The Com­puter Elec­tron­ics Show has moved on from its tele­vi­sion roots. This year, con­nec­tiv­ity was the big idea — the faster and cheaper, the bet­ter.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - ROB PEGORARO robp@wash­post.com

Las Ve­gas

You could once be safe in call­ing the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show “ the TV show.” Now it might be more ac­cu­rate to call it “ the wire­less show.”

In­stead of man­u­fac­tur­ers com­pet­ing to see who could build the biggest or the flat­test set, the race here is more likely to in­volve con­nec­tiv­ity. And the most pop­u­lar way to con­nect to the In­ter­net and all the pho­tos, mu­sic and videos avail­able there is with­out wires — ei­ther over a home wire­less net­work or on the go, via a mo­bile-broad­band ser­vice.

The smart­phones and tablets that have been draw­ing crowds and con­ver­sa­tions here rep­re­sent the most ob­vi­ous sign of the shift. Both take ad­van­tage of steady ad­vances in screen, pro­ces­sor and stor­age tech­nolo­gies, but they would be far less use­ful with­out faster mo­bile-broad­band ac­cess and wider cov­er­age.

Last year’s CES fea­tured the de­but of one up­graded, “4G” ser­vice, a then-em­bry­onic net­work from Sprint run­ning on a technology called WiMax. This year, the other three na­tion­wide car­ri­ers have their own 4G of­fer­ings to tout, and all four have lined up smart­phones and tablets — most run­ning Google’s An­droid op­er­at­ing sys­tem — to match.

(Note that while Sprint’s and Ver­i­zon’s 4G net­works run on new wire­less stan­dards — Ver­i­zon’s is based on a far more widely sup­ported technology called LTE — AT&T and T-Mo­bile have be­gun us­ing that ab­bre­vi­a­tion for an up­graded “HSPA+” ver­sionof their 3G ser­vice that they ad­ver­tised only with phrases like “fastest 3G” or “4G speeds.”)

Faster ac­cess means that phones are no longer limited to stream­ing au­dio and down­load­ing pic­tures; high-qual­ity, re­al­time video be­comes a re­al­ity over the Web. At a demo dur­ing a Sprint re­cep­tion Thurs­day night, a Black­Berry Play­Book tablet us­ing the car­rier’s 4G ser­vice smoothly played back a high-def­i­ni­tion stream — right un­til the demo gods in­ter­vened and stopped play­back com­pletely.

But mo­bile de­vices are only a small part of the wire­less pic­ture at CES. High-def­i­ni­tion TVs, which a year ago were do­ing very well if they could ac­cess a hand­ful of In­ter­net video sites over a wired net­work con­nec­tion, are mov­ing to stan­dard WiFi net­work­ing and will soon fea­ture app stores with dozens or hun­dreds ofWeb con­tent sources.

As WiFi gets cheaper and cheaper, it makes its way into more and more prod­ucts. Would you like an alarm clock re­place­ment that plays Web ra­dio in­stead of the same old AM and FM but also fetches the lat­est weather fore­cast, dis­plays the lat­est Twit­ter up­dates and shows your friends’ Face­book news? That’s a sub-$100 prod­uct.

The same goes for dig­i­tal cam­eras, which have suf­fered from a lack of a cam­era-equipped smart­phone’s lo­ca­tion aware­ness and easy photo-shar­ing fea­tures. Put a WiFi chip in a cam­era, and it can up­load to Face­book on the go. One up­com­ing model from Sam­sung can even use a nearby Sam­sung An­droid phone to de­ter­mine its lo­ca­tion and al­low re­mote con­trol via the phone’s screen.

But this year’s CES, more than oth­ers, has demon­strated the lim­its of wire­less un­der ex­treme cases. A crowd that prob­a­bly ex­ceeds last year’s 126,000 — and prob­a­bly fea­tures more wire­less de­vices per capita than the 2010 pop­u­la­tion of the show— has left net­works and ser­vices groan­ing and crum­bling un­der the strain.

The ev­i­dence has been in many at­ten­dees’ pock­ets and lap­top bags: an iPhone that gets stuck at the “con­nect­ing ... ” stage of check­ing e-mail or fetch­ing a Web page, a wire­less mo­dem that drops a con­nec­tion right in the mid­dle of an im­por­tant up­load, or just de­graded bat­tery life from a phone con­stantly at­tempt­ing to lock into a sig­nal in a noisy en­vi­ron­ment.

(I don’t mean to beat up on AT&T, but the bulk of the com­plaints I’ve heard have cen­tered on its net­work. Those in­clude my own: a re­view iPhone 4 has con­sis­tently shown four or five bars of a 3G sig­nal and then been un­able to do any­thing with it.)

Even a lit­tle Blue­tooth arm­band I’ve been test­ing — it’s sup­posed to track my steps and send that in­for­ma­tion to an iPhone or An­droid phone that saves and an­a­lyzes the data — has failed to work all week.

These aren’t prob­lems that car­ri­ers could fix with in­tru­sive re­stric­tions on mo­bile-broad­band use; there are sim­ply too many peo­ple in the same space. So I’m sure that all these prob­lems will mag­i­cally van­ish once the crowds go home. Q: I’mcon­sid­er­ing up­grades to a used lap­top. Can I put in a faster pro­ces­sor? Add RAM? Put in 802.11n wire­less? Re­place the hard drive with an SSD? A: Most desk­tops have al­lowed rel­a­tively easy pro­ces­sor up­grades, but that’s not the case with lap­tops.

Ran­dom-ac­cess me­mory up­grades, how­ever, are both fea­si­ble on most lap­tops and ad­vis­able. You just need to find your com­puter’s me­mory slots, buy the right kind for it — look that up at com­par­i­son sites like deal­ram.com — and click it into place.

( You may need to re­move one me­mory mod­ule to make room for a new one; make sure its re­place­ment has enough ca­pac­ity to make up for that.)

I wouldn’t bother with a wire­less up­grade un­less a lap­top is stuck on the very old­est ver­sion of WiFi, 802.11b. Most non-an­tique ma­chines in­clude

The fu­ture of wire­less might in­deed be bright as long as you don’t try to use it at CES. But I 802.11g, which is more than fast enough and will still ex­pe­ri­ence bet­ter range when con­nected to a wire­less router run­ning the newer 802.11n stan­dard.

I would also save a drive swap for later. A solid-state-drive can shave some ounces off the lap­top’s weight, speed its bootup time, ex­tend its bat­tery life and end the risk of a hard drive’s mech­a­nism crash­ing. But flash me­mory costs a lot more than hard-drive me­mory, even af­ter steady de­clines. Wait on that pur­chase, and you’ll have bet­ter odds of not los­ing stor­age space in the bar­gain. Q: I wanted to unin­stall a pro­gram, but its in­staller started in­stead. A: This can con­fuse be­gin­ners in Win­dows, where a pro­gram’s in­staller of­ten dou­bles as its unin­staller. Let the in­staller be­gin, then se­lect “Re­move” or “Unin­stall" from its main menu and you should be fine. wouldn’t start throw­ing out net­work ca­bles just yet.

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