TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Are you a techno groupie? Do you like to go to those big convention centers where they roll out the latest, greatest new products? Well, this week you had a tough choice. You could have headed to San Francisco to the Macworld show and see Steve Jobs unveil Apple's new iPhone product, or you could have headed to Las Vegas to the Consumer Electronics Show and strolled through cavernous halls filled with just about every gadget or gizmo you could imagine, or you could have motored to Detroit and been in heaven in the auto show at the annual auto show in Detroit that Detroit puts on.
Tough choices. Don't worry; we're here to help you out in case you couldn't make all three because we've got highlights from all of them. And we're going to look at the trends, the must-haves, I-could-have-never-affords from all these three places. And we're going to look at the new green cars on display towards the end of this hour, and we're going to first talk about the high-tech stuff. If you'd like to talk about the high-tech stuff at the Macworld and the Consumer Electronics Show, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.
David Pogue is the author of the "State of the Art" column for The New York Times. He actually got some hands-on time with the prototype of Apple's new iPhoto this week - iPhone - this week at Macworld, and he joins us by phone from San Francisco. Welcome back, David.
DAVID POGUE: Thank you so much.
: Is it tough just to talk on a regular phone now, or are you spoiled already?
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POGUE: I keep turning the receiver over in my hand and looking for the touch screen. I don't know how to work this old thing.
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: Well, we'll talk more about it. Mark McCluskey is a products editor for Wired magazine, and he's been following the latest at the Consumer Electronics Show. Welcome to the program, Mark.
MARK MCCLUSKEY: Thanks for having me.
: Is it true that you did double-duty? You've been to both shows?
MCCLUSKEY: I've been to both shows. A lot of people were rushing back from Vegas to go do their pilgrimage to the Macworld show and check out the iPhone.
: Well, I hope you've survived this. I know what it's like going to both of those shows.
: Yeah, I'll bet. David, tell us about the iPhone. You were in rhapsody, I should say, in your column in The Times. Is it really as revolutionary as you made it sound? Tell us why.
POGUE: Well, let's first - I don't want to sound like a fanboy, so I'll stick to the facts. OK, it is definitely the most advanced piece of electronics to come along in a very long time. It's not just a touch screen; it's a multi- touch screen, meaning if a second finger touches it, that doesn't mess it up. Oh contraire, they have special gestures. Like if you want to enlarge a Web page or enlarge a photograph before you, you put your two fingers on the screen and spread them apart as though you're pushing outward on a sheet of rubber or something and the photo or the Web page gets bigger, or you pinch to make it smaller.
There's a proximity center so that when you hold it up to your ear to make a phone call, the screen lighting goes off and the touch sensitivity goes off so you don't accidentally press buttons with your cheek. There's an ambient light sensor. There's an accelerometer so that when you turn the thing 90 degrees, the picture on the screen also rotates to landscape. I mean it's just unbelievably sophisticated.
So there are certainly drawbacks. It's not going to be for everyone. It's $500. It is all glass, so I would not recommend dropping it - that screen I mean. And it is - well, actually, you know what it is? It's polycarbonate, the same thing they make the iPod screens out of, so I shouldn't say glass.
: Right. So eyeglasses material, made out of that.
POGUE: Yeah, exactly. And also it is exclusively carried by Cingular for at least the first two years, which for many people - I apologize that this is an advertiser, but it's a deal killer.
: Well, one would think that with a price like that - and Apple does have a way of introducing, sneaking in other products after Macworld. Don't you kind of suspect there might be a cheaper version, maybe not a combination phone, but maybe just the iPod and maybe just the phone?
POGUE: A lot of people are asking that. I mean and the answer is who knows. Apple never reveals a product until it's good and ready to reveal it, and it is true that Apple tends to develop interesting technologies and then weave them into subsequent products later. Like the click wheel that we know now today on the iPod was never on the original iPod that had four separate buttons outside the scroll dial. And only when they developed the Mac mini - I mean the iPod mini did they figure out how to make it all on the dial itself, and now that's the standard. So it wouldn't surprise me, but nobody knows.
