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The Verge Awards at CES 2020: welcome to the land of the concept

What is even real anymore?

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Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / The Verge

Oh, what a difference 12 months makes. At last year’s CES, we found fewer concepts and more tangible products than ever before. Apparently this year, the exhibitors saw our reaction and felt they had to work overtime to correct it because if there was a theme to 2020’s CES, it was that CES is the land of the concept.

This year, the things that stole attention at the show were not early looks at products that you and I will be able to actually use and buy over the next 12 months. Sure, there’s the occasional laptop and meat substitute that will be available for purchase in 2020. But for every one of those, there’s a rolling ball robot, virtual personal attendant, or entire vehicle that is never likely to ship.

You will see that repeated over and over as you peruse our list of award winners. It’s everything that we think is the most interesting, important, or just amusing that we saw this year. Choosing a best in show at CES 2020 was especially difficult; while Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold still has to answer many questions, at least the company has committed to shipping it later this spring.

Perhaps we’ll get into a tick-tock cycle of CES years, with every other one being full of manufacturer fantasies and the next year bringing everything back down to reality. But for this year, it was a lot of show with not very much substance.

“Best” in Show:

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold

This was a complicated award to bestow. Some Verge editors were not entirely sold on the pick, considering that we’re all in agreement that Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold is unlikely to be a particularly sleek product when it ships this summer.

But that’s exactly the point — it’s shipping this summer. At a CES, where foldable screens have emerged as a major hardware trend, Lenovo is virtually the only company willing to actually give a spec sheet, a shipping window, and a price for its version of the technology. Even if that price is $2,499.

Lenovo says it’s been working with LG Display on the X1 Fold for more than four years. It’s wise to be skeptical about any folding product at this point, with the rocky launches of 2019 still in recent memory. But given that we used a near-identical X1 Fold prototype last May, it’s plausible that Lenovo has been able to spend enough time refining its design and durability before announcing the official release. 

If any aspect of the X1 Fold appears to be rushed, it’s the software. Windows 10X looms over the entire product category at CES, and Lenovo says it’ll release an X1 Fold variant with Microsoft’s new dual-screen operating system later on. It also makes the point that its business customers are likely to prefer the standard version of Windows. The primary advantage of a folding screen — a much bigger display than you’d normally get at that size — is pretty simple. But without a UI designed for this form factor at the system level, the X1 Fold is never going to be ideal. 

We believe that foldable computers will be a thing — if not this year, then next. Both Microsoft and Intel are actively developing software and hardware designed for these new PCs, and it’s only a matter of time before more PC manufacturers take a shot. But even though Dell showed off concepts at CES 2020, it doesn’t have plans to sell them. Intel had a reference design at the show, but it wouldn’t let us bend it ourselves.

Lenovo introduced a PC in a completely new and appealing form factor, let us use it however we liked, and told us when we’d be able to buy one and for how much. In a year full of CES concepts, that’s enough to get the Best in Show. —Sam Byford

GIF by Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge

Best Laptop:

Asus ROG Zephyrus G14

Asus’ ROG Zephyrus G14 isn’t the most powerful gaming laptop at CES 2020, but it’s a combination of a smaller 14-inch design and AMD’s newly introduced Ryzen 4000 H-series chips. The Zephyrus G14 promises to be the perfect balance of a laptop: high-end gaming specs with a top-notch RTX 2060 GPU and plenty of RAM for when you want to game. But it also has a design that looks normal enough to use at an office, promises 10-plus hours of battery life, and can charge off a standard 60W USB-C PD brick when you’re on the go. The icing on the cake? A retro-cool dot-matrix display built into the lid that you can use to display the time, animated GIFs, or whatever else you can think of. —Chaim Gartenberg

Best Gaming Thing:

Alienware Concept UFO

The Nintendo Switch’s massive success has proven that a console / portable hybrid can be a really great way to let you play games at home and on the go. This year at CES, Alienware showed off the Concept UFO, a prototype gaming PC / portable hybrid that looks to capture that same magic. It is a full-fledged Windows 10 PC packed into a handheld form factor that takes a lot of cues from the Nintendo Switch, such as an included display, a dock to connect to a PC or monitor, detachable Joy-Con-like controllers, and even a kickstand. 

Right now, though, the Concept UFO is just a concept. Alienware hasn’t shared anything about the actual hardware powering the Concept UFO, and we don’t even know if it will become a real product. But it looks a lot easier to lug around than most gaming laptops, and that alone could make the Concept UFO the best way to play PC games when you’re out and about. That is, if it (or something like it) ever comes out. —Jay Peters

Most Interesting PC:

Intel’s NUC 9 Extreme platform

Typically, you upgrade a computer in one of three ways: you can quickly slot in a new graphics card, memory, or storage. You can painstakingly replace the CPU, motherboard, ports, and cooling system (though, generally, you do those at the same time). Or you say “screw it” and just buy a new PC. At CES, Intel introduced a new paradigm: a swappable cartridge called the NUC Element that contains all of the tougher components to replace. It’s so small that companies can now effortlessly build full gaming PCs smaller than they’ve ever been able to before. 

