One of the things that usually happens at CES in Las Vegas is you get a sense that one company or another is really going hard. A few years ago Google started throwing unseemly amounts of money at an outdoor CES installation in a bid to show that the Google Assistant was ready to dominate the smart home. It was an acceleration of a trend in the smart home: a battle with Alexa to form an ecosystem. Standing outside the convention center in 2018, that trend loomed large both metaphorically and physically.
Now that CES is online-only, it’s a little harder for companies to puff their chests out and declare that they (or their products) have hit the big time. One company seemed to be doing its very best to try, though: TCL. And another company, Intel, is trying to drum up excitement for its processors even as we’re still goggle-eyed at the performance Apple achieved on its own chips.
I’ll have some thoughts on both TCL and Intel below, then a roundup of the rest of the biggest news from the first day of CES (including LG’s newer, brighter OLED TVs). Before that, though I’ve got a couple pieces of housekeeping. First, it’s time for the yearly requirement for this newsletter to point you to our privacy notice, which I’m told has no major changes this year.
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Verge readers might be most familiar with TCL thanks to its well-received TVs, which provide good quality for good prices. They regularly top our recommended lists because of that value. Last year TCL said it would be trying harder to establish its brand in the US phone market, but it didn’t really take. This year, the company has pulled out all the stops.
TCL announced the XL Collection line of TVs, vowing to take 8K mainstream this year. TCL has that reputation for value, but it what it really wants is to be considered a tech innovator — in the same class as Sony, Samsung, and LG. As Chris Welch notes, the company went so far as to publish a “prickly” blog post that touted its early adoption of Mini LED technology. It also took a shot at OLED TV technology, which is functionally equivalent to taking a shot at LG.
TCL is also trying to get you to associate it with other categories of products. It is readying Wearable Display glasses for launch, new wireless buds, a pet tracker and the TCL NXTPAPER, a cross between a tablet and an e-reader. That last gadget has an interesting LCD screen that behaves a bit more like e-paper yet provides full color.
TCL’s phone announcements today included two low-end 5G phones with the promise of more to come. When I saw that, I joked that “TCL” stands for “Tryin’ to Copy LG.” But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s not a joke. When it comes to phones, TCL is in fact trying to occupy the space LG used to take up. It has 5G phones ready to go and wants to be the brand carriers turn to when they want something less expensive than Samsung and Apple to sell to customers.
TCL is flooding the zone with inexpensive smartphones this year, part of its overall push to gain more brand recognition in the US. So it’s not about copying LG after all — it’s about supplanting.
Why should TCL’s push matter to you? In a word: competition. Even if you don’t buy a TCL gadget this year, it’s worth watching to see if the pressure it’s trying to bring to bear will have any impact. Or if, like so many things at CES, it’s all for show.
Intel is another company that tried to tell a big story about big changes this year. Intel has tried to use CES as a launch point to bolster its brand more than once. The most notable recent example would be 2018, when its flamboyant keynote happened immediately after a series of very bad security problems for its chips. The whole issue cast a shadow over the proceedings.
No security problems this year, but there’s still a shadow. This time it’s being cast by Apple, which recently introduced the truly superb M1 Arm-based chip on its laptops and gave Intel the boot in the process. Now I usually dislike the way these chip battles are sometimes set up because it’s too reductive: the PC market is vast and multifaceted. But Apple’s chips are such a big deal that there’s really no way to think about Intel and PCs without reference to how the company suddenly has a competitor that is producing systems vastly more efficient than Intel can manage.
It’s not reasonable to expect Intel to have a full response to the M1 already, but it turns out the company does plan on introducing something later this year that could be competitive in the form of its 12th Gen chips, dubbed Alder Lake. I have no idea if Intel can come anywhere close to the performance per watt Apple has achieved, but I do like that Intel is pushing to experiment with the the overall package of high-performance and high-efficiency cores.
But what’s notable is Intel’s scope here, with plans for hybrid chips that will scale far beyond simple mobile devices. The timing is particularly apt: the Alder Lake chips represent Intel’s closest product to Arm-based chips that are built like the game-changing M1 processors that Apple introduced in November. The fact that Intel is looking to scale its hybrid chips across its lineup could indicate that the company is looking to emulate Apple’s Arm success with its own technology going forward — an intriguing idea, particularly as Intel’s more traditional chip strategies continue to face delays.
The knock on Intel is that it can’t seem to get it together and transition its chips down to the 10nm and 7nm processes that power so much of the competition. That knock is well deserved, but it too is reductive in some ways. Even under the constraints of 14nm, Intel does have a few things coming that could power some pretty great devices this year:
Despite the 11th Gen moniker, though, the new Rocket Lake-S chips are still technically 14nm chips — they don’t use the 10nm process. However, they do feature Intel’s Cypress Cove cores, which bring over the 10nm core design back to 14nm, allowing for faster speeds along with Intel’s faster Xe integrated graphics.
So while the new 35W H-series chips won’t be the processors found in the beefiest and best gaming laptops money can buy, they will offer some pretty impressive performance — meaning smaller or lighter laptops could start punching above their weight class, even with smaller core counts and less thermal headroom.
Laptops and PCs
┏ Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 7 Plus has a bigger battery, removable SSD, and LTE. All good additions, and it’s good Microsoft recognized this is a “Plus” update and not a full revision. Because the design here still looks stale compared to the Surface Pro X. Which makes me wonder what will come first: an Intel chip in a Surface Pro X, an Arm-based chip with powerful performance in the Surface Pro X, or the heat death of the universe.
