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Connected Devices Proliferate, But What Works Best?

28 Jan, 2011 By: Chris Tribbey

While their presence was more subtle than 3DTV and not as in-your-face as non-iPad tablets, connected consumer electronics devices were more diverse and pervasive at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with every major manufacturer showing off new electronics that have their own built-in apps and can access content from the Internet.

With devices that incorporated complete Internet browsers, HDTVs that offered hundreds of applications, even set-tops that turned current HDTVs into a completely connected device, the theme of combining the home theater set-up with a PC experience was everywhere.

“We’re starting to see some real trends develop here,” said Kurt Scherf, VP and principal analyst with Parks Associates. “And connected TV is not just about online video.”

Consider: In 2010 less than a quarter of all HDTVs were connected, according to research firm Parks Associates. By 2015, Parks believes that number will hit 76% (more than 150 million units). The firm projects that by 2015 there will be more than $8 billion worth of transactions on connected consumer electronics devices, from e-purchases to gaming to VOD and streaming.

But while many of the consumer electronics companies dubbed their connected devices “smart,” some weren’t all that impressed with that moniker.

“I saw a lot of smart TVs at CES, and I’m mystified as to why they’re called smart,” said Colin Dixon, senior partner at research firm The Diffusion Group. “There are some big issues with the crop we see right now. It’s difficult to figure what apps should be [on them]. It’s an untenable position for consumers and a barrier for customers buying them in the first place.”

He questioned why someone would buy any of the connected HDTVs shown at CES when they can buy a device that connects to the HDTV and offers Internet-enabled content, such as a $60 Roku box, instead.

Will Richmond, president and founder of consulting firm Broadband Directions, and publisher of VideoNuze, said the increased connected capabilities of Blu-ray players should be disconcerting for manufacturers of higher-priced connected HDTVs, especially since more and more sub-$100 Blu-ray players are hitting the market. He specifically pointed to the Logitech, Google TV-enabled Revue set-top, currently priced at $299.

“You can get a $90 Blu-ray player that can do a lot of the same things,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you as a consumer [buy that]?”

However, the Google TV-enabled Logitech Revue, along with Sony Electronics HDTVs and Blu-ray players, aims to offer a full Web browser, instead of just Internet applications, an important distinction.

Other than Samsung Electronics, consumer electronics companies at CES 2011 shied away from showing off hardware that utilized the Google TV software platform, with word before the show that Google asked several manufacturers to hold off on debuting new Google TV devices.

“Every manufacturer is searching for a platform and, sadly, going their own way,” said Ben Drawbaugh, high-def editor for Engadget.com. “Developers are not going to want to design a different application for every brand TV, but there’s no way a lean-forward approach such as Google’s is going to take over in the living room.”

James Segars, co-founder of Pixljunkies.com, home theater enthusiast and independent filmmaker, said Google TV has yet to make its case for why it should be used over everything else, and that connected gaming consoles and Blu-ray players were gaining ground.

“I think there aren’t enough standards, with regard to hardware capabilities, connectivity and the apps/services that are available on the devices,” he said. “The PlayStation 3 has Vudu, Netflix, Hulu Plus and the PSN video marketplace. The Xbox 360 is trailing behind with only Netflix, and the Zune marketplace. Ideally, I’d like to see all apps and services available on a single device.”

Engadget.com high-def editor Richard Lawler said, in addition to having a full Web browser, Google TV devices need to snag more impressive applications such as Hulu Plus, Time Warner TV and Comcast’s Xfinity TV.

Whichever connected-devices format consumers latch on to, they’ll have plenty of options to choose from.

“We saw smart TV reach a new plateau at this year’s show,” said Dan Schinasi, senior marketing manager for HDTV product planning at Samsung Electronics America. “We debuted our Samsung Smart Hub, which includes over-the-top search, content sharing via AllShare, a growing offering of apps through Samsung Apps and, in select models, a full Web browser.”

Samsung also announced partnerships with Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which brings live streaming to consumers without the need for a cable set-top box, and debuted a Blu-ray player and companion box enabling GoogleTV, allowing users to surf the Internet on their HDTV screens.

LG Electronics’ Smart TV Upgrader (the ST600) allows users to turn their HDTV into a connected HDTV and access premium content and a full range of LG applications. LG also debuted its Smart TV platform for other devices, which incorporates a Web browser.

Panasonic said its Viera Connect platform would be the next generation of connected HDTV, with access to third-party apps tailored to each individual user, along with applications such as Twitter and Facebook, while Philips is offering an option that foregoes incorporating the Internet connection into HDTVs. Philips’ MediaConnect lets users stream their PC content directly to the HDTV, without worrying about any sites — such as Hulu or those from major networks — being blocked. And post-CES it was announced Sony’s Bravia HDTVs and Blu-ray players would soon feature Opera’s full Web browsers.

AT CES, Toshiba went with Yahoo’s Connected TV service, offering Yahoo applications on connected devices. Russ Shafer, senior director of product marketing, connected TV and desktop at Yahoo, said the reason some manufacturers aren’t yet going with the full Web browser experience is akin to the waste of having several hundred channels offered by a cable provider. “It’s not how many channels you have; it’s how many do you care about,” he said.

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