Local shoppers check out technology

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 11, 2011

By Hugh Fisher
The annual Consumer Electronics Show last week gave America a peek at the computers, televisions and other gadgets that promise to make life more interesting or fun.
For years, these conventions have shown us interesting visions of what technology could bring to our future.
Last January, Microsoft showed off tablet computers it said would revolutionize home computing.
But Apple’s iPad tablet beat them to the punch and ended up being the runaway hit.
This year’s show was full of tablet computers, but also strange gadgets, like the refrigerator with a built-in computer that lets you send messages via Twitter, play music or find recipes online.
Or the Wheeme, which looks like a robotic car but is actually a robot designed to give you a relaxing massage. Lie on your tummy, and it wheels its way over your back.
Don’t hold your breath waiting to see those in stores. Many such innovations never make it beyond the convention floor, which leads to the question: What are local people buying to entertain themselves?
Visits to three local stores that specialize in technology — Best Buy in Kannapolis, and Office Depot and Staples in Salisbury — showed that there are plenty of options in both categories.
Both Salisbury stores are geared more toward office buyers, but both stock a variety of computers, devices and software for families as well.
Bob Mahaffey, general manager of Staples in Salisbury, said his store’s featured tech gadgets include portable video cameras that let users upload their movies directly to their favorite website.
Also on display: Livescribe, a computer-enhanced pen that can recognize handwriting and record audio using special paper.
“The most interest in this is from businesspeople, professionals mainly,” Mahaffey said.
Electronic book readers, or e-readers, are very popular. All three stores had models on display.
The Kindle, marketed by Amazon, was one of the first to market and has a large following.
During the visit to Staples, two of the three models of the Kindle sold there were out of stock.
“These are really hot right now,” Mahaffey said.
Barnes & Noble markets the Nook e-reader. One model includes a color screen.
Best Buy carries both the Nook and the Kindle as well as a Sony e-reader.
So many people are interested that Best Buy has created a guide that compares the readers’ abilities side by side.
Browsing popular
Several models have basic Web browsing ability. Others have games, such as chess, or other fun features.
For those who want more than just an e-reader, new tablet computers are being announced in droves. Some of them are already on local store shelves.
At Office Depot, customer service staffer Lyle Naber showed a display of tablet computers running Google’s Android operating system.
They’re expected to be the iPad’s top competitors in 2011.
“You can do just about anything on it,” Naber said, demonstrating the computer’s Internet browser. Games and other programs are also available.
A model with a 7-inch screen was on sale for $199.99, with a larger 10.1-inch tablet priced at $399.99.
On a nearby aisle full of more traditional laptop computers, Naber pointed out the features of the newest models: longer battery life and newer operating systems.
A touch of a finger loads programs or gets you started on the Web.
Office Depot also sells Apple’s iPod products, including the iPod Touch — by design a music player, but one which also plays videos and has a Web browser and e-mail functions.
The iPod Touch will also run many of the applications written for its cousin, the iPhone.
Mahaffey said Staples will start stocking tablet computers later this year.
Salisbury shoppers looking to try out an iPad can find them on display at Best Buy.
“People love iPads,” store manager Rich Evans said.
Although the company does not release sales figures to the media, he said they are big sellers.
Joyce and Ted Michael of China Grove took time to play with one on display during their visit to the store.
Joyce got a Kindle e-reader for Christmas, and said she’s already filled it with free books downloaded from the Internet.
But the iPad still caught her eye. In addition to electronic books, it can run a variety of programs, including word processors and spreadsheet programs, and more.
Even so, Joyce said she wasn’t sure now was the right time to buy one.
“This is maybe a next Christmas item,” she said.
Smart phones top picks
Evans said that tablet computers are popular, but his store is seeing many buyers looking for the newest smartphones.
In addition to the Apple iPhone, many new handsets offer e-mail, Web browsing, games and a variety of other features and programs.
Cyndi Harts, who works at Best Buy as a “wireless consultant,” said many want phones that include calendars and scheduling abilities.
“Definitely, they want something that helps you organize your life,” Harts said.
Television is also undergoing a revolution as more people want to combine the videos and TV shows they can find on the Internet with a big screen in their living rooms.
Evans said GoogleTV is one of the latest devices to combine a high-def television screen with the ability to find, sort and watch programs from Netflix, Hulu and other online services.
Similar services have been tried before, but Evans said he believes GoogleTV could be the start of a new trend.
“I relate it to the way that DVRs (digital video recorders) changed the way people watched TV,” Evans said.
He’s talking about the special cable boxes or standalone devices that let people record shows to a hard drive and come back to them after work or in their free time.
“This is going to do the same thing,” Evans said.
One of last year’s biggest new technologies is still trying to find a foothold: 3D television.Shoppers at Best Buy can try out these new TVs, but all these models still require you to wear special glasses for 3D viewing.
Evans said there’s a lot of interest in the technology, but people are still learning more about it.
Indeed, with all these options for different kinds of computers and gadgets, it’s no surprise that shoppers themselves are taking time to be choosy.
Bette Dixon of Salisbury was at Staples, looking at an aisle full of different models.
She had two printers in her shopping cart, trying to decide which to take home.
“I’m a Realtor, so I do a lot of brochures and flyers,” Dixon said. “I’m always going to look for something that gives me the best quality.”
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.