: Mark McCluskey, even though there were tons of things coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show, it almost sounds like they were all overshadowed by Apple's announcement.
MCCLUSKEY: They were, yeah; they were completely overshadowed, frankly. You know, when we were on our way to the convention center on Tuesday morning kind of checking updates about the keynote that was happening here in San Francisco, and by the time you got to show floor, everybody had heard about the iPhone and it really was the dominant topic of conversation for the rest of CES which, you know, has to be frustrating for the 2,700 other companies and two and a half million square feet of exhibit space filled with all sorts of new products that nobody was really paying much attention to after that.
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: Was there a trend at all? Let's see if we can make up for some of that lost news. Was there any trend, discernible trend, at CES this...
MCCLUSKEY: Yeah, I mean there were a couple of trends. You know, it was a very evolutionary show in a lot of ways, and I think that's why the iPhone was - you know, the iPhone really is kind of a revolutionary-type product, and I think that that's why it caught so many people's fancy. You know, CES was very evolutionary so, you know, more storage in various devices that we already know about; or bigger LCD screens, or cheaper, better LCD screens.
The one trend that I really saw this year was trying to find ways to make existing technologies work more effectively with one another. So not whole new categories of products, but things that sort of help you deal with what you already have. So Microsoft's announcement - they're making a home server for Windows that basically lets you share your files across your network sort of more easily and does automatic backups. And, you know, it's all very nice stuff and looks like a good, solid product. And, you know, I'll be interested to check it out when it's available. It's just, you know, not the sexiest thing in the world to talk about, you know, a home media server.
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: You've got to - both of you, you've got to believe that Microsoft is just reeling from being shut out from any conversation, you know, this year.
MCCLUSKEY: It's, you know - yeah, it's got to be incredibly frustrating for Microsoft. There's going to be - Microsoft is going to be very much in the public eye this year. The new version of Windows, "Windows Vista," comes out at the end of the month, and that's going to be one of the biggest things that happens to technology this year. It's a big revision of their operating system. It's going to drive a lot of PC and notebook sales as people upgrade or buy new computers to take advantage of "Vista", which, you know, in my use I think is a good operating system. I think it looks nice and is definitely an improvement over XP and that Microsoft should be proud of the work they've done. It's just - yeah, it's hard when, you know, all your thunder gets stolen.
MCCLUSKEY: Nobody likes that, so.
: David, let's talk about the other sort of quiet snuck-in device, the Apple TV unit, which is another sort of revolutionary thing that they announced.
POGUE: Yeah, actually, they announced three things. They only announced - they only mentioned two of them in Steve Jobs' keynote, and I find the Apple TV to be the least interesting. The iTV is a very slim box. It looks like a Mac mini that has been squished by an elephant. And you put it - attach it to your TV and it wirelessly displays your videos, photos and music from up to five computers around the house on the TV. And the screen is gorgeous and elegant and it out TiVo's the TiVo. However, it does not record TV, though. I shouldn't make it sound like it does. It's wireless; it's been done as well as anyone could do it, but it's very similar to other things on the market.
The other interesting thing that Apple unveiled but is only on its Web page - it was never even mentioned at the show - is a new wireless base station just like the AirPort base stations they've had for years if you want to set up a wireless network in your house. But the difference is that it adheres to this new 802.11n spec which purports to be twice the range and five times the speed. But they've added Ethernet jacks to it - so it's also a router - and a jack where you can plug in any hard drive, any USB hard drive, and that turns into a home media server much like the one Microsoft announced.
So take a hard drive full of stuff, plug it into this base station, and now instantly, in true elegant Apple-esque fashion, every computer in the house can open the files and play the movies and use what's on it.
: And here this is some major feature that Microsoft announced today or the day before and Apple didn't even talk about it...
