The world's largest consumer technology trade show has opened in the gambling kingdom of the US. Las Vegas may be an appropriate place for CES 2006 (the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show) because, for users, buying the latest gadgets sometimes means betting against the odds.
More than 130,000 people will converge on CES to see what 2,500 exhibitors have in store for users this year, and try to determine whether the new products meet the hype. Sometimes they do, but at other times software glitches or hardware troubles such as overheating spoil first editions, or they simply fail to live up to the marketing pitches.
This year, the big pitch is on digital entertainment, mainly for the home. It's an idea that's marinated for a few years, so many of the products coming out should be over their shaky early versions and on more solid ground. But one area some engineers are warning about is the question of using wires or not in home entertainment systems. A big push for wireless systems for the living room is taking place, but users have been warned to test the picture on TVs, and the audio on speakers that go without wires, and compare them to the best wired technology available. For some, the results may not mean much, but for audiophiles, it could make a big difference.
It's an important point because users in the US alone will spend more than $135bn (about £77bn) on consumer electronics products this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, and they are entitled to get their money's worth.
There are other ways users can protect themselves. One is to wait until an industry leader puts its stamp of approval (and reputation) behind a new gadget – another sign it's ready for the average user.
Take Centrino, for example. There was nothing particularly new about the actual chips in Centrino. Wi-Fi had been around for years. But the fact Intel expended the time and effort to ensure Centrino-laced laptops were compatible with the Wi-Fi base stations at specific coffee shops and other locations helped spread Wi-Fi to masses of users. Suddenly, people didn't have to wonder why they could connect to the internet at certain stores and not at others.
This year, the same company hopes to enter users' living rooms with its Viiv platform for home entertainment PCs. Even Bill Gates trumpeted the idea that the digital entertainment era had arrived for global consumers during his speech at CES, the first of six keynotes slated for the show.
The trouble with CES is the absence of announcements from the company leading the digital entertainment era, Apple. The company won't release new information until next week at the Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco. The firm's iPod music players have won the company a solid following for consumer entertainment products, and with Apple's gift for design, it's likely to take a leading place in the living room as well.
The presence at CES of two internet giants not known for producing technology gadgets, Yahoo and Google, has fuelled speculation they'll announce some new products or partnerships this week.
There are a number of interesting sideshows at CES. The battle of the discs – Blu-ray, the high-definition video disc format backed by Sony and several other major vendors, versus HD-DVD, which is backed by the DVD Forum and companies including Toshiba, NEC, Intel and Microsoft – continues at the show. There is also a large portion of space set aside for VoIP (voice over IP), as well as dozens of digital TV gadgets and the latest large-screen LCDs, plasma displays and HDTVs on show.
But the most expensive product at CES probably isn't even high-tech. A framed document signed by Abraham Lincoln is on sale for $15,000 (£8,550) at one booth, which mainly boasts framed movie posters autographed by star actors and actresses such as Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood.
"People use these in home theatres," said Roger Gilchrist, from Millionaire Gallery, explaining why his company set up a booth at the show. It certainly fits the digital home aspect of CES. "Why would you spend thousands of dollars on a beautiful home theatre and put nothing on the walls?"