The hype, don’t believe it

by Michael O. Allen on April 18, 2008

At least so says Eric Gwinn of the Chicago Tribune.

In a piece first published in late March, Gwinn went to town explicating why some of the things you may have first heard about some cool gadgets (some of them even from him) may not be what they were first cracked up to be.

I put a big photograph of Eric up here because I like his smile, which reminds me of my late dad, when he was smiling at me.

Buzzworthy, or buzzkill? byEric Gwinn,Gadget Adviser,

chicagotribune.com,March 6, 2008

The hype machine actually exists. I’ve seen it. It’s a Trojan horse whose big round head sprouts huge message-blaring bullhorns. It floats on a cushion of hot air created by marketing professionals, breathless gadget-lovers and by people like me who want to tell you about the latest, greatest thing.

When all riled up, the hype machine is so loud that it’s disorienting. Only after it blows past you can you gather your senses and figure out what is left in its wake. And that’s what I’m doing here, looking at a few things that recently have emerged from the belly of the hype machine.

LCD HDTV

Hype: Ads leading up to the Super Bowl touted LCD sets, especially higher-resolution 1080p models.

Reality: 1080p is better not just for viewing, but for stores’ and HDTV brands’ bottom lines.

“LCD TV obviously made up the bulk of the advertising [leading up to and during this year’s Super Bowl], but what is compelling is the increased push for 1080p televisions, which ensures greater overall profitability for resellers and manufacturers,” says Samir Bhavnani, director of consumer technology for market researchers The NPD Group.

My take: If you have a Blu-ray player or watch a lot of sports (or other fast-moving programming), 1080p makes sense. Most TV is broadcast in 720p or 1080i format, so a 1080p TV has to convert that signal to a higher resolution. So, for many TV watchers, a 720p or 1080i TV is HD enough. Consumers are still confused by HDTV, so they look to 1080p as a marker that “this television is better than others.” They don’t mind paying a little more, which helps retailers — who aren’t making the margins they were in the early days of HDTV sales. As the 1080p craze abates, the next “in” thing will be thin TVs. So next Super Bowl, it’ll be a race to see who can sell the thinnest HDTV.

iPHONE

Hype: Looks like the future, performs like a dream. With its sexy touch screen and slim design, it was promoted as the smart phone for the rest of us.

Reality: Despite its $399 price tag and inability to do some of the things a true smart phone can do, the iPhone sold 1 million units in just 2 1/2 months.

My take: People who see the iPhone as a phone are missing the point. Yes, there are phones with better reception, faster Internet speed and true smart-phone specs. But the iPhone is really a portable Internet device with a slick “Go ahead, touch me” control surface that also makes phone calls. The real point of the iPhone is expected to crystallize today, when Apple is scheduled to announce new tricks that other software companies have programmed the iPhone to perform. By letting other companies make software for the device, Apple speeds the process of giving people new ways to use the iPhone. And it still makes calls.

HD RADIO

Hype: It’s technology that lets you hear a different side of your favorite radio station in clear, high fidelity — which you can hear only if you purchase a special receiver.

Reality: A big-budget ad campaign still hasn’t moved the needle significantly in terms of purchases. Recently, it was revealed that only 330,000 HD radio receivers were sold in 2007, according to Ibiquity Digital Radio Corp., the company behind HD radio technology. By contrast, Nintendo sold four times as many Wii systems in December alone.

My take: Only recently have high-priced HD radios started dropping toward the $100 barrier, but even then, it will struggle to compete with MP3 players, as carmakers make room for those music devices in their cars. Besides, I’ve heard HD radio, and it didn’t blow me away.

MACBOOK AIR

Hype: It’s a laptop computer that can double as a breakfast pancake! Look! It fits in a manila envelope! How cool is that?

Reality: If you don’t need the power of a MacBook, there are so many small, light computers that are half the price and ready to roll. (The MacBook Air starts at $1,799 before you toss in the $99 CD/DVD burner, while the Asus EEE PC costs a third less.) The competition isn’t nearly as thin, but they’re cool-looking in their own way.

My take: I’m gradually becoming a Mac fan, but to me, this is like a proof of concept, a “Hey, look what we can do.” Still, it is cool. But if, like most folks, all you do on a laptop is surf, chat, listen to music and watch video, there are alternatives.

HIGH-DEFINITION MOVIE DISCS

Hype: HD movies and their players add depth to your home theater experience.

Reality: Many people considered the now-deceased HD-DVD format superior to Blu-ray, in terms of image quality. It doesn’t matter now, though; everyone gets Blu-ray and regular old DVDs.

My take: Don’t have a 1080p TV? Then don’t worry. Only those HDTVs will deliver the full glory of Blu-ray and only when displaying movies shot with high-definition cameras. “Godfather”? No. “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Uh-uh. Blu-ray players do improve the looks of those old DVDs, but so do so-called upconverting DVD players that cost a couple of hundred less. As more movies, concerts and TV shows are shot with high-definition cameras, more of that video will be on Blu-ray discs. So, a Blu-ray player is not a must-have right now.

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