iPad? No thanks – here’s the four gadgets I really want

I admire the iPad. It’s a marvel of engineering and all things geek service. In fact, Netflix and Kindle are probably the killer apps for obvious reasons of color and viewing size. But technolust aside, it doesn’t replace any of the screens I use on a regular basis: my television, my phone, my PC, and my portable entertainment device(s). And at $500, for vastly reduced functionality relative to a comparably-priced netbook, it’s purely a status symbol and luxury item rather than a genuine productivity tool or primary entertainment device. (Plus, I hear the wi-fi doesn’t work so well…)

Steve Jobs’ ambitions aside, this is actually a great year for the Four Screens. Here’s my wish list of upgraded versions of each.

1. HDTV

Samsung HDTV
Samsung 42inch 720p HDTV for under $600
This year or early next we will upgrade to an HDTV, with DVR. The prices are fast approaching the $100/inch mark which means a 50″ plasma will cost the same as an iPad by the end of the year!

We already have our Netflix disc for Wii and a DVD player, the latter of which also supports some digital formats on USB. I’ll expand my video file format options with a Roku or popbox or equivalent at some point, too. Virtually all my video is now consumed on my TV, instead of my PC, and that will reach 100% soon. If I’m sitting on the couch, would I rather be watching the big screen or staring at an iPad? And which is better for family viewing?

2. Sprint Evo 4G Smartphone

Sprint Evo 4G
The Sprint Evo 4G
Right now I’m using an ancient flip phone on Sprint. My renewal discount is coming up this month, and I’d previously been torn as to whether to go Palm Pre, a Blackberry, or an Android phone. None of the options really excited me, until I recently heard about Sprint’s Evo 4G coming out this summer. It’s magnificent. We don’t have WiMax in Madison but it’s available in Chicago and Houston, where most of our family resides, so I expect to get some use out of it. But even on the 3G network, this thing is going to be amazing. And it’s Android, so no Apple heavy hand dictating what apps are allowed to run and which aren’t – I’ll be running Skype, Google Voice, and the ubiquitous social networking apps from day one.

3. Pine Trail / Ion 2 netbook

Asus 1201PN
Asus 1201PN - Pine Trail + Ion 2 (Optimus)
My primary PC at home is still my trusty Thinkpad T42, and I have a second homebuilt machine for the kids and my Warcraft addiction. But the PC I use when I’m out of the house is my stalwart little Asus EEE 901. It’s showing it’s age, though, and given that the latest batch of Atom 2 netbooks can actually play WoW, I’m definitely ready to upgrade. The Ion 2 chipset is essential, however, because it allows for switching between dedicated graphic or integrated graphics on the fly, preserving battery life without sacrificing performance. My only concern is that it might be hard to find one with an SSD – but that’s ok, I can always upgrade, as SSDs are also getting cheaper and cheaper with time. True, SSDs are lower capacity, but I’ve been doing just fine with an 8GB drive on my EEE. I’ll manage 🙂

Its clear why Apple didnt create a netbook – they dont want a low-margin product. The iPad is their attempt to displace the netbook market – Mossberg is buying it hook, line and sinker – but you just cant do things on an iPad that you can on a netbook, and never will. Including writing, coding, Skype, or video chat (at least until version 2, anyway).

4. Kindle 3

Amazon Kindle 2
Technically the last category of screen, “portable entertainment”, is a multi-device option. We have an iPod Touch, an IPod nano, and a Nintendo DS Lite. All of these are primarily used by my kids, of course – I use the iPod Touch for Skype at work, and the Nano while working out on our home elliptical, but other than that I dont really do much media consumption. I expect that will change with my new smartphone, but I am also ready to go Kindle when Amazon makes it’s inevitable response to the iPad challenge. To be honest, I still would prefer a Kindle 2 to an iPad, because e-ink is frankly superior for reading under any lighting condition – especially outside. And at half the cost, it’s a no-brainer, despite being a niche device. But let’s see what goodies Amazon packs into the new version – touch screen? color e-ink? I’d pay up to $300 for it, which is still 60% cheaper. It’s worth noting that Amazon’s post-iPad strategy is still laden with profit opportunities, which benefit me as a consumer more than buying into iPad’s closed ecosystem.

