HDTV

When it comes to high-definition screens, size matters. Samsung’s booth hawked its 102-inch plasma display as “the world’s largest.” Then Panasonic execs unveiled a 103-inch monster on the show’s first day. In your face, Samsung!

These screens aren’t designed to sell in volume. They’re simply marketing tools to get consumers thinking that Samsung and Panasonic are the top HDTV makers. Plenty of manufacturers unveiled 50-inch plasma screens with prices that run up to $10,000. These superscreens all have the same video resolution: 1920-by-1080 pixels, the high end of HDTV specs. A 103-inch screen has the same number of pixels as a 50-incher or a 30-incher. The pixels are just bigger. Bigger pixels mean a bigger screen that better fills a bigger room. Panasonic’s screen, just over 4 feet high and 7½ feet wide, tuned the booth into a mini movie house that let 300 attendees crowd around at once.

A full-length HD movie won’t fit on even the most high-density DVD. That’s why CES was the battleground for a cold war between two new high-capacity formats. As I’ve written before, I prefer Sony’s Blu-ray to the HD-DVD format sponsored by Toshiba and NEC, mostly because Sony’s discs will pack at least 50 gigabytes compared to 30 for HD-DVD. The technology is so new, though, that the official Blu-ray standard wasn’t even finalized until two days into the show.

Pioneer Blu-ray

None of the players shown at CES will be in stores for months. Pioneer’s Blu-ray player, due in May, will handle movies in a wide variety of home-theater formats and play old DVDs and CDs. Keeping with the show’s theme, it can be networked to your PC. But don’t look for an entry-level model this year—Pioneer’s suggested sale price is $1,800. (When the price was announced at a press conference, though, the photographer next to me perked up: “Hey, that’s pretty good!”)

TiVo Series 3

If TV and the Internet get hitched, as promised by the show’s presenters, even the highest-capacity players will seem antiquated. Why not just store all that high-def video on a hard drive? TiVo’s Series 3 unit will do just that. In an upgrade from the previous model, the latest TiVo allows you to record HD programming. You can also record two shows at once, or watch one while recording another. If the TiVo’s built-in hard disk isn’t big enough, you can plug in an external drive to archive your entire library.

Along with snazzy products that you can touch and hold, CES is also the place to announce vaguely defined technologies that—we’re assured—will change our lives forever. Intel’s Viiv platform, a set of PC hardware, software, and specifications, will supposedly let consumers archive and watch high-definition video around the house. Keynote presenters Bill Gates from Microsoft, Intel’s Paul Otellini, and Yahoo!’s Terry Semel hammered attendees with catchphrases like “puts consumers in control” and “watch what you want, when you want, where you want.”

Sony Vaio

Sony’s newest Vaio multimedia PC, which combines the Viiv chipset with HD processing gear, will put the technology to the test. Marketers showed the Vaio bundled with a remote, a Wi-Fi antenna, and a hulking 200-DVD carousel. The disc changer seemed like a relic next to the half-its-size PC—show-floor wags suggested Sony lend the carousels to Vaio buyers, so they can rip their entire DVD collections and then throw away the obsolete low-def discs. Like the TiVo, Sony’s Vaio can record HD, but it’s also designed to serve HD programs to the rest of your house over a wireless network. Got an Xbox 360? It will find, browse, and play movies from your Vaio without requiring you to master a maze of software.

Toshiba Gigabeat S

If you can get your video “where you want, when you want,” what will you watch it on? (Assuming you don’t have a 103-inch screen, of course.) The video iPod isn’t the first or even the best portable player. Gadget geeks at CES fawned over Toshiba’s Gigabeat S. It sports the same screen size as an iPod and delivers a bright, sharp picture. It supports several popular formats, and you can control it from an Xbox or PC if you hook it up to a home system for big-screen viewing.

The Gigabeat costs the same as an iPod—$300 for a 30-gigabyte model or $400 for 60 gigabytes. What makes it a bargain is the all-you-can-watch movie service. For $9.99 a month, you can download and watch as many titles as you want from Vongo. They’ll keep playing as long as your subscription is active, or until an expiration date that comes anywhere from six months to a few years down the line. *

But the biggest change unveiled at CES isn’t all of this gear we’ll need for watching videos. It’s the way we’ll find and buy them. Google’s new video download store offers higher resolution than iTunes, and it’s not limited to Windows users like Vongo. The company offers instant-loading online previews. You can watch the vids in your browser or download a Windows-only player to use your PC as a TV console. Google’s system is not yet as simple to use as, say, a TiVo, but it’s more flexible in terms of what you can find and watch.

More important, this new download store Googlizes the video distribution chain. Instead of limiting content to a list of marquee providers like the broadcast networks, Google lets any video producer (even you) offer their goods for sale or rent and lets them set their own price—anywhere from a penny to a million zillion dollars.

Big-league ballgames appear next to amateur clips like “Old Lady Pwnz Mercedes Guy.” For 50 cents, you can score 1896 footage of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. The Google Video Store is still under construction—you can buy videos only if you’ve got a recent Windows system—but it already looks more like a typical Web search than your local DVD shop. By next year’s CES, you’ll probably take it for granted that you can Google for television and movies as easily as flipping channels.

Correction, Jan. 17, 2006: This piece originally implied that the subscription service Vongo allows users to play downloaded movies for as long as their subscription is active. The movies expire anywhere from six months to a few years after they’re downloaded. (Return to corrected sentence.)