This year’s Consumer Electronics Show technically opens on Tuesday, but in reality the news begins today. What was a trickle of gadget announcements turns into a steady river today, then a flood on Monday, and by Tuesday we’ll be deluged. Beyond survival, my goal in what is my 13th-straight year of attending is to call out the most important news and trends in this newsletter.
But since today is just the first day, I want to take a step back from talking about what to expect at CES, and instead talk about what our expectations ought to be.
Every year, like clockwork, as tech journalists head to Las Vegas, some portion of them and some other portion staying at home will talk about how CES doesn’t matter anymore, how it’s awful, and how little that gets announced here actually gets released.
These complaints always frustrate me because registering a disagreement with them ends up sounding like you believe the exact opposite: that CES is very great and what happens here is very consequential.
For me, the opposite of “CES is bad” isn’t “CES is good” but rather “CES is not what you wish it was.”
Nick Statt ran though all the biggest announcements from last year’s CES and rounded them up: The best tech of CES 2019: what happened next? CES has a well-earned reputation for vaporware, and there are definitely things on this list that never got released. But there are also a bunch of things that were, including some I didn’t really think would pan out.
It is easy to point out all the useless crap here and even easier to point out all the clearly-doomed-to-fail products. My job as a journalist who writes about gadgets is to try to guess what things are worth attention and what things aren’t.
One difference between me and those who are disillusioned with giant consumer tech conferences like CES is our definition of what’s attention-worthy is different.
Let’s make this more concrete. Below is a TV announcement from LG. LG is a company that has relative success in TVs and appliances and has lost the thread on phones. And since phones are so important, LG’s relative irrelevance in that category makes it easy to dismiss as a company. But LG also makes all sort of components — especially screens — that appear in other, more successful products.
Anyway, here’s the news:
└ LG unveils eight ‘Real 8K’ OLED and LCD TVs ahead of CES
The announcement marks a continuation of LG’s proxy war with Samsung over what exactly constitutes an 8K TV. While both companies agree that 8K is a resolution of 7680 horizontal pixels by 4320 vertical pixels, the two companies have different ideas about how these should be measured. LG uses the Consumer Technology Association’s definition, which relies on a measurement called “Contrast Modulation” to define its pixels. Meanwhile, Samsung uses the 8K Association’s definition (an organization which LG is not a member of), which doesn’t list any such requirements
Objectively, this is one thousand percent ridiculous. I bet there are more people arguing over how to count pixels for 8K TVs than there are people making actual 8K content to show on those TVs. This is literally an argument over counting, but the result of the argument will have repercussions for people trying to make 8K content in the future.
So yes, CES is awful. Ivanka Trump is being interviewed by Gary Shapiro, the head of the CTA, which is a lobbying group (among other things). He likes to write business books with “Ninja” in the title. You may disagree with me on their politics but I think we can find common ground in saying Ivanka Trump doesn’t have a lot to say about Contrast Modulation as a method for counting pixels.
CES is always a battleground between TV standards: Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD, LCD vs Plasma, LCD vs OLED, OLED vs MicroLED. This pixel counting thing is just this year’s version of the TV wars. I don’t want you to take away the message that I think that “actually, this debate over how to define 8K actually matters because of industry trend X,” but these tussles between Samsung and LG do end up having repercussions in the long run. One technology or standard will win out and the other will lose and three years from now that winning technology will mean something tangible.
I went to Best Buy in December and bought a cheap television for my parents because I was sick to death of their tiny screen. It cost less than our family dinner at a restaurant the night before and despite being a larger television than the one it replaced, it weighed half as much, had four times the resolution, supported HDR, and had good smart TV software built in. All that happened because several years ago these TV battles happened over HDR and what the best technology to light up a pixel might be.
But I get it. Asking you to pay attention because in a few years what happens at CES will be commodified and change our gadgets is a tough sell. Car analogies are overused, but in this case it fits: just as only car enthusiasts really ought to pay attention to what happens at auto shows, so too only tech enthusiasts will care about the battle between the 8K Association and the CTA.
Still: there are some things that get announced at CES that you’ll genuinely want to buy and that will genuinely become available this year. As a tech journalist privy to embargoed information on many announcements, I already have identified a couple of things I’m eager to get.
This gets to the idea of expectations: we have been trained to expect tech products to be consequential in our lives because smartphones have completely upended our entire understanding of what it even is to be in the world. Literally nothing can compare to that. But the universe of gadgets that surrounds the phone is important too, and CES is where we see the results of those gadgets being relentlessly improved.
The biggest reason that you usually hear that CES doesn’t matter is that all the most important companies don’t make their most important announcements here. Apple is a no-show, Microsoft bailed, Samsung saves its best phones for later, and so on and so on. All true.
But aren’t we in a place where we don’t want these giant companies to have such outsized control over tech? Wouldn’t one way to combat that trend be actually paying attention to what smaller companies are trying to make? CES remains one of the best chances many companies have to claw a sliver of attention to their products.
One last note: last year the biggest story of CES was the bone-headed decision to revoke a “Best of CES” award from a women’s sex toy. Since then, CES has relented on allowing sex toys to be featured and has set up a section of the show floor for them — though it’s unfortunately located far away from the main convention center. The whole saga sits at the nexus of gender politics and consumerism and the outrage the original decision caused led a big industry lobbying group to adopt a more progressive stance.
This year, the sex toy in question might actually be on the show floor, and we intend to go check it out and not make coy jokes about it, but instead take it seriously. Because when it was denied the award last year, the company making it didn’t have a working model to show. The more things change at CES, the more they stay the same.