It was tempting enough that Razer adopted the platform to introduce its first gaming desktop in the sleek Tomahawk, and PC part company Cooler Master will soon have one as well. Intel will even sell its own incredibly small 5-liter NUC 9 Extreme to PC enthusiasts, smaller than all but the smallest fully upgradeable desktops you could build yourself. —Sean Hollister

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Best Monitor / Display:

Samsung Odyssey G9

There are those who would say that the 49-inch Samsung Odyssey G9 monitor is too much screen for any one person. Those people are wrong. 

Not only is the Odyssey G9 one of the biggest monitors you can buy for your desk, but with a 1000R curve, it’s the most curved screen you can get, matching the human eye. It doesn’t so much sit in front of your face as envelop you with a soaring expanse of screen. And with a 5120 x 1440 resolution, 240Hz refresh rate, 1ms response time, and both FreeSync 2 and G-Sync compatibility, it’ll check all of the spec boxes for gamers, too. —Chaim Gartenberg

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Best TV

Samsung QLED bezel-less 8K

Samsung’s 8K Q950 has a stunning design with bezels so small they disappear to your eyes as soon as the screen turns on. The black space surrounding the displays on our smartphones is almost gone, so why shouldn’t TVs get the same treatment? Samsung has pulled that off. This should be the future of TV design — but it should’ve been available in a 4K TV since buying 8K remains just as preposterous now as it was at CES 2019. —Chris Welch

Image: Sony

Best Headfake

Sony PlayStation 5 logo

2020 is a unique year for Sony, which is poised to launch its first brand-new PlayStation in nearly a decade before the year’s out. That made the Japanese electronics giant’s big CES press conference unusually exciting, with fans tuning in to see if Sony would reveal any new information about the upcoming PS5, perhaps even a first look at the hardware after Microsoft unveiled its new Xbox Series X last month at The Game Awards. 

For the first few minutes of the event, it looked like Sony was preparing to drop some new PlayStation-related news as it cycled through the console’s history — that is, until we arrived at the big reveal: a new logo that’s nearly identical to the existing PS4 one. It was a huge letdown, and you could feel the collective sigh of anguish from the internet as soon as Sony moved on from the logo reveal to the rest of its CES material. Perhaps we’ll see the PS5 soon, maybe at the Game Developers Conference and almost certainly at E3 in Los Angeles this June. But until then, all we have is the same old logo with the number at the end moved up by a unit. —Nick Statt

Photo by Ashley Carman / The Verge

Most Triumphant Comeback:

Lora DiCarlo

After having its innovation award revoked last year, Lora DiCarlo is back at CES with its Osé personal massager and two new products: the Onda and Baci. For years, sex tech companies have been relegated to press events off the show floor, but after Lora DiCarlo publicized the fact that the CTA, which puts on the show every year, rescinded its award last year, the internet went wild, demanding that the CTA allow sexual wellness products to show off their wares. The CTA relented. So this year, multiple companies are now on the show floor. Lora DiCarlo didn’t only return to CES with news of its own but with an army, too. —Ashley Carman

Image: GE Lighting

Best Smart Home Thing:

GE C smart switches and dimmers

Building a smart home is still such a minefield of traps and pitfalls that many might even quit before they get started. If you’ve ever been interested in a smart switch for your lightbulbs and excitedly bought one only to find out your home lacks the necessary wiring, it would make you want to give up, too.

That’s why GE’s new C by GE smart light switches and dimmers are so compelling. Yes, they are just another smart switch that you install in your wall to give you app and voice assistant control over your lighting fixtures. But they don’t require a neutral wire, which means they can be installed in almost any home with just a few minutes of simple wiring. On top of that, they don’t require a hub; these just connect directly to your Wi-Fi network. With so many smart home gadgets introduced at CES every year, it can be hard to find the ones that are actually practical. GE’s smart switches get the award this year simply because they are just that: practical. —Dan Seifert

Image: Netgear

Best Router:

Netgear Nighthawk Mesh

Wi-Fi 6 is here, built into the latest iPhones and already in the pockets of millions of people. Except, it’s been held back by one critical missing component: affordable Wi-Fi 6 routers, with the initial mesh options costing an outlandish $400 to $700. At CES 2020, Netgear changed that. The Nighthawk Mesh, available in March, includes two Wi-Fi 6 routers for $230. It’s by no means the fastest combination out there, but it brings Wi-Fi 6 to a far more typical price, supports up to 1.8 Gbps of throughput, and offers 1,500 square feet of coverage per node. This is the kind of package Wi-Fi 6 needs to actually be put to use. —Jake Kastrenakes

Most Concept:

Sony’s Vision-S

Concept products are a fraught gambit. They’re often overstuffed with too many ambitious ideas, sometimes to the point that it’s clear the company has lost the plot. But Sony showed up at this year’s CES with an example of how to do a concept right with the Vision-S electric sedan. The company wants to be more involved in the worlds of electric and autonomous vehicles, and to signal that, it built what is basically a fully functioning electric sedan. The Vision-S is decked out with Sony sensors, runs Sony software, and prominently features Sony entertainment products and technologies. Sony could have thrown these ideas in a hunk of plastic, said it was a concept car, and called it a day. Instead, the company chose to spend the time and money creating a one-off that works, thereby signaling to potential partners and customers just how willing it is to commit to the bit. Too bad the company insists the Vision-S won’t ever be anything other than a one-off concept. —Sean O’Kane