┏ Lenovo’s ThinkPad X12 Detachable has a 12-inch screen that’s, well, detachable. It’s a dead-ahead ThinkPad take on the Surface Pro and in some ways it’s what I wish Microsoft would do. Slightly updated design that still feels classically “ThinkPad” with some very utilitarian benefits (MIL-SPEC 810G for durability), but sadly not enough ports. Excited to see this.
┏ HP announces Snapdragon-powered Elite Folio convertible. Unique form factor and checks a lot of spec boxes. I just wish I could trust that Windows on Arm will be good enough this year to recommend to most people. Some people will get huge benefit out of this, though, as long as they know what they’re getting into:
The processor is Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2, and there’s also LTE and 5G connectivity through the X20 and X55 modems. The Folio can be configured with up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. There are two USB-C 3.2 ports and a headphone jack. HP is claiming up to 24.5 hours of battery life when watching locally stored video files, but we’ll have to see for ourselves how that plays out in more realistic workloads.
┏ Western Digital doubles the storage in its portable SSDs to 4TB. It won’t work very well as external storage for next-gen consoles, but it could be a boon for video creators on the go.
┏ Why Chamberlain built a $3,000 automatic garage door for your dog. Sean Hollister, with a big and interesting look behind the scenes of developing a new product:
So instead of building yet another flap, the garage door opener company set out to build an entire door of its own — with a doggie portal that would completely seal and lock when it closes. Preferably, it’d be a pet door you wouldn’t even know was there.
┏ Lutron’s outdoor smart plug can control your lights through any season. Oh this is smart. Separating out the computer guts from the outdoor lighting is a really good idea, as outdoor lighting is way more diverse and less standardized than indoor bulbs — by necessity.
┏ Samsung is making a robot that can pour wine and bring you a drink. The “bring me a beer” test is the robot equivalent of the Turing test and this seems to pass. But as usual with Samsung’s CES robots, it’s not really going to be produced.
┏ Linksys’ mesh router motion-tracking system can now work with other smart home gadgets. Creepy? Maybe. Clever? Absolutely.
The original Aware motion-sensing system detects how Wi-Fi signals bounce around your house between routers in a mesh system. Movement naturally interferes with those signals, allowing the routers to act as a motion-sensing setup without the need for any additional hardware. ... Now, Linksys is adding support to leverage other internet-connected smart home products — like speakers, smart switches, and thermostats
┏ LG’s 2021 TV lineup includes its brightest OLED ever. LG’s whole lineup is detailed in this post, but the brightness is the most important part. The “bright room” thing is second only to high prices when it comes to things that make me reticent about OLED (burn-in is third, but it’s a distant third).
Brightness has remained a winning factor for LCD TVs over many years; despite perfect blacks and amazing viewing angles, sometimes an OLED set just won’t get the job done if you stick it in an ultra-bright room. But LG says the Evo panel found in its new G1 series — succeeding 2020’s GX lineup — can crank higher than any of its previous OLED TVs for improved luminosity and HDR. LG likens this achievement to past OLED milestones like 4K HDR and the introduction of 8K.
┏ LG is overhauling its webOS TV software — and maybe ruining it. ”Look how they massacred my boy,” The Godfather, 1972 and also me, 2021.
┏ LG announces a stunning 4K OLED monitor for creative pros. Not a TV but it’s very pretty so I’m including it. Some time ago Apple anointed an LG monitor as the go-to display for its computers. It was and is a very nice monitor — and this seems like it will be a worthy successor.
Bravia Core isn’t going to replace Netflix, but it seems like it was specifically designed to show customers the ultimate capabilities of their new TV set. Kind of like when you buy a TV with true 4K HDR capabilities, and you play the best 4K YouTube channels to try to see the difference between your new set and that old clunker you just tossed.
┏ This is Sony’s Airpeak drone. A Sony drone designed to carry Sony Alpha cameras is a Very Big Deal for filmmakers from amateur to pro. There are still lots of open questions, but keep an eye out for this thing to make an impact. Small piece of advice: make sure the sociopaths in charge of Sony’s camera software interfaces are kept far, far away from this thing.
┏ Vuzix’s new microLED smart glasses look like something you’d actually want to wear on your face. Vuzix is a CES staple, showing some form of on-face displays for almost as many years as I can remember. Usually it’s clear they’re designing for industrial applications, but this year’s version is the most consumer-friendly I’ve seen yet. It’s a good example of a company making small, iterative improvements out in the open, year after year, without fanfare.
┏ Finally you can have ice cream at home thanks to ice cream pods. My goal for 2021 is to distribute the very newsletter you’re reading right now via pods.
┏ YSL’s lipstick pod gadget will create whatever shade you want. POD ALL THE THINGS
┏ OnePlus’ first wearable is a budget fitness tracker with two-week battery. These look alright!
The OnePlus Band includes a rectangular 1.1-inch OLED display with a resolution of 126x294 and a silicone watch strap. It’s available in black, navy, and “tangerine gray,” and it’s got a dust and water resistance rating of IP68. Its 5ATM rating means it’s water-resistant at a depth up to 50 meters for 10 minutes. Internally there’s a 100mAh battery, which OnePlus says should offer up to two weeks of battery life.
┏ PopSockets are going MagSafe. I love PopSockets but I am VERY dubious that this is a good idea. One of the most important things a PopSocket provides is a sense that you have a more reliable grip on your phone, that it’s less likely to drop. MagSafe is strong but it’s not strong enough for that.
┏ Qualcomm’s second-gen ultrasonic fingerprint reader is bigger and faster than the original. I’d gotten used to the half-a-beat-longer in-screen fingerprint sensors take to unlock, but I went back to using a Pixel 5 this past winter and damn, I forgot how much faster traditional sensors are. Really hope Qualcomm’s speed promises pan out.