Early Surprises From CES

CES, the annual consumer electronics event, officially kicked off today in Las Vegas, with crowds up from last year’s recession-shocked show but still below the go-go years of 2007 and 2008. And while tablets, 3DTV and new Android devices captured most of the headlines heading into the event, they weren’t the only action to be found.

Here are a few early surprises and observations from CES 2010:

Image courtesy CNET

Toshiba Cell TV: Based on the multicore Cell processor developed by Toshiba, IBM (S ibm) and Sony (s sne) and used in PlayStation 3, the new high-end line of HDTVs from Toshiba has a number of other neat tricks up its sleeve as well. Among them: Upconverting native SD TV content to 1080p HD. While upconversion is old hat in Blu-ray and DVD players, Cell TV is the first commercially available HDTV to upconvert non-packaged media on the fly.  That squealing you hear is coming from cable and satellite operators whose high-def digital tiers just got new competition. Added bonus: Cell TV also upconverts crummy Internet-delivered video.

Image courtesy OhGizmo!

Qualcomm Mirasol display: We’ve seen static mockups before but the unit on display here is a working prototype and it looks great. Unlike E-Ink’s black-and-white e-paper displays, the Mirasol reflective screen can display rich colors. It’s high refresh rate also allows it to support video, all while consuming very little power. Qualcomm (s qcom) says an e-reader with a Mirasol display will be commercially available in the U.S. before the end of the year but wouldn’t identify its partner. Whoever it is will have an opportunity to make a splash with digital newspaper and magazine publishers, who crave graphic capability not available on the Kindle (s amzn) or Nook. Advertisers will love the color and the ability to do click-through ads. A potential game-changer.

Netflix is now a utility: Netflix (s nflx) has been embedding its streaming app on CE devices for a year or more. But it’s clear from the devices on display here that the app has become de rigueur on anything with an Ethernet port. Virtually every connected TV, Blu-ray player and broadband-enabled set-top box here has it.

Cisco vs. Skype: LG and Panasonic showed an embedded Skype app on WiFi-connected HDTVs, bringing video calling into the living room. But something of a VoIP TV format war may be brewing between Skype and Cisco (s csco), which demoed its TelePresence videoconferencing platform for the home. All of a sudden there are two ways of doing video calling from your couch, and HDTV makers will have to decide which to embed.

Streaming video: 3D is supposed to be the big video story here but some of the most interesting announcements have been about streaming plain old 2D video to HDTVs and other connected devices. Announcements by Vudu, DivX and Rovi suggest an explosion coming in embedded streaming applications and streaming video channels coming to connected devices. Forget widgets — full UIs and streaming video program guides are becoming the new standard.

Editor’s Update: Also at CES, AT&T announced that it will be launching five Android handsets in the first half of 2010, as well as two handsets based on Palm’s WebOS.

At jkOnTheRun, you can also read about new wireless charging developments at CES, The new Palm Pre Plus and Pixi phones–exclusive to Verizon, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer’s keynote address, Samsung’s ebook deviceHTC’s new phones, and HP’s new netbooks and notebooks.