└ Segway-Ninebot unveils an electric kick scooter with cruise control
Fascinating idea here, but it makes me nervous? Having absolute control over speed and braking seems like a necessary thing on a rideable. But I’m willing to believe that this system could provide a level of control that would make me feel comfortable. I’ll let somebody else test the first one, though.
Segway-Ninebot says riders will simply kick the Air T15 along, and the e-scooter will instantly calculate “the friction and condition of the road and automatically adjusts your speed so you can maintain a constant rate of travel.” Speeding up will be as simple as giving the pavement a few more kicks, while slowing down will be managed by tapping on the rear wheel brake
└ Segway’s newest self-balancing vehicle is an egg-shaped wheelchair
Many, many jokes about Wall-E have already been made about this thing, so I’ll spare you. In principle I think we should be excited for mobility options that can be used by people with disabilities. I don’t know if that’s what Segway is thinking and I am incredibly unqualified to say if such a thing would actually be useful.
The thing I couldn’t get over is what benefit is really gained by going with a two-wheeled self-balancing contraption instead of just three wheels. Sean O’Kane pointed out to me that it allows the whole thing to be a little smaller — a three-wheeled thing would need a larger wheelbase. It also might make the chair more nimble overall.
Really, though, the big reason is that self-balancing contraptions are the things that Segway makes.
└ This wireless power startup says it can charge your phone using only radio waves
Every CES there is at least one company claiming to have cracked the nut of truly wireless charging, not just inductive charging pads. Guru is the latest and your default position should be extreme skepticism. Also, I don’t know to needs to hear this, but I have no known relation to its CEO, Florian Bohn.
└ This AirPower clone is now available to buy
I think we’re going to see a bunch of these AirPower-like charging pads over the coming months, and probably one or two more at CES this week. I don’t know if that means that everybody else is more willing to compromise on design (and fire safety) than Apple or if it means that Apple really just isn’t that good at wireless charging. Maybe both!
└ Kohler puts an Alexa-enabled smart speaker in a showerhead
After last CES’ Alexa-enabled smart toilet, Kohler is a strong contender for winning this year’s “Oh hell just put Alexa on it” competition. Or, as one reader tweeted at me, Kohler could reclaim the, ahem, throne.
Samsung is already Samsunging
└ What the hell is Samsung’s ‘artificial human’ project?
We have a phrase we use to describe Samsung’s Keynotes: Samsung Weird. Or sometimes “Peak Samsung.” Sometimes their keynotes go off the rails. Sometimes it’s a montage of misogynistic vignettes designed to sell a phone. Sometimes it’s director Michael Bay having an absolute meltdown on stage. But nine years ago it was a boy wearing a fur hat with ears trying to guide us through Samsung technology like Puck in the woods. A boy named Zoll.
Now, Samsung is apparently doing something weird again, this time with some kind of emotive digital avatar. James Vincent speculates on what it might be in his story. I know it’s not going to happen, but I very much hope it’s THE RETURN OF ZOLL.
└ Samsung confirms Galaxy S11 event for February 11th
Samsung is holding its next Unpacked event on February 11th. Usually it’s APPLE that preempts CES with non-CES news! Wild.
└ Samsung announces the Galaxy S10 Lite and Note 10 Lite
The camera specs on these two phones are super hard to keep straight, but that’s not the main thing. The main thing is that after many years of buying the top-flight, best-specced Android phone imaginable, I’m over it. The S10 Lite looks like a phone that anybody would be happy with, including me.
└ Samsung’s Odyssey G9 curved gaming monitor is a 49-inch QLED monster
If after taking a look at this thing there isn’t a tiny part of you that thinks “hell yes I want this and I am not even really sure why” then you and I are built differently.
The display is also Samsung’s first consumer display with an 1000R curve, filling roughly the same field of view as the human eye (monitor curvature tends to range from 4000R to 1800R, with a greater curvature the lower the number.) In other words, the 49-inch G9 curves more than most other displays
More news from The Verge
└ Apple sues security vendor for DMCA violations
I could bend over backwards to think of non-crappy justifications for this lawsuit. For example, maybe Apple’s lawyers are worried that allowing Correlium to do anything with jailbreaking will prevent them from stopping actual bad actors. I’m not going to bend over backwards, though. I don’t have that flexibility anymore, because I don’t think Apple really deserves the benefit of the doubt given its history with similar issues.
└ Apple now lets you engrave a poop emoji on your AirPods case
The list of emoji Apple is allowing is sadly and curiously small. If you won’t let me get Skeptical Monocle Face I don’t even know why you’re bothering.
└ 8BitDo’s tiny $20 keychain controller is now available
I got 8BitDo’s SN30 Pro controller for Christmas and it is simply great. Works with iOS, Android, Windows, Mac — and it’s good for Stadia too on some of those platforms. This little itty bitty version looks neat, but it also is the founding member of a new club I am creating: the 2020 microUSB Hall Of Shame. I’m not saying every device with a microUSB charging port released in 2020 will go into the Hall Of Shame, but this one definitely is — because 8BitDo knows better, the SN30 Pro has USB-C.
└ What you need to know about the Australia bushfires
This season’s fires, however, are unprecedented. It’s a much earlier fire season, and the fires have gotten very big, very early, Kolden tells The Verge. Weather conditions feeding the fires are historic. Australia suffered its hottest day on record on December 18th at a scorching 40.9 degrees Celsius (105.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Extreme heat and drought create more tinder to fuel fires. The heightened intensity and frequency of wildfires falls in line with scientists’ predictions for a warming world.