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: They can do the same thing.
POGUE: Right, exactly.
POGUE: I'm sorry.
MCCLUSKEY: Sorry. In fairness to Microsoft, you know, the product they announced does more than just put a hard drive on the network, that there are backup capabilities and a bunch of software built in to do things. So it's - you know, the Apple solution, why I agree with David, is super elegant and a really great way to easily get storage onto your network. You know, you're going to need to do some more things to replicate the functionality of the Microsoft product that they announced.
: That doesn't seem like it would be too hard to do that.
MCCLUSKEY: No, I don't think it's...
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MCCLUSKEY: ...a huge barrier for people to overcome.
: What else - a minute before the break, Mark. What else caught your fancy there at the CES?
MCCLUSKEY: You know, we've seen...
: Let me just jump in and say what about these giant screen TVs like, you know, aren't LCDs getting bigger and bigger? There's that whole home theater market.
MCCLUSKEY: Yeah, you walk around the show floor at CES, and it seems like everywhere you look is somebody touting the biggest screen in the history of mankind. And so Sharp this year showed 108-inch LCD screen, which is mind- bogglingly huge and leaves me to wonder how they even got it there without breaking it, because that's a big piece of glass to cart around. And that's cool. It's a cool demonstration of technology. Unfortunately, you know, none of us own a place - or certainly I don't own a place - where I can watch 108-inch screen if I could even afford it, and it's going to, you know, if they sell them, they're going to sell them for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
POGUE: You'd have to build a house to house it, and it could be one of the four walls, so...
POGUE: ...save the money right there.
MCCLUSKEY: You just have to waterproof the backside of it is the trick there. So, you know, it's - they're trying to demonstrate technology and trying to have this showcased. You know, what's really driving the market is, you know, increased manufacturing makes the prices go down and it makes these screens more affordable for people.
There's also some new technologies being rolled into them, so once again Sharp was showing a technology that doubles what's called the refresh rate of an LCD screen. So it - instead of operating at 60 hertz, it's operating at 120 hertz and it looks really great. I mean you can actually - it has sort of a clearer feel to it. It's not something you can sort of look at and be like, oh yeah, there's line here and line there, but it has this perceptual difference that I think is pretty noticeable.
: All right, we're going to have to take a short break, gentlemen. Stay with us, David Pogue and Mark McCluskey. We'll be back to talk about more high- tech gadgets. We'll take some of your phone calls. Don't go away. We'll be right back.
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: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about high-tech gadgets from the Consumer Electronics Show and Macworld with Mark McCluskey, products editor for Wired magazine, David Pogue, author of the "State of the Art" column for The New York Times, also author of all kinds of "Missing Manuals", just about everything David has written "Missing Manuals" for. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phones.
David in Washington, D.C. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
POGUE: Thank you very much for taking my call. I have two quick questions. First of all, what kind of battery does the iPhone use? And how long will it last on a normal charge?
POGUE: That's a really good question. I only had an hour with it, so it never ran out during that time. But Apple says five hours of the hard stuff, like talking and surfing the Web and playing video, and 16 hours of just playing music with the screen off. Of course, nobody knows if that's real, and a lot can happen between now and June when the phone finally comes out. There's a lot of software to be done. One of the big knocks against this phone is that the battery is enclosed like an iPod, and you can't change it after, you know, a thousand charges or 500 charges when it's not holding as much charge anymore. You'll have to send it in to Apple just as you do an iPod.
POGUE: Next question, real quick, was the Apple TV product. In the business world, would that conceivably work connected to a projector and 10 or 20 people in the room could connect to it by WiFi and project an image off each individual computer onto the projector?
POGUE: Well, assuming that you had the graphics you want to display saved as photos, like jpeg files, yes, up to five people could be - their laptops could all be projected - although one at a time - onto this thing. I should mention that the Apple TV is high definition and tailored especially for wide screen, high definition. The graphics are stunning.
