Sean Captain

Two days before the Consumer Electronics Show officially starts, the first products debuted at CES Unveiled on Tuesday evening. Many of the tables at the Venetian conference center in Vegas looked best-suited to an obscure trade fair, with information about USB and HDMI specifications, for example. But a few innovative–or just plain quirky — products emerged. Click to see the highlights.

Astronomy for Dummies

That’s how Meade describes its ETX-LS automated telescope ($1,300). For a while, stargazers have been tapping GPS tech to help direct their scope to the right part of the sky. But they still had to make key adjustments by hand. Using star charts, they point automated telescopes to three reference stars so the onboard computer knows exactly where it is. Mead’s ETX-LS eliminates that tedious step. A camera mounted under the scope identifies stars by measuring the minute differences in their brightness. It uses that info to direct the scope with pinpoint accuracy. Just enter the name of a celestial body on a control pad, and the scope takes you there. It also provides an audio guide about what you are viewing and — if you plug in a laptop or a portable TV — videos with more information.

PCs for the Impatient

The lagging boot time of Windows has spawned a mini-industry in quick-start software. This year’s Best of What’s New honored Splashtop–a Linux operating system that companies such as HP are installing as an option to Windows when you want to power up quickly just to send an email or check a Web page. Now Phoenix, which makes the underlying code that runs most PCs, has come out with its own alternative OS, called Hyperspace. Install the download on any Windows PC (sorry, Mac users), and the system boots up in 14 seconds with the Mozilla Firefox Web browser and links to popular sites such as Facebook, Gmail and YouTube. While you surf, the PC loads up Windows in the background. In addition to saving a minute or so at startup, Hyperspace also saves your battery. Phoenix estimates that it uses 25 percent less power than Windows. But the convenience doesn’t come cheap. Hyperspace requires a $60/year subscription. So I wonder: How soon until an enterprising Linux hacker offers similar software for free?

The Pacemaker keeps Pace

We loved the Tonium Pacemaker — a music player that lets you mix digital tracks the way DJs do with a pair of turntables — enough to give it a Best of What’s New award. But the one nagging weak point was that you have to manually adjust the tempo of the songs you mix so they blend together smoothly. Finally, Tonium has come out with a software upgrade that automatically “beat matches” the two songs. It also introduced a slightly cheaper version of the player. If you can live with 60 instead of 120 gigabytes of hard drive space, you can get a Tonium for $550 (instead of $875).

Nav on the Run

In the it’s-about-time category comes a new combo GPS and entertainment system from Fujitsu Ten (a joint venture of Fujitsu and Toyota). The AVN 4430 is an in-dash entertainment system with a detachable TomTom GPS unit. You can snap the GPS into the dash and use its 4.3-inch screen both for navigation and entertainment (including watching DVDs). Or pop it out to take the TomTom to another car. The complete unit sells for $850.

The _n_th Coming of 3D

We’ve lost track now of how many times — since the 1950s — 3D has made a comeback. But it’s here again. On the high end, Nvidia was showing off new graphics cards and software that convert most any game to three-dimensional video for viewing on 3D-equipped (and glasses-requiring) TVs such as Mitsubishi’s rear-projection sets. At the lower end, Minoru launched its $90, two-eyed 3D webcam. It combines views from the left and right cameras into a cyan-and-magenta double image video that, through the magic of cheap cardboard glasses, gives the illusion of 3D.