Most CES:

Mercedes-Benz Avatar-themed car

You really have to hand it to Mercedes-Benz. The German automaker’s Avatar-inspired concept car, the Vision AVTR, is pretty much the quintessential modern CES announcement. Outlandish design? Check. Futuristic tech that doesn’t actually work right now? Check. Striking a partnership with a popular entertainment company in order to use its intellectual property to help prop up the messaging behind a concept car? Check and check. On top of all that, Mercedes-Benz spent a whole hour talking about the Vision AVTR and nothing else. It even brought James Cameron onstage to boot, and the director confidently stated that we humans will merge with technology. He then showed off some concept art for Avatar 2. *Breathes in deeply, then exhales* Ah, yes. A very fine CES, indeed. —Sean O’Kane

Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

Most Overhyped:

Samsung’s Neon digital avatars

In the lead-up to CES, nothing was hyped more than Neon, a somewhat mysterious project from Samsung. We finally confirmed what it is during the show: it’s digital avatars with speech and facial gestures created by computers. That’s intriguing, and Neon has some interesting ideas about what they could be used for, but neither the technology nor the business model is anywhere near ready. So, ironically, we still think Neon is mysterious, but it’s a different mystery now. After Neon’s CEO spoke to us and revealed slightly more information about what he’s trying to do and how his technology actually works, the mystery we’re struggling with is: why did Samsung let this thing make such a splashy CES debut? —Dieter Bohn

Image: Samsung

Best AI Gimmick:

The artificial intelligence refrigerator war

Compared to all of the unsettling technology that AI is currently enabling — ubiquitous facial recognition, autonomous weaponry, etc. — checking the contents of your fridge is comfortingly benign. This year at CES, appliance makers, including LG and Samsung, promised their new fridges would use machine vision to track how much milk and cheese owners have left, with additional promises of automatic recipe suggestions and auto-populating grocery lists. I’m skeptical about the performance of this tech (after all, how well can in-fridge cameras handle confusing data like torn labels and mysterious Tupperware?), but at least the end product could be useful. And hey, it’s not like it could lead to anything malicious, like appliance makers collecting detailed information about your diet and shopping habits. Oh, hang on a second… —James Vincent

Best Vaporware:

Samsung Ballie

The demo video for Samsung’s Ballie had all the hallmarks of a Kickstarter pitch: a contrived tale meant to sell a dream that technology doesn’t support yet. In the video (titled, incredibly, “A Waltz For Ballie”) Samsung’s “companion robot” is seen organizing a user’s life like a tiny spherical butler: opening curtains, checking yoga poses, and cleaning up after the dog. In the actual demonstrations, however, Ballie seems merely capable of rolling back and forth a bit and going “bleep bloop” in an endearing fashion. Samsung hasn’t announced a price or release date for the bot. And although it’s certainly well-designed, don’t expect to see this thing in stores anytime soon. Oh, and as proof that while history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it does rhyme: you might have forgotten that back in 2016, LG announced its own spherical companion robot. That one rolled out of sight pretty quickly, too. —James Vincent

Photo illustration by William Joel / The Verge | Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Biggest Streaming News:

Quibi’s coming-out party

We expected mobile streaming service Quibi’s big launch keynote to come with a preview of its app. The team behind it, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, have already made tons of noise about their content deals. Plus, CES seems like an ideal time to show off, well, new tech. But Quibi didn’t come to Las Vegas with an app to demo. Instead, it used its time in the spotlight to show off its Turnstyle technology, which allows viewers to seamlessly switch between portrait and landscape modes for access to a different point of view. Quibi’s supposed to launch on April 6th, so it’ll presumably have an app to show the world before then. But either way, everyone at CES has been talking about the $1 billion streaming service and whether we’ll really be rotating our phones around to watch 10-minute-or-less “quick bites” of content. —Ashley Carman

Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Biggest News Not at CES:

Sonos sues Google

Sonos stole the spotlight from CES earlier this week by very publicly letting it be known that the company is suing Google. The lawsuit accuses Google of infringing on Sonos’ patents, and it also paints Google — and Amazon, for that matter — as big tech bullies dead set on lifting their own smart speakers to success at the expense of mid-sized players like Sonos. It’s a feeling that many companies showcasing their wares at CES can probably relate to. And with Google indicating it has no reluctance to square off against Sonos in court, the case could be a fascinating look into the prickly relationship between gadget maker and an internet giant. —Chris Welch

Honorable Mentions:

Reddest Gadget:

Samsung Galaxy Chromebook

Orangest Gadget:

OnePlus Concept One phone

Most Egg-cellent:

Segway S-Pod

Tastiest Fake Pork Substitute:

Impossible Pork