Low Prices, Convergence Devices Dominate CES 2009

sony-webbie-mhs-pm1The poor economy dominated the scene at CES this year, and it led highly anxious exhibitors to highlight lower prices for gadgets like netbooks, cell phones, and A/V devices. The jittery economy is pushing consumers to look for value, and aggressive price points are the best way to coax them into spending their limited stash of cash. That said, lower prices don’t mean less interesting features. Almost all the relevant devices unveiled this year offer efficient, web-convergent services.

Take Sony’s (s SNE) new $180 HD camcorder and Kodak’s (s EK) Flip Mino-killer HD camcorder, the Zx1 — both are being heavily marketed more as YouTube accessories than standalone devices. A study last year revealed that camcorders are vulnerable in this economy because they have only one function (video). As a result, even premium companies like Canon unveiled budget DVD and Flash camcorders at the show.

Netbooks also wouldn’t have been as huge as they are at CES, if they weren’t cheap. “Business netbooks” sounded like an impossible product category a few months ago, but HP and others are seriously pushing consumers towards these simpler PCs. Netbooks reflect the new need for appropriately modest computing power with versatile features, like 3G connections and GPS receivers. According to the Wall Street Journal, 46 percent of businesses are cutting heavy computer upgrades, and the word around Vegas is that netbooks could be the cheaper IT upgrade, with the optimistic idea that their portability will make workers more efficient.

And netbooks also use the web-based convergent principle: If workers can use services like Google Docs or Zoho for office productivity docs, employers don’t have to spend on expensive separate software suites. The fact that the keyboards of these laptops finally offer human-hand-sized proportions and improved batteries also works in their favor.

itv2000_product_remoteWireless streaming speakers, TVs, and set-top boxes are also big this year. Netgear unveiled a $200 player that receives Net content wirelessly, and many are showing simple but full-featured iPod docks for less than $100.

The CES floor is also littered with cheap(er) Blu-ray players. In 2008, I could count on one hand the number of affordable Blu-ray players from big-name companies. In 2009, Sharp is unveiling two sleek Blu-ray players that will be available for less than $300 and come with a cool new “Quick Start” feature that improves disc-loading.

Despite all this, the most telling product trend associated with low prices is that many companies are refusing to give out prices for their higher-end gadgets. Samsung’s new HZ10W camera, Panasonic’s 47-inch wireless TVs, and Sony’s 3-D TV prototypes were not given price estimates. That’s forced consumers, their advocates and analysts to focus on the cheap gadgets. You might see this as a cynical ploy to bait consumers into turning over the little cash stash, but I see it as a good opportunity to invest in a good product if you do your research and make smart decisions.

Jose Fermoso is a staff writer for Wired.com