The holidays are behind us, the year has turned, and that means it’s time for another Consumer Electronics Show. CES is the biggest tech party of the year and The Verge will be there in force. As we head into the show, don’t believe the haters: the tech stories many are expecting may sound like they’re minor iterations on stuff we’ve already seen, but sometimes those second turns are the most important ones. From 4K to wearables to smart cars, the story of CES will probably be the mainstream availability of tech that was previously out of the average consumer's reach. If 2013 was about introducing new tech like curved televisions and the Oculus Rift, 2014 looks like it’s going to be about making it both real and available for regular humans.
We’ve put together our predictions for the show and we’ve also created a CES hub where you will be able to find comprehensive coverage of everything that matters (and everything that’s weird) this year. The show technically opens on Tuesday, January 7th, but that opening date doesn’t mean too much: expect wall-to-wall coverage beginning well before that. CES is coming: get excited for the next upgrade.
TVs & 4K
A good show for pixel-density enthusiasts
4K took center stage at CES last year, but an even bigger spotlight awaits in 2014. Sony, Samsung, and others will have their biggest, curviest, and best Ultra HD sets on display in Las Vegas. But putting the stunning visuals aside, it’s time for manufacturers to tackle the bigger points of pricing and content distribution. 4K TVs are getting cheaper, but they remain a luxury buy. Don’t expect a dramatic shift in 2014, but prices should fall enough to bring 4K within more consumers' reach throughout the year.
But none of that addresses the issue of convenience (or lack thereof). There's still no good way to watch 4K movies and TV shows on these shiny new TVs. Sony is pushing forward with UHD video delivery, but its solution is proprietary to its own TVs. The industry as a whole needs to come up with a better way. Until that happens, the best strategy may be letting Netflix take the lead. And that might actually be the plan; Netflix has already confirmed that 4K streaming will be available on select UHD Smart TVs in 2014 — no extra hardware necessary. You're likely to hear much more on this and other video-streaming news (keep an eye on Roku) at CES.
CES will also mark our first look at webOS as a TV interface, with LG set to unveil its first HDTV powered by the repurposed mobile operating system. We've seen an image of what it looks like, but plenty of questions remain. Can the software that began life at Palm breathe fresh air into television UI? We hope to answer that question sometime in the next week.
But CES 2014 will feel different for another reason: Panasonic's beloved plasma HDTVs are dead and (almost) gone. In 2014 — for the first time in years — consumers will need to look elsewhere for reasonably priced TVs that put picture quality ahead of everything else. As for Panasonic's future plans, the company's OLED joint venture with Sony has reportedly fizzled, but both companies say they will continue researching the gorgeous but cost-prohibitive technology. LG may be hoping to get a bit of a jump start here; it's bringing five OLED models to the show floor.
CES is no longer a place where automakers cautiously dip their toes in the technological waters — they’re officially out in full force, enjoying the same top billing you’d expect from traditional consumer electronics heavyweights like Samsung and Sony. Among the focus areas for car companies at this year’s show, one is particularly obvious: autonomous driving, which broke out as a big deal with demonstrations from Audi and Lexus at CES 2013. Expect several companies to announce advancements in self-driving tech once again next week — and realistically, expect it at the show every year until self-driving cars finally hit the road en masse over the coming decade. Practically every car company agrees that this is the next paradigm shift in the automotive world, and they’re all running full speed ahead to make the progress needed for self-driving to be both safe and practical enough for real-world cars in real-world situations.
But you won’t be buying a self-driving car any time soon. For near-term tech, look at the "connected car," where automakers on every continent are still looking for the best way to integrate smartphones and ubiquitous high-speed wireless data with the dashboard. Apple’s announcement last year of iOS in the Car may have lit a fire under the industry, spurring the development of some interesting new technologies and standards that could bow at the show.
Finally, expect a few announcements around green power — alternative fuel is inexorably linked to technology, which makes it a prime candidate for the CES news cycle. And it’s not all about electric: Toyota will be talking about real-world advancements in hydrogen fuel cells, which it plans to commercially deploy across the globe in 2015. Ford will also be showing its C-Max Solar Energi, an enhanced version of its C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid that can recharge its batteries off a roof-mounted solar panel.
Self-driving cars are coming — slowly
Building the smart home piece by piece
Dreams of a smart, automated home have been around for decades, and recently manufacturers have been inching toward making them a reality. At this year's CES, expect to see more appliances that can connect to the web, more useful ways for them to interact with you, and even more ways for you to start controlling them from outside your house.
Two of the biggest names in this space, LG and Samsung, have already teased a bit of what they'll be showing off. LG has plans to introduce a washer, vacuum, oven, and refrigerator that can be controlled through the popular messaging app Line. And Samsung plans to allow developers to create smart TV apps that can control lights, air-conditioning units, fridges, and other home appliances.
Riding off the coattails of the Nest thermostat (and its smoke-detecting companion), expect to see even more appliances trying to make it easy to reduce home energy use. LG's new fridge is one example: it’ll automatically enter into a power-saving state when vacation mode is enabled — and if owners forget to enable it before leaving town, they can always turn it on through a message on Line.
Not every connected appliance will be a major investment like a washer or an oven, though. From a connected pressure cooker to a personal weather station, manufacturers will be showcasing a variety of ways to start making your home a little bit smarter, one small piece at a time.
But while your appliances may be getting more capable, don't expect them to make your life all that much easier just yet. Manufacturers still haven't worked out a great way for a full house of devices to talk to each other, and many connected appliances are still smart in name only. Will this be the year that they can truly automate our life? Probably not, but CES will move us ever closer.