Overall, the cost for all these goodies? HDTV: $500, Evo 4G phone: $200 (estimated, including 2 year contract renewal), netbook: $500, Kindle 3: $300. That’s a total of $1500 – if the iPad could replace all of this functionality on a single screen then I’d be interested in paying $1000 for it. But instead, the iPad is completely redundant with these screens and thus costs me an extra $500 on top of that. I’m looking forward to upgrading my toys this next year, and while no one is going to notice my geek chic in public, at least I wont be sacrificing any functionality or convenience.

Then again, what do I know? Maybe the iPad really is the Next Big Thing. “Instead of holding a MOUSE, you’re holding MAGIC.” who can argue with that? 😛

Plasma vs LCD for HDTV

It’s time to start thinking about an HDTV. I probably will buy one this year (though not for a few months yet at minimum). The main question of course is what sort of HDTV to get; the Laser HDTVs have not yet made an appearance and would probably be too expensive anyway. The main choice seems to be between plasma and LCD. Thanks to this article on the 9 advantages of plasma over LCD, it looks like plasma is a no-brainer… assuming that by the time I am ready to buy one, there still are plasma TVs left on the market to buy.

to 1080p or not to 1080p

Toshiba HD-A3 780p/1080iThe prices on HD-DVD players have started to move downwards at Amazon, with the HD-A3 model now priced at $99 and the HD-A30 at $129. The mail-in rebate for 5 free HD-DVDs expires on the 28th, so I assume that there will be further price reductions on the 29th, assuming they have the inventory. Both players come bundled with 300 and Bourne Identity, and I view the BBC Earth series as mandatory.

The question is, whether the extra $30 for the A30 is worth it. The primary difference is that the A30 supports 1080p output, whereas the A3 only does 720p/1080i. My intended use for this player is primarily as an upscaler for my standard DVD collection (and NetFlix), for an HDTV I have yet to buy (normal upscaling DVD players cost around $50-$70 anyway). Standard DVDs are 480p. As long as the HDTV unit supports 720p as a native resolution (which it should, regardless of whether I buy a HDTV capable of 1080p or just 1080i), then the 720p output of the A3 is all I will ever need, right? Even if I want to watch my HD-DVD discs at 1080i, few though they presumably will be, will I even be able to tell the difference between it and 1080p?

I can see myself in a similar quandary later when I decide whether to buy a HDTV at 1080p or not. I could just settle for 1080i as my maximum across the board and simplify things. I’d appreciate any suggestions or information regarding the matter, if you all have any.

Highly relevant reading: a piece at the NYT in which they talk to the founder of the Abt Electronics chain. In a nutshell, Blu-ray just isn’t a value proposition right now.

“Most people are happy just buying a better DVD player, instead of spending $350 or $400 for Blu-ray,” Mr. Abt said. “An upconverting DVD for $79 is a great value. It has a great picture, really better than an old DVD. You really see a difference.”
[…]
What about all the people who bought HD DVD players, prompted by Toshiba’s aggressive price cuts? Mr. Abt hopes he can at least partially mitigate their anger and frustration by pointing out how well the players can display standard DVDs.

“We have a lot of people who bought HD DVD players in the last few months,” he said. “We are going to communicate with them: you have an upconverting DVD player, enjoy it. You paid $150 for it, so you didn’t lose too much.”

And of course, we have less than a year to go before the digital switchover.

UPDATE: HD-DVD players in retailer inventory are now being described as “upscaling DVD players with HD-DVD playback“.

HD-DVD RIP

Engadget Japan live-blogged the official announcement by Toshiba president Nishida-san that Toshiba is discontinuing HD-DVD and ceding the format war to Blu-ray. Some interesgting tidbits from the Q&A following the announcement:

Q: Any plans to adopt Blu-ray?
A: No plans at all, not at this moment.

Q: How many HD DVD players and recorders, exactly, did you sell?
A: 600,000 players in the US — 300,000 of which were Xbox 360 HD DVD drives. 100,000 units were sold in Europe. And about 10,000 players and 20,000 recorders in Japan. So about 730,000 units worldwide.

Nishida-san did say that Toshiba would stockpile HD-DVD media and sell them online for use by owners of HD-DVD recorders. Also, Toshiba will “continue to assess the position of notebook PCs with integrated HD DVD drives.”

The full press release with more details is available here.

I’e still got my eye on the Toshiba HD players at Amazon. I’m tempted to buy the 1080i player (HD-A3) right now for $117. Or should I wait until the price on the 1080p one (HD-A30) starts to drop? Any thoughts?

acknowledging the inevitable

Well, I was wrong. Even if this news is denied by Toshiba, the mere fact of it getting leaked will only accelerate the inevitable:

While denying that a decision on the fate of HD DVD has been made, a Toshiba marketing exec left the door wide open. “Given the market developments in the past month, Toshiba will continue to study the market impact and the value proposition for consumers, particularly in light of our recent price reductions on all HD DVD players,” Jodi Sally, VP of marketing for Toshiba America Consumer Products, told The Hollywood Reporter.

