Your Questions About the Consumer Electronics Show, Answered

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Love bland hotel architecture? You’ll love CES! Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Over the next few days, Twitter, Facebook, and tech blogs are going to be flooded with stories about new gadgets and consumer tech — both in the niche and general press. Why? CES will be going down January 4 through January 8. What is CES? Super glad you asked, because otherwise the whole premise of this article is kinda shot. How can you make your way through the mountains of coverage and not exhaust yourself reading about minor wireless router upgrades? Read on.

I didn’t ask but okay: What is CES?

The Consumer Electronics Show is a four-day event held in Las Vegas, spread over multiple massive convention halls, in which thousands of companies gather together to attract the eyes of both the press and (for smaller companies) potential investors. It’s one of the better places to get a chance to get hands-on demos with new and emerging tech, as well as to get a general read of what the hot items may be.

So it’s a place where I’d see a bunch of stuff I’m gonna be dying to buy?

Oh my Lord, no. I mean, yes, every year there are about 20 to 30 items that are both legitimately cool and also will realistically make it to market. But the vast majority of gadgets shown in the various convention halls are either cheap knockoffs of more popular bits of consumer tech, terrible ideas, or just baffling products — last year I saw a closet rod that violently swung your shirts back and forth “so your clothes get more air.” It was very loud and I felt bad for the clothes.

So if the floor is filled with so much crap, why is there so much coverage of it — and why would I want to pay attention to it?

Very good question! You’re great at questions. There are three main reasons to reporters head to CES and why you should pay attention to CES coverage. One, it’s where new TVs, headphones, laptops, and PCs are debuted (and it also signals the oncoming price drop of last year’s models as new models start to hit store shelves). Two, you get a chance to see some truly wacky but intriguing ideas — last year’s Ehang, a single-passenger drone, was a must-see, and there’s 100 percent gonna be at least one or two similarly audacious things on the floor this year. Three, it’s a place to take the temperature of the general state of consumer tech — what’s gaining traction, what’s being left behind, and what is poised for a breakout year.

So what are the trends at this year’s CES going to be?

First off, when it comes to TVs, while 4K has already reached budget consumer prices, previously premium features like HDR (or high-dynamic range), which creates a shockingly more vibrant picture than non-HDR TV sets, will also start to drop below $1,000. As HDR becomes more standard, really great looking TV sets should start to come down in price (particularly if you wait a month for last year’s top-end models to see price cuts). This year may also (possibly!) see Sony roll out its own OLED TV sets. Right now LG is the only manufacturer making OLED sets, which are by far the best-looking TVs available right now. But they’re tremendously expensive. Sony entering into OLEDs could be a net positive for TV buyers — two well-established companies may not be enough competition to drive prices down, but it would be great to start seeing sub-$1000 OLED screens in the next year or so.

Second, expect to see a lot of Amazon Echo knockoffs and add-ons. Before the show had even officially started, Lenovo announced an Echo with better speakers and Mattel announced its own take on the Echo, Aristotle, meant for kids’ bedrooms. There are also going to be lot more smart home devices that operate through voice activation, thanks to the Echo’s surprise success.

Third, CES has become a place for automakers to show off the tech inside their cars. This year three big things seem likely: autonomous or at least AI-assisted driving gets an even bigger push from more automakers, more fully-electric cars will be hitting the road soon, and more cars will become more connected (and a bit more like an Amazon Echo or Google Home) thanks to built-in and always-on data signals.

Fourth: hoo boy there are going to be a lot of wireless headphones at CES, and hopefully some of them will be updated to Bluetooth 5.0, which is supposed to take care of some of the problems that have plagued nearly all wireless headphones for years. But what I’m really interested in hearing more about are 3D audio headphones like the Kickstarted Ossic Xs. Having had a chance to try out this tech a bit, I can attest it gives you an almost spooky sense of things happening in the space around you, just through sound.

Fifth, while virtual reality will likely be much quieter than it has been in previous years — major player Oculus is absent, and it seems unlikely HTC Vive will be showing off anything new besides perhaps new touch controllers — there are a number of wireless VR headsets coming out that will track your position in the room. This is something current wireless headsets, like the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream, are unable to do. Being able to lean forward over something, or even walk around, without needing to worry about tripping over a wire would be a major step forward.

Finally, you can look to major Chinese brands to make big steps forward. It’s rumored that Xiaomi (who debuted the absolutely gorgeous Mi Mix phone in China late last year) will be announcing its first phone for the U.S. market. Huawei also seems prepped to make an even bigger push into the U.S., while TV manufacturers like TCL, LeEco, and HiSense all make aggressive bids in the low-cost 4K market.

Wow, that is a lot of trends and definitely sounds like fun!

Unfortunately, it’s not. There’s a reason that tech reporters on Twitter will be complaining incessantly for the next week. Covering CES is exhausting, partly because it’s spread out across Vegas — where Uber is still tightly restricted and cabs can be impossible to find — and partly because it’s impossible to even begin to see it all. It’s a bit like doing the Louvre, if the Louvre was mainly Bluetooth toothbrushes and vaping smartphones. Add in the fact you’re running on too little sleep and too many meetings with people over cocktails at some anodyne Vegas hotel bar, and you get that most special type of CES story, the existential “who am I and why am I here?” breakdown.

Your Questions About the Consumer Electronics Show, Answered