What to expect at CES 2021

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The Consumer Electronics Show officially begins this week. Thankfully, the Consumer Electronics Association capitulated in July and switched the whole thing over to being online-only. But it’s hard to know what CES is even supposed to be without giant convention halls filled with ostentatious displays, blinking lights, and hordes of exhausted and smelly people in off-the-rack suits. Whatever happens, you will be able to find all our coverage right here.

The chief executive of the CEA Gary Shapiro told the Wall Street Journal that his organization did its best to try to translate some of the experience online. I can tell you that many on our staff here at The Verge are absolutely dreading being made to click through 3D software models of booths like we’re playing the worst Myst remake ever.

But my guess is that it’ll be a lot smoother than that and really the thing we’ll miss the most is that it will be harder to serendipitously stumble upon some strange or clever new gadget at a tiny booth in the back reaches of the Sands convention center.

The CEA has smartly limited official keynote presentations to 30 minutes a pop. That should mean we’ll get to the announcements more quickly and have to spend a little less time hearing vague hand-waving about innovation. We’ll be covering those