Prepare your wrist — and your face
No part of our bodies is safe from the grasps of electronics manufacturers. The trails blazed in 2013 by Google Glass, Pebble, and the Nike Fuelband are about see a traffic jam as company after company shows off wearable devices. Some will be watches, or wristbands — LG was but the first of what we are sure will be many to push a device that tracks your activity and shows you important notifications from your phone.
Apple won't be present to present its long-rumored iWatch, and Google's competitor is likely to stay under wraps as well, but there will be dozens of companies vying to be the first to give wristwear fashion credibility to go with its nerd cred.
A few companies are preparing more ambitious, more ostentatious wearables — and balancing them on the bridge of your nose. The common Google Glass refrain is that it won't be successful until it looks like a regular pair of glasses; at CES 2014, expect a lot of normal-looking eyeglasses with surprising functionality.
Most glasses so far have been for niche purposes — getting information on the ski slope, for instance — but there will be many loud promises to take the concept mainstream. Wearables face a unique challenge: we can't hide them in our bags or our pockets. They're made to be seen; to be shown off. It would be fitting, really, if Las Vegas was home to the first truly cool, flashy, fashionable gadgets.
Game developers typically save their announcements for the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June — not consumer electronics shows like CES — but last year’s Vegas ceremonies included four giant gaming surprises. In addition to the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, we got our first glimpses of the Nvidia Shield gaming handheld and the powerful Razer Edge tablet, not to mention an interview with Valve’s Gabe Newell about where the Steam Box vision was headed.
Now that the world knows that gaming can make a splash at CES, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more manufacturers following that lead — and you can count on virtual reality and Steam Machines in particular being themes in Vegas this year. Not only does it sound like Sony has a virtual reality headset up its sleeves, but both Oculus and Valve are relying on outside manufacturers to pick up the torch when it comes to building hardware. We expect to see a number of virtual reality peripherals and Linux-based, living-room friendly gaming PCs at CES as a result.
And don’t count out the little guy. Gaming is proving to be one of the most popular categories for Kickstarter projects, with devices like the Ouya and numerous games finding their funding there. It wouldn’t be surprising if a some enterprising new gaming concepts coughed up the cash for a spot at the show this year.
Virtual reality is virtually here
Tablets and PCs
Windows, ChromeOS, and Android make strange bedfellows
The PC isn't dead, but it's in desperate need of a facelift. And at CES 2014, manufacturers will continue to try new things, to experiment with new ideas and form factors until something sticks. Chromebooks will litter the Las Vegas Convention Center, threatening to become the new de-facto low-end PC option.
Hybrid devices will have transforming software equal to their hardware, with Windows and Android coexisting in a single device. All the while, the resolution wars will rage on — nearly every manufacturer told us in 2013 that screen resolution is an ever-larger focus in the PC market, and high-res screens will go from luxury to mainstay in short order.
As PCs take the best of tablets, tablets may also begin to learn from laptops. Samsung's rumored to be launching a 12-inch tablet designed for productivity applications, as companies search for an advantage over the iPads and Nexus 7s of the world. Eight-inch Windows tablets are sure to be common as well, and the resolution arms race means 4K tablet displays are more possibility than pipe dream, too. But what we'll really see at CES is your tablet join your smartphone as the centerpiece of all the devices — from light bulbs and refrigerators to cars and houses — in your life. Tablets are shifting from convenient luxury to practical necessity, and they're getting better at a spectacular pace.
Can T-Mobile steal the show?
CES has never really been the place for big mobile news (the last major announcement of any merit was when Palm announced webOS in 2009), but there are a couple of things to look forward to. Since the other manufacturers have moved on to different conferences or their own events to reveal new products, Sony has filled the vacancy with its own announcements for the past few years. In 2013, the company used CES to reveal the Xperia Z, its flagship smartphone that eventually came to T-Mobile US later in the year. We don’t expect Sony to make another flagship announcement this year (the Z1 has already followed the Z and was only released a few months ago), but we’d be surprised if there aren't at least one or two phone-related announcements from the company.
It’s also likely that Samsung will make a phone announcement or two, though we don’t expect an updated Galaxy Gear, as recently rumored, to be among them. Rather, Samsung will likely announce a mid-range or low-end phone at CES, as it tends to save its flagship devices for their own special events.
The most interesting phone news at the show might actually come from T-Mobile, which has a press event scheduled for the second half of CES. CEO John Legere has been teasing that the company will reveal the fourth phase of its "Uncarrier" initiative during the show, and as is usual for Legere, he promises it will "shake up the wireless industry." We’re not entirely clear on what Uncarrier 4.0 will bring, but there have been hints and rumors saying that it will involve family plans and possibly T-Mobile offering to pay early termination fees if people switch from other carriers. Either way, T-Mobile’s press events have been quite entertaining over the past year, so we’re looking forward to what’s in store.
That’s what we’re expecting from CES in 2014 — but as ever, it’s what we’re not expecting that could be truly exciting. Our Best of CES Awards last year was filled with surprises: from the Oculus Rift to Nvidia’s ambitious Shield gaming handheld to, yes, Qualcomm’s deeply weird and hilarious keynote.
Some big players like Apple and Microsoft may take a backseat at CES, but that doesn’t mean their influence won't still pervade the show floor. The combination of ever-cheaper manufacturing and a Kickstarter culture will surely create a massive influx of peripherals, wearables, and clever new gadgets looking to get a sliver of the limelight that CES provides. 2014 could be another year where a little startup can upstage a huge company — last year it was Oculus and Pebble, but we’ll just have to head to Las Vegas to see who is trying to do it this year.
So we’re doing exactly that. Making our annual pilgrimage to the arid desert to brave the crowded halls and flashing lights and report on all the trends and news. We’ll collect it all in our CES hub and break it all down with video and interviews. Don’t go anywhere, it’s going to be a big show.