Excitement at CES (San Diego Transcript)

Images I'm at CES in the midst of huge crowds with one-hour taxi lines, 30-minute Starbucks lines and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Las Vegas seems incapable of handling the more than 130,000 attendees, exacerbated by construction along the road in front of the Convention Center and a sulfuric acid spill on the Strip.

Despite these traffic problems, the climate at CES is far better than two years ago when attendees were nervous about the economic uncertainties, and last year when recovery was still tenuous. This year there's a resurgence of excitement and scores of new products, a few innovative, but many me-too products from companies you've never heard of.

Tablets are one of the big categories this year with dozens of companies, large and small, bringing out look-alike Android tablets trying to capture some of the success of Apple's iPad. Unlike notebooks, many of these new tablets and phones run on chips from Qualcomm, nVidia, Samsung and TI, using an ARM core and not Intel chips.

An exception to the dozens of boring look alike/work alike models was Motorola's attractive new XOOM tablet, with a thoughtful new interface, a powerful processor, and the first to run the new Honeycomb version of Android OS. It has a 10-inch touch display and a modular radio that allows it to be upgraded to 4G when that becomes available. It will be sold through Verizon at a price not yet announced.

RIMM showed its Playbook, a pocketable seven-inch tablet running its own operating system, positioned as the first professional tablet that tethers to a BlackBerry. No price was announced. From the demos, the operating system showed impressive multi-tasking, running many computer-intensive applications at the same time.

Yet, most of these tablets seem less compelling than the iPad, which has a more intuitive and fun OS and hundreds of thousands of apps that appeal to all ages. So why not just buy the iPad? We've seen this picture before when dozens of companies introduced MP3 players to compete with the iPod. The same scenario is about to happen again. A handful will succeed, Motorola and RIMM among them, but most of the others will not.

Notebooks, often the highlight of previous shows, seemed to capture little interest this year. One exception was Lenovo's new upgrades to its ThinkPad and IdeaPad lineups, including a clever hybrid notebook running Windows 7 with a removable tablet that serves as its screen. Remove it and you have a tablet computer running Android. The test is how well data is integrated between the two systems. Does a phone or calendar entry in the tablet show up in Outlook?

Lenovo has also done what Microsoft has failed to accomplish; it has substantially reduced the boot-up time of its Windows 7 computers to less than 10 seconds on some models.

Which companies are up and which are down? I thought Motorola was the star of the show with the most innovative products, while Microsoft and Intel were lagging in the two hottest areas, smartphones and tablets. Steve Ballmer pitched his Windows 7 tablet in his keynote speech, but failed to impress the crowd. Who wants a tablet with limited touch functionality that takes 40 seconds to boot up?

Among the other companies, Qualcomm, Verizon, ARM, Google, LG and Samsung are hot, while Intel, Sony and Garmin are on the decline.

There was also lots of interest in the 10-times-faster 4G networks now rolling out from the cell phone carriers. There were new 4G-enabled phones, including the LG Revolution, HTC Thunderbolt and Samsung's SCH-i520 from Verizon, and Novatel introduced a new 4G MiFi card for Sprint and Verizon.

Ironically, the current 3G iPhone rarely worked for many of us in Las Vegas, with nearly every call being dropped or failing to connect. That generated lots in interest in Verizon's announcement about its new iPhone. If a survey were taken at CES, I bet 90 percent of iPhone users would switch to Verizon on the spot. (My Verizon/Motorola Droid X worked fine most of the time).

For a second year, 3-D TV was here in force, with huge exhibits from LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Vizio, even though 3-D has so far failed to capture much interest. Improvements include lighter glasses, brighter images, and lower prices. But as one friend noted, 3-D is little more than a parlor trick at this point.

When is a smartphone a computer? Motorola blurred that line with its powerful new Atrix phone, which runs two operating systems, Google's Android 2.2 and Linux. When it's plugged into its dock and monitor, the Atrix works like a desktop computer. The dock resembles a very thin notebook such as the MacBook Air with a large display and keyboard. What's clever is this "computer" is wirelessly connected using your phone, rather than needing another data plan. It may just be the ultimate cloud computer. It will be sold through AT&T.

If you thought your car was your respite from connectivity, think again. Many companies here showed off ways of bringing content into your car, including Pandora, Internet radio, Open Table and local search.

What else was there of interest?

– Brother's new all-in-one $299 color inkjet printer that works with up to 11 x 14 size paper for printing, scanning and copying.

– HP's Envy 100 e-All-in-One printer, a remarkable re-invention of what a printer can be. It prints wirelessly from the Internet, is compact with a hidden paper tray and has a terrific interface. It even updates its software directly from the Web, and is the first product of its kind to be PVC-free.

– New lower cost iPhone cases with built-in batteries from Mophie, Milli and Energizer at prices from $59

– New USB pocket thumb drives from Swiss Army that look like its aluminum-clad pocket knives.

– Microsoft's Kinect game accessory that may be the beginning of new ways to interact with machines using body movements.

– Fujitsu's new tiny portable ScanSnap scanner for traveling

– New lower cost iPhone cases with built-in batteries from Mophie, Milli and Energizer at prices from $59

– Tom Tom's new GPS models with built-in cellular radios that are always connected to provide a level of navigation and traffic conditions they claim to be unmatched by any in-car device. Using predictive technology and historical traffic patterns, it actively routes you around congestion to get you to your destination much more quickly.