Auto show blues? Consumer electronics offer ray of hope.

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For four days in Las Vegas, the economic gloom lifted a little as the world's electronics companies introduced the latest gadgets for 2009.

The Consumer Electronics Show, which ended Sunday, showed off wireless battery chargers, a better Windows operating system, and Internet-ready TVs that blur the line between broadcast and broadband. Clearly, the world's inventors have not closed up shop because of plunging stock markets or the latest reading on economic output.

The mood at CES was reportedly somber: 10 percent fewer exhibitors and thousands fewer attendees. Still, the outlook was brighter – and perhaps more important as a barometer of the US consumer – than, say, the Detroit Auto Show, which was gearing up Sunday just as the CES was winding down.

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Autos – so 20th century

Let's face it: Cars haven't been cutting-edge for decades. Cool, maybe. They could be high-tech again if they switch to new fuels. But what piques water-cooler interest these days is more likely to be a smart phone than a Smart car, a DTV (especially those half-inch-thick digital sets that debuted last week) rather than an SUV.

More important, while sales of cars are falling, US sales of digital TVs are setting records. This year, they'll jump 6 percent, forecasts the Consumer Electronics Association. Sales of high-definition sets – the most expensive DTVs – will climb 11 percent.

"We're seeing more and more that TVs are not a luxury item anymore, they're a necessity," says Megan Pollock, the association's senior manager for high-definition televisions.

Forecasts trimmed but still positive

No one will confuse the economic punch of a $1,500 DTV purchase with that of a $30,000 auto sale, especially since most TVs are made overseas. Also, the DTV forecast is down from previous ones. With fewer people buying digital televisions than expected, the federal program that subsidizes the cheaper alternative – a converter box for analog TVs – has been overwhelmed with requests ahead of next month's switchover to digital broadcasting.

Nevertheless, digital TV sales are headed up, which says something in this current environment.

In the 1930s, when cars were cutting-edge, sales plunged by half within a year of the 1929 stock market crash and four-fifths by 1932. This year, auto sales are expected to drop 14 percent.

It's a sign that, faced with what could become the worst downturn since the Depression, Americans have tightened their purse strings. But they haven't pulled them shut.

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