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Inside CES

CES kicks off with ultrabooks and iPod thermostats

Molly Wood Jan 9, 2012

The Consumer Electronics Show is underway in Las Vegas and there will be plenty of hype and hooey regarding a zillion new tech products being displayed. Marketplace Tech Report will be on hand (I know, I know, going to Vegas, the sacrifices we make for you) to help you sort through what’s being offered.

Here’s a word you’re probably going to be hearing a lot of in the near future: ultrabook. It’s a new wave of laptop computer that is super light and super portable. Many of the top electronics companies are convinced that this is what you’ll want for your next computer. Apple has had tremendous success with the MacBook Air, its own lightweight computer, and that success has been noted by manufacturers of PCs who hope to find the same success for Windows machines. Not only are they light, the machines have solid state construction and are able to boot up very quickly. They’re also really great to travel with. If you want a lot of ports on the side of your computer or if you want a disc drive for DVDs or software, you’re out of luck. That all got tossed out to make it light.

“These ultrabooks are a little bit of an answer to the tablet craze from last year,” says CNET executive editor Molly Wood. “I’m sure we’ll still see a lot of tablets, but I think ultrabooks answer the question of what you do when you have to get some work done and a tablet doesn’t have a keyboard or a USB slot or other useful things that laptops have.”

So it’s a new category of machine. And it’s important to note that the term “ultrabook” was coined by Intel, the chip company that stands to profit nicely if these things really become all the rage. Companies like Samsung and Lenovo that sell these things will do well also. It makes one think about computer shelf life. A computer might last five years or so. But the companies that make them want us to buy things more often than that. Is this just a cynical ploy to convince us we now need a computer AND a tablet AND an e-reader AND a smartphone AND now an ultrabook?

“The good news though,” says Wood, “is that everyone who has a three or four-year-old laptop who’s thinking about an upgrade anyway because theirs is so hopelessly outdated and slow can now upgrade to something that is in fact an improvement. I think if you’ve just been buying a laptop every four or five years, getting roughly the same thing over and over, you know the battery life never gets that much better, it’s still kinda heavy. These at least are a significant improvement.”

Also on this program, imagine if an iPod and a thermostat got married and had a baby. The result would probably look a lot like the Nest Learning Thermostat. It was actually designed by former Apple employees who had experience building iPods and iPhones. “And we got together to basically talk about what to do next,” says Nest co-founder Matt Rogers. “And Tony  mentioned, hey I’m looking for a thermostat for my house, and I can’t find anything, and it turns out, we spent some time looking at it, digging into the industry, what exists, what features we could do, and it was a total industry ready to be turned on its head.”

You need to learn how to program a regular thermostat but this one learns about you. Says Rogers, “Unlike thermostats today, where you have to program them to make yourself comfortable, put your schedule in, the Nest thermostat learns from you. So, as you turn the knob, it learns your habits, when you like it to be 72 degrees, when you leave, when you come home, plays it back from you. So every morning when you wake up, you turn it to what you like and when you leave, you turn it down. Over time, it’s really going to get your patterns right on, and really help save you energy and make you more comfortable.”

But how can that save energy? “We provide tools and software to help you save energy,” Rogers says, “so we have a feature called the Nest leaf, which basically shows you when you’re picking a temperature that helps you conserve. So, it has a nice leaf that’s very prominently displayed on the product that shows up when you’re saving energy. We also have a feature called autoaway. And what autoaway does is when you’re not home, it basically turns down the temperature. There’s a motion detector inside the product. And using our algorithms, we’re able to determine roughly when you’re home or when you’re not. And after two hours or so when you’re not home we turn the temperature down and when you get home we turn it back up.”

Rogers adds that the family dog or cat would only trigger the motion sensor if they got to be above four feet tall, which would mean that while you’re gone your pets walk around on their hind legs like people. If this is the case, you’ve got more problems than mere temperature regulation.

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