At current price points—HD DVD players are available for as little as $119—Toshiba has to be taking a substantial loss on each player sold. If there was a realistic prospect that those loss-leader sales would result in a large installed base for future movie sales and resultant royalties, those losses would be eagerly embraced. That’s an all-but-impossible scenario at this point, however.

It’s time to concede that Blu-ray will win the format war. The economics of selling the players cheap no longer make sense.

Still, that puts me in a quandary. Given that I (and literally everyone else who watches TV) will be in the market for an HDTV soon, do I now have to budget an additional $400 for a blu-ray player? I wonder if buying a HD-DVD player still makes sense – you can pick one up at fire-sale prices and they are outstanding upscalers for your existing old-fashioned DVD library. In fact, I might not bother with a dedicated Blu-ray player ever, since the Playstation 3 is actually more future-proof and feature rich than any standalone. In fact, bundling the BD player with the PS3 in hindsight turns out to have been genius, not just for winning the format war, but also for another more subtle reason:

While HD DVD may have done a better job of future-proofing their players, the immaturity of the Blu-ray spec hasn’t proven to be an insurmountable obstacle. At CES, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced that 3.5 million Blu-ray players had been sold to date. Of those, 3 million were PlayStation 3s, the most future-proof Blu-ray player on the market. Still, this means that roughly 15 percent of the early adopters are going to be frozen out of the latest and greatest Blu-ray features with BD-Live. That’s bad news for current owners of stand-alone players, but with the price of the PlayStation 3 now down to $399.99 and the format wars shaping up nicely in Blu-ray’s favor, the system may actually be less expensive and more powerful than the latest-generation standalone players.

This is quite the odd turn of events: it was assumed when the PS3 launched that the gaming system would be the Trojan horse that brought Blu-ray into the homes of the mass market. Now? The inexpensive and future-proofed Blu-ray functions of the PS3, matched with the high-quality upscaling the system brings to normal DVDs, may be the Trojan horse bringing gaming to home theater enthusiasts.

Game, set, match to Sony. But if there are still HD-DVD players available for sale when I’m ready to go HD, I think that’s a better value proposition for DVD playback.

(UPDATE: Steven beat me to the punch)

UPDATE 2: confirmed, Toshiba is getting out:

TOKYO (Reuters) – Toshiba Corp (6502.T: Quote, Profile, Research) is planning to give up on its HD DVD format for high-definition video, conceding defeat to the competing Blu-Ray technology backed by Sony Corp (6758.T: Quote, Profile, Research), a company source said on Saturday.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK had earlier reported that Toshiba would suffer losses in the tens of billions of yen (hundreds of millions of dollars) as it scrapped production of HD DVD players and recorders and took other steps to exit the business.

The company source told Reuters that Toshiba was in the final stages of planning to exit the HD DVD business and that an official decision would be made soon.

It’s time to keep an eye on the price for the Toshiba HD-A30. It’s currently at $149, about $30 more expensive than the lowest-cost unit (HD-A3), but it’s 1080p instead of 1080i and comes with two HD-DVD movies included. Plus of course there’s the usual get 5 discs free offer. I’m going to wait to see if te price drops further but that’s not a bad deal at all.

writing, meet wall

Well, this sucks for HD-DVD:

Netflix has just announced its intention to only stock Blu-ray titles in the future. Netflix justified its decision by pointing out the fact that most Hollywood studios seem to be converging solely around the Sony-backed format — a fact that’s all too familiar to Toshiba and friends. With both Blockbuster and now the ‘Flix having eschewed HD DVD for BD, it’s gonna get harder and harder to even find a place to rent those former discs in the first place, let alone one that has a decent selection.

I think that this is pretty serious a blow, since renting movies is the way most people watch them instead of purchasing them outright. Though it should be noted that downloading a movie instead of renting a physical disc is a business plan waiting in the wings. I don’t think it will happen soon enough to blunt the impact of Netflix’s decision, though, and anyway even if download becomes prevalent that doesnt help Blu-ray or HD-DVD much. They are both fighting to see who gets obsoleted last.

HD-DVD players are very, very cheap at Amazon.