: Thanks, David in Washington.
POGUE: Thank you.
: I know you want one. 1-800-989-8255. What about, David Pogue, third- party applications for the iPhone? I mean you...
POGUE: Another very common question. Steve Jobs says no, that although this phone is actually running a stripped-down version of Mac OSX, it does not run Mac OSX programs and people cannot write new programs for it. This is bumming a lot of people out big time. However, I spoke to an Apple programmer at the show, an old friend of mine, who said that in fact there is discussion about whether or not you'll be able to add new widgets, you know, the little tiny, single-purpose programs like Stock Tracker or Weather Tracker and so on that Mac OSX has now, and they're leaning toward perhaps letting people add third- party widgets to this thing. And since a widget can do almost anything, that would mean that...
POGUE: ...yes, there's a backdoor for adding software.
: Well, that would mean you could add the Skype widget, for example, and not have to worry about the Cingular service and make calls through a WiFi connection.
POGUE: We can let our minds run, can't we?
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: Oh, David, if I only knew what you knew.
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: Let me talk to Mark. Mark, there's been ongoing war - there's a format war between high-definition players - the Blu-ray, the others - has that been settling out now at the CES at all?
MCCLUSKEY: You know, the war is still on. Both the Blu-ray folks and HD DVD, which is the competing format, both of those consortiums had booths where they were trumpeting their upcoming, imminent victory over the heinous forces on the other side. So there seems to be no peace settlement on the way. What we did see at CES were a couple of technological solutions. The first was LG showed a player that will play both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, so that could be a way for consumers to sort of cut through the possibility of spending way too much money on a player that ends up playing an obsolete format and just buying one player that will handle them both.
MCCLUSKEY: The other thing we saw is actually Warner coming on saying that they're going to make discs with both formats on it, so one side will have the movie in HD DVD and the other side will have the movie in Blu-ray. They're going to be some manufacturing challenges around that. That's going to be hard to do and probably costly. But, you know, it once again it does show sort of a creative solution from in this case a movie studio on ways to get consumers to take the dive into HD optical movie viewing and not feel like they're going to get locked into something that goes away five years down the road.
: David, did you want to jump in there?
POGUE: Oh, I was just going to say, yeah, that's an interesting solution, but of course it's - the Warner solution - but of course that's only one movie company and, you know, there are other movie companies who have vowed allegiance only to one format. And, you know, I have this nagging feeling in the back of mind, too, that is the difference between HD DVD discs - I don't mean the brand - I mean high-definition DVDs and regular DVDs - still, is the difference enough for the masses to want to buy all new movies and replace their DVD player and get into this war. I still wonder.
MCCLUSKEY: I mean that's the billions and billions of dollar question, you know. I mean the studios sure hope so because, you know, they're looking for a new revenue stream to keep everybody re-buying their content. You know, it's - I just remember all the things that I had on albums or cassettes that I re- bought on CD.
You know, I personally am kind of a believer in the Blu-ray solution, just because I feel like Blu-ray is a little more future-proof. It has much more storage on it. And sort of looking forward, you know, as David says, is it enough now? Maybe not. But, you know, the next - as you look towards future generations of HD programming, you know, Blu-ray is going to be able to handle the giant file sizes maybe a little more effectively than HD DVD.
POGUE: You know, it seemed to me about this whole week, what it really boils down to isn't technology - this whole week boiled down to humans and our, you know, limited little brains, because look at how stupid the electronics companies are by waging this format war. It's just pride; it's just ego. It's policy; it's not technology.
MCCLUSKEY: It's insanity, yeah. I definitely...
POGUE: And then look what Apple did. Apple knew that you can't design a new cell phone. You can't break through the ugliness and clutter of current cell phones without starting fresh. But it also knew that the cell phone carriers - Verizon, Sprint and so on - are the gatekeepers. I don't know if most consumers know this, but Verizon dictates the menu structure and the features and so on, and you'll have a great cell phone with some wonderful wireless Bluetooth feature and Verizon will say turn that off. We don't like that, so turn it off.
