CES Preview: What’s New in Consumer Tech

A guide to exciting, and not-so-thrilling, consumer electronics that are behind new acronyms.

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Just when you thought you’d conquered the difference between an LCD and a plasma HDTV, vaguely understand HDMI vs. RCA connectors, and know your CFLs from your LEDs—along comes another wave of techie alphabet soup.

This year’s gathering of more than 100,000 geeks in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show is smaller than in recent years, but it’s still where the world takes stock of what’s coming to living rooms. And obscure acronyms—the valued shorthand of geekdom—seem especially prevalent this year. Here are five acronyms that are getting a big push to be part of the American lexicon:

3D TV. The runaway success of the movie Avatar, with its wide distribution in 3-D movie theaters, comes just when TV makers are looking for their next big thing. Almost half of the top 10 movies last year had successful 3-D versions, where images appear to escape from the screen to add a three-dimensional depth. Nearly all the major TV makers have responded with plans to sell 3-D-enabled models, and distributors like DirecTV are said to be prepping all-3-D channels.
But the industry faces tough hurdles, not the least of which are the goofy glasses that are needed for the 3-D effect. And 3-D programming seems even rarer than HD shows and movies at the birth of that format, which legitimately knocked the socks off of viewers coming from standard definition. 3-D, on the other hand, runs the risk of being a novelty that won’t escape a niche market.

[Success is never guaranteed, judging from a decade of tech flops.]

LED TVs. The same light-emitting diodes that are starting to replace CFLs, or compact fluorescent lights, in some light sockets are also replacing them as the light source for LCD televisions. The LEDs use less energy than fluorescent bulbs and allow for even thinner screens. They also can be better controlled, turning completely off in part of a screen to create darker darks and thus higher contrast, which is a challenge for conventional LCDs.

They remain expensive, perhaps too expensive for the somewhat better picture and thinner screen. But the energy savings could push them into the mainstream. Market analysts at iSuppli recently predicted that LEDs will provide the lighting on 83 percent of LCD sets sold in 2013.

4G. Cell companies have sold their 3G high-speed data networks as wireless broadband, but it falls well short of the speeds enjoyed at home with landline modems. Now comes the next generation, called 4G, for fourth-generation wireless, with promises of multimegabit download speeds that could even replace cable or DSL.

Sprint has invested heavily in the 4G technology called WiMax, while Verizon is going with a competitor called LTE (Long Term Evolution). Both could make it in a wireless market that already has competing technologies feeding voice and data calls. Plus, our increasingly mobile demand for data, including TV feeds and videoconferencing, amounts to an insatiable appetite for speed.

[ Google’s Android software is finally appearing on a flood of new phones.]

SSD. Hard drives continue to get bigger and cheaper. But they don’t gain as much in speed, so semiconductor companies sense an opportunity with solid-state disks made entirely of memory chips. Think thumb drives on steroids. The SSDs are starting to go mainstream, despite costs that still run 30 times as much per gigabyte of storage. Most of the big chip makers have entered the fray, including memory companies like Crucial and Kingston, and semiconductor giant Intel recently released a new generation of SSDs.

Solid-state drives use much less energy than their conventional counterparts and, with no moving parts, are more rugged. That makes them natural partners for laptops. But their speed also makes them attractive to desktop users, who can see systems boot much faster and programs respond better when they are loaded on a solid-state drive.

DECE. This is a coalition of Hollywood and electronics makers trying to enable consumers to buy movies and then play them anywhere. A receipt of sorts would get stored on the Web, and devices with a DECE logo would know that you had the right to play that movie using a portable player, a phone, or a set-top box. The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem promises a “buy one, play anywhere” experience, and the impressive lineup of 48 companies includes Panasonic, Sony, Microsoft, Best Buy, and most of the major studios.