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Tech toys unveiled

Smart household appliances, new tablets rolled out at annual show

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / January 7, 2011

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LAS VEGAS — If there’s a world capital for gee-whiz tech toys this week, it’s here at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show, which opened yesterday. More than 2,500 makers of consumer gadgets are here, showing off the products they hope will be sensations in the months to come, from high-definition, 3-D, Internet-enabled TV sets to a jostling crowd of new tablet computers engineered to outsell Apple Inc.’s hit iPad.

The most impressive tablet unveiled at CES so far comes from Research In Motion Ltd., the Canadian creators of BlackBerry smartphones. The BlackBerry’s interface, made for its physical push buttons, is all wrong for tablet touchscreens, so the company last year acquired software firm QNX to get hold of its tablet-friendly operating system.

It looks as if RIM got its money’s worth. The new BlackBerry PlayBook is an appealing 7-inch touchscreen tablet with laser-quick performance and honest-to-goodness multitasking.

Unlike rivals that simply pause one program so you can work in another, the PlayBook can run several applications at the same time. Its well-designed user interface lets you view all running programs at once, while still giving you access to your full inventory of apps.

If one of the running apps is a video, it will keep playing while you switch over to respond to an e-mail. The PlayBook’s dual-core processor and full gigabyte of on-board memory are husky enough to handle it all. One version will support Sprint Nextel Corp.’s 4G wireless data network, giving it an edge over the 3G technology found on the iPad. Pricing on the PlayBook hasn’t been announced, but it will come to market by spring.

Greater Boston isn’t exactly a center for consumer electronics gear, but a few local companies are making their presence felt at the show.

Iomega, the consumer storage subsidiary of Hopkinton-based EMC Corp., offers the SuperHero, a clever little $70 docking station for Apple iPhones that backs up data files and photos while charging the battery. The SuperHero comes with a 4-gigabyte flash memory chip, but can be upgraded to handle up to 32 gigabytes.

Navigation company TomTom International, which has its US offices in Concord, rolled out the latest in its Go series of in-car GPS devices. The Go 2505 M Live includes an upgraded traffic service that collects data from thousands of drivers with TomTom devices or cellphone apps. The devices send real-time updates that are used to generate more accurate, minute-by-minute tracking of driving conditions.

And Isabella Products Inc. of Concord revealed a new device that can load images wirelessly into digital picture frames. The Isabella Mini looks like a standard USB thumb drive, but it contains a wireless modem that connects to AT&T’s cellular data service. A user can plug the Mini into a picture frame, then transmit new images to the frame via e-mail. Isabella hasn’t revealed a price for the Mini, but expects to put it on sale this spring.

Among the larger tech companies, Motorola Mobility Inc. showed off prototypes of its upcoming tablet, the Xoom — but even more impressive was its demonstration of possibly the most powerful smartphone ever. The new Atrix 4G has a dual-core processor and a gigabyte of memory, just like the BlackBerry PlayBook, but this fearsome power is contained in a device that will fit into a shirt pocket. You can also plug the phone into a docking station shaped like a laptop computer. (Actually, it’s a screen, a keyboard, and a battery.)

The Atrix itself powers the computer, which appeared capable of handling pretty much all your standard road warrior tasks. Motorola didn’t say when the Atrix would go on sale, but it will be available exclusively from AT&T Inc.

There’s an emphasis at CES on so-called smart appliances that put microprocessors and sensors to work on household chores. Whirlpool Corp. demonstrated a $1,600 Maytag Maxima washer with a touchscreen controller that lets the user customize the wash cycle based on how big the load is, or how dirty. Got blood stains or spilled wine? Just tell the computer. It will add the correct amount of detergent, choose the right water temperature, and lengthen or shorten the wash cycle.

A suite of home appliances from South Korean manufacturer LG goes much further by connecting refrigerators, stoves, washers, and dryers to the Internet, using a household Wi-Fi connection. The LG Thinq line of smart appliances can be controlled from a smartphone or tablet computer. The Thinq refrigerator features a touchscreen that lets the user keep track of the items inside. While at the supermarket, the user can check what’s needed by glancing at his phone.

There’s a new technology on display that threatens to make that trip to the supermarket pretty creepy. It’s eCoupled wireless power technology from a Michigan company called Fulton Innovation. Like the Powermat charger, which powers up a cellphone placed on a mat instead of plugged into a wall, Fulton’s technology can fire up a host of household items. The company demonstrated a can of soup that heats up when you place it on an eCoupled tabletop, and has light-emitting diodes that flash to indicate when the soup is ready.

But Fulton also hopes to add eCoupled power transmitters to supermarket shelves to activate specially printed package labels that would glow like brightly lit miniature billboards. The Fulton representatives demonstrated a box of Honey Nut Cheerios with a logo that flashed and gleamed as it rested on an eCoupled shelf. Now, picture every last item in Aisle 4 doing the same thing, if you dare. Sometimes the future is too bright.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.