Have Some Standards (8)

Have Some Standards (8)

Posted by on Jan 11, 2015 in Technology | 0 comments

CES 2015 is over, everyone’s shown their best, and everyone has gone home. We got drones, self-driving cars, new silicon chips, new laptops, new televisions, and even a dishwasher with a sink on top. The best things announced at CES 2015 weren’t new-fangled technology, they weren’t astounding disruptions that will change how we view information forever.

Instead, the awesome announcements were about something really boring: standards.

USB Type-C Cable - Image via CNet

On one hand we have the new USB 3.1 specification and the all-new Type-C cable. These are two parts that match together into a beautiful whole. The USB 3.1 spec is backwards-compatible with the USB 3.0 and 2.0 versions, but with higher read-write transfer speeds compared to earlier specifications. The USB Implementers Forum has tested up to 800 MBps, and they expect to get to 1GBps eventually. The spec also allows for increased power delivery – up to 100 watts – meaning you can power things beyond smartphones and tablets. USB 3.1 also has an alternate mode, meaning you can use a single cable to power multiple devices. You can drive a display, run an external hard drive, power a mouse and keyboard all at once. Very much like Apple’s Thunderbolt cable.

The Type-C connector is super-swag; like Apple’s Lightning cables, it’s a single reversible connector around the size of a micro USB. No more issues with plugging in the USB cable into your computer, finding out you have it in the wrong direction, reversing it, and trying again. The connector is already on one device that’s coming in the near future: the Nokia N1 tablet. Money shots of the tablet and its connector look pretty much like an iPad.

Now, USB 3.1 and Type-C aren’t a bundled set. Manufacturers have to choose to use both the specification and the connector in tandem, but why would you pick up one and not the other?

I like standards. Cable standards rock. If you’re old enough, you member the dark times of early mobile phones and smartphones, where every handset manufacturer had their own connectors. “Hey, do you have a charging cable for a Samsung? No, that’s an Nokia cable.” Those were the dark days. I used to carry around six or more cables in my messenger bag so I could charge everything. I eventually bought one of those universal chargers, but I kept losing the connector ends.
New Macbook Air Render - Image via 9to5Mac
Everything moving to micro-USB was a goddamn godsend. Now I carry one charging cable (well, two now that I have an iPad mini) and my laptop’s charger. With USB 3.1, I can probably consolidate that down even further. The full potential of USB 3.1 is shown in the rumored MacBook Air; a tiny laptop with a single port covering power needs and data transfer. That is an enticing future.

The second set of standards that came out of this year’s show involved 4K resolution content. Right now, there are 4K televisions on the market, but they’re all over the place in how each manufacturer reaches that magical “4K” marketing label. This week, major companies came together to form the UHD Alliance. Teh group includes Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, Disney, Fox, Warner Bros, Netflix, Technicolor, Dolby, and DirecTV. That’s a bunch of big names.

To be honest, all those companies need this. 3D content wasn’t the next big thing, so they all need to find another “next big thing” to keep the cash flowing in. 4K is their best shot.
Panasonic's new Ultra HD Blu-ray Player - Image via FlatPanelsHD
Ultra HD has to extend beyond televisions, so it also includes physical media, which is honestly doing its final lap around the track. So, the Blu-Ray Disc Association is breathing its last gasp of air with Ultra HD Blu-Ray, a new Blu-ray format that covers 4K (3849×2169 resolution), higher frame rates (60 fps), and high dynamic range content. Storage size also gets an upgrade: 66GB in dual-layer, 100GB in triple-layer. (Does anyone actually pay attention to disc layers in their Blu-Rays?) The BDA expects to have the format locked-down by mid-2015, meaning you’ll probably see actual discs before 2015 closes out. Panasonic already has an Ultra HD Blu-Ray player coming; the company showed off the device at CES. It’s a black box you put discs in.

Together, Ultra HD and Ultra HD Blu-Ray are weird steps forward. One is selling higher-resolution content to people who barely notice the difference between 720p and 1080p content, while the other is a disc format when everybody’s streaming. They just feel like the coda on an entire line of entertainment technology.

Standards, even in this case, are worthwhile. Heading into 4K with competing formats would help no one. Remember HD-DVD versus Blu-Ray? If you were one of those folks who went HD-DVD, you wasted hundreds of dollars on a dead format. That helps no one. Best to come roaring into this era without fighting a 2-3 year battle to determine the one true king.

All these standards were the real fist-pumping moments of CES 2015 for me. Usually, I’m all about the shiny, but this was a year where I was more concerned with the mundane. This is technology I can see in my living room within a few years, not some attempt at innovation that I’ll never buy, let alone actually use. Which I guess makes this the best CES in the past few years. Good job, folks.

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