Microsoft, not Apple, casts a long shadow over IFA this year
Berlin's annual IFA consumer electronics show is one of the world's biggest and we've been scouring the show floor for the latest technology and gadgets. Despite the sheer vastness of stuff throbbing for our attention, several clear themes emerged from this year's Teutonic technology trade fair.
Windows 8 tablets and Surface - Microsoft's unspoken presence
There's always one product or category of product that dominates IFA every year and this year's unquestioned spotlight hogger was Windows 8. Almost every major multinational manufacturer of computers was in Berlin announcing their latest PCs, tablets and laptops designed specifically for Microsoft's new touch-focussed operating system. The number of tablet-laptop hybrids became such a deluge that for one brief moment our caffeine-addled brains struggled to tell them apart.
Two crucial details were also missing from every manufacturer's announcement though – price and UK/EU availability dates and we think Microsoft is to blame. The company's upcoming Surface tablets will be major competitors to all the similar products from Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba. Those companies could be hedging their bets, waiting for Microsoft to tip its hand and reveal pricing and availability before setting their own. Alternatively, they are still locked in negotiations with Microsoft behind closed doors trying to coordinate a launch marred by the fact that their biggest and most important partner is now potentially their biggest competitor.
It's a rich man's world
The Western world may be in a harsh economic downturn, but you wouldn't know it from visiting the stands of all the major TV manufacturers. Everyone from Sony to LG and Sharp were showing 84in (!) 4K TVs – sets with whopping resolutions of 3,840x2,160 pixels which easily dwarfs the 1,920x1,080 pixel resolutions of current HD TVs.
These are toys for playboys though. While no manufacturer would publicly state how much they would charge for their 4K TVs, we've heard whispers of prices in the £14,000-£20,000 price range. Such pricing would be all the more ridiculous since there's precious little 4K footage to actually watch.
Most of the manufacturers mumble softly about upscaling existing HD content, but the least silly response to this lack of content is from Sony. The Japanese manufacturer emphasises how your photos (taken with a Sony camera of course) will look utterly fabulous on a 4K TV since most snaps will easily have enough pixels to fill such a monster television.
First timers at IFA might be surprised by the dearth of cameras at the show, but that's actually to be expected as the photography-specific Photokina trade show takes place in Cologne mere weeks after IFA's end.
Samsung did shake things up though by announcing the Galaxy Camera which pairs the Android operating system with a 21x optical zoom and a 16 megapixel sensor. If the Galaxy Camera is a success, it could force every other camera manufacturer (and perhaps even arch smartphone rival Apple) to come out with something similar.
Sony was less flashy with its announcement of the Nex 5R, an updated version of its already excellent Nex 5N compact camera with interchangeable lenses. Apart from a faster autofocus, the other headline-grabbing feature was a selection of optional apps for enhancing the camera's features. The interface on the Nex 5R might not be as slick a the Galaxy Camera's, but we're confident in predicting that the Nex will wipe the floor with the Galaxy when it comes to picture quality.
Dumb and dumber
If you've ever tried a smart TV for any substantial amount of time then it's hard to go back to a normal television – the ability to use catch up services such as BBC iPlayer without fiddling around with a PC can easily change the way you watch programmes.
Customers haven't been flocking to buy smart TVs though for a number of reasons – they may have bought a HD TV only a few years ago and the economic downturn is dissuading them for spending lots of money on upgrading so soon is the most obvious.
Another potential reason is fragmentation and lack of apps – with more than half a dozen major international TV brands, apps developed for one brand of smart TV won't work on another. Sometimes even apps developed for a manufacturer's current smart TV range won't work on its older models (cough, Samsung, cough). All of this leads to a lack of content and services that removes a big reason for buying a smart TV.
LG and Google have separate initiatives to build a common smart TV platform (the Smart TV Alliance and Google TV respectively), but have been met with little more than non-committal shrugs from many other manufacturers and tepid customer enthusiasm.
Instead other manufacturers have tried promoting other features such as Skype calling from your TV, a favourite from last year's IFA. This year's favourites including wirelessly streaming content from your laptop and using a tablet instead of the TV's remote to browse and control the otherwise clunky-to-use electronic programme guides (EPGs).
Whimsy and fun
This year's IFA has been surprisingly po-faced with little in the way of fun and whimsy. One product which did make us laugh though was the Smart Towel from Lavatelli. This fluffy towel apparently stays wrapped around you without Velcro or fasteners and even has a pocket for your MP3 player. We almost took a photo of the poor woman modelling the Smart Towel, but we were too embarrassed both for her and for ourselves.
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