HP Gives Consumer Electronics a Wake Up Call

The consumer electronics industry has been in the doldrums for some time and it wasn’t until personal computer-based technology started to creep in that we began to see, quite literally, what we had been missing.

This isn’t to say that the PC industry had it right, either. Both industries have a very strange view of the skills a typical buyer has or is willing to acquire.

In the case of both industries, products often come with manuals that have a lot in common with a good novel, except there is no plot, the villain is almost always the poor fool who bought the damn thing, and the hero is the person who can actually get it working.

For a very long time, I believed the industries could do better, but it was clear that a combination of rivalries between companies and between divisions in companies would never allow that to happen.

I just returned from Hewlett-Packard’s Consumer Experience launch (Big Bang 3) and have become convinced that all of this is about to change.

Good Focus

I was incredibly pleased to see that, for once, a company was really focusing on the experience and not just on a bewildering number of unique features based on vendor centric technology most of us will never use or understand. The products generally demonstrate technology that isn’t exclusively HP’s, they actually work well with other HP products, as well as those from other vendors, and they are not only competitive but often market leading.

HP licensed both iTunes and the iPod and then integrated both into the Windows XP Media Center edition so that buyers of their Media Center products could use their iPods.

They have also done a much better job of integrating iTunes and the iPod with Windows XP, and HP gives a one-year warranty, rather than Apple’s one-call (I’m not kidding) warranty.

This leads me to believe that HP could actually sell more of the Apple products then Apple will directly. Apple really shouldn’t care since all of these things are still built by Apple. However, I’ll bet they do, and I hope HP has a backup plan in case Apple gets unhappy that HP is too successful.

Typical Approach

What typically would have been the case is that HP would have built its own iPod clone, tried to build its own proprietary service, and the end result likely would have been us talking about their failure, much like I expect we will be talking about Sony’s in a few months.

HP did create printable skins they call “tattoos,” and in combination with your HP printer and special media, you can customize your iPod with pictures, textures, sayings or anything else you can print (hopefully that excludes the answers to tests) as much as you want. The skins will also work on all of the fourth generation iPods — not minis — so this isn’t exclusive to HP branded products.

One of the most interesting products HP showcased was its Instant Cinema Digital Projector. This product was more like a super boom box with video. With built-in surround speakers, amplifier, DVD player and, of course, the projector, this could bring back the pain of vacation slides and home movies, which dropped from the home party scene two decades ago.

While that is probably more frightening then beneficial, think of being able to go camping and sitting around the fire watching movies, or showing films in a recreation center, or in a classroom. In fact, this was the first time I saw something that could actually replace the 16 mm projector that used to haunt my own classes in school, and the bigger screen (classrooms often use TVs now) could make a huge difference.

Favorite Notebooks

Because everything is integrated, all you have to do is plug it in, aim it at the screen and turn it on. It really doesn’t get much easier than this, and at under US$2,000 for a nearly complete home theater, it doesn’t get less expensive either, at least not yet. I think this is one of those categories that is about to really heat up as prices drop.

Recently I’ve concluded that 15.4-inch-wide notebooks are too big and heavy for use, yet smaller screens tend to be too small to be useful, and square screens are a bad trade off. If the square screens are small, they force the keyboard to be too small, and if they are large, you can’t open them on airplanes and they weigh too much.

As a result, I’ve begun to think that for business and school use, the 14-inch-wide screen format is as close to perfect as we are likely to get before flexible polymer screens hit the market or we can figure out how to wear head-mounted displays without getting headaches.

I also think the ideal price range for a notebook computer is between $1,000 and $1,500, because most don’t need the performance or features provided in machines more expensive than this. Particularly for children, spending a lot more money increasingly seems like a waste.

DVD Player

That’s why I was so intrigued with the HP Pavilion Entertainment Notebook dv 1000. It has the 14-inch-wide screen, decent performance, it will play your media files, can even be used as a replacement TV (with an optional dock), and it is a full-featured notebook for under $1,200. It is actually surprisingly goodlooking, which in this price range is unheard of.

One increasingly popular feature is the ability to play DVD and Music files without booting up Windows. I’ve had a chance to play with the Averatec 6200 which, with a 15.4-inch-wide screen, is similar in price and capability. However the HP boots Linux to play movies and the Averatec used a hardware approach which both seems safer and quicker to me.

Both even have PCMCIA-based remote controls. I haven’t had a chance to fully test the HP yet and will do a full comparison of both of these products at a later date.

HP has been kind of a joke when it comes to cameras, but over the last year its competitors stopped laughing.

I had a chance to use HP’s R707 and compared it to the leader in the 5-megapixel class, Sony DSC-W1.

Quick Boot

The HP has a better zoom, the Sony a better lens; HP is easier to use, the Sony has a better display; you can actually do some editing on the HP and it is lighter, while the Sony uses generic AA batteries and appears to be more robust.

Both boot very quickly, but the HP is quicker, and neither camera has any picture delay I can measure. While I would still favor the Sony for myself, it would be a very close thing, and as a gift, I might favor the HP, because I hate doing tech support for gifts. HP has come a long way given that I used to think “HP Camera” was an oxymoron.

On the printer side, the new HP Photosmart 375 printer is really hard to beat.

It will take virtually all types of flash memory, it is 40 percent faster than its predecessor, it will connect via Bluetooth and it can run on battery power alone.

The Sony DPP-EX50, the competing Dye-Sublimation product from Sony, does produce slightly more glossy pictures. Dye-Sublimation used to be vastly superior to ink jet for pictures. It still may be a little better, but you will be hard pressed to tell the difference, and Dye-Sub is much more expensive. However, the Sony DPP-EX50 is a real pain to set up. I couldn’t even get it to work with my Sony desktop computer. And, with the paper cartridge in place, it’s kind of bulky. Realistically, it isn’t portable. Strangely, the Sony actually looks better until you use it, which seems a rather strange trade off. Here HP wins hands down, but given they are supposed to be expert at printers, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

HP Innovation

We didn’t come close to covering all of the products, and we’ll cover the new Media Center PC and flat screen displays in a later column, when I can compare them to other offerings.

However, in many cases, what was showcased was as much innovation in how existing technologies, from a variety of sources, could be put together. In some cases, the real differentiator was a stronger warranty or better customer experience.

I think we should favor vendors who spend their time making better products rather than thinking of new and ever more creative ways to lock us, in and HP is becoming that kind of a vendor. Something to ponder as we send the children back to school hoping they, too, will learn the right lessons.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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