Apple, by striking this exclusive deal with Cingular, basically said: Cingular, you're going to get our phone exclusively for several years, but in exchange you have no veto power. You have no say. You're not even going to really know what we're working on till way down the road. And Cingular wound up actually making network changes to accommodate Apple's design. For example, when you check your voicemail on the iPhone, you don't have to listen: You have 31 messages. You don't get that. You see a list like an e-mail inbox of the names of the people who left you messages and you can tap them in random order and listen to the important ones first.
POGUE: That required Cingular to re-jigger stuff. And again, it's about the power of policy and vision and in this case power.
: Well, I would say then, you know, considering that Apple just changed its name - the same day announced - from Apple Computer to Apple, wouldn't Apple be showing up at the CES now that it's not really a computer company anymore? It's mostly selling multimedia things.
MCCLUSKEY: Well, I mean Apple doesn't - I mean Apple proved in spades this week that they don't need to show up at CES.
MCCLUSKEY: You know, they don't need to go deal with the traffic hassles. They can have their own show and everybody will come to them. I mean it's not - I mean there's no reason for Apple to deal with CES. They have ability and audience. And, you know, David's exactly right - just going back to sort of the relationship between carriers and handset makers. I mean there's nothing in the iPhone technologically that a company like Nokia couldn't have done or a company like Motorola couldn't have done, but they didn't have the will or the vision to do it. And if Apple's really able to change the power dynamic between handset makers and carriers, then that actually might end up being the biggest radical thing that happens from the iPhone.
: David, did you find it curious that they did not announce any new computer at Macworld, which is always some little announcement of an upgrade or something.
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POGUE: No, I didn't find that curious. I found that typical Jobs-ian marketing. He knew exactly where he wanted to shine the spotlight, and that's what he did. He not only ignored Macs completely in the announcement and barely mentioned iPod, but as I mentioned before, he left out one entire new feature just because he wanted to make sure that this phone is all anyone's talking about.
: And it is all - Wall Street went gaga also.
POGUE: Oh my gosh. You know, it's interesting about the stock - what happened, you know, Apple stock zoomed up and the BlackBerry company, RIM, its stock crashed that day. And I think that's sort of interesting because this phone is really astonishing, especially - by the way, no one talks about the camera. The camera uses that huge three and a half inch screen as its viewfinder. Most people have never used a digital camera with a screen that big. It's like framing the photo you're going to take using the finished drugstore print. You know, it's like huge. So he's done a lot of really incredible things. But of course using that screen in that way means it has no physical keyboard. It displays tiny little virtual keys and it's very difficult to type. It's slow to type, although Steve had some practice.
But the really cool thing is they're using software to compensate. So if you muddle through some word and hit the wrong keys by accident, the software analyzes the proximity of the other keys around the one you actually struck and figures out what word you must be going for.
It's not T9. It's not predictive. It doesn't give you multiple choices. It gives you one choice of the word it's figured you meant. And then you can just hit the spacebar to type that in instead.
But it's still much slower than the Blackberry. And nobody who's used to flailing away with two thumbs is going to want to switch to this phone. It's not for heavy email.
: Well we'll have to wait until the actual product comes out, won't we? It's a vaporware right now. See what happens, how it really performs.
I want to thank you both for taking time to talk with us. I know you're waiting in an airport, David, to fly someplace else. So thanks for taking the time to be with us today, as always.
POGUE: My pleasure.
: Pleasure talking to you. You're welcome. David Pogue, author of the "State of the Art" column for The New York Times and author of the Pogue Press line of books where he's got all kinds of books that tell you how to use your software easier.
And Mark McCluskey is a products editor for Wired magazine.
MCCLUSKEY: Nice to have been here. Thanks a lot.
: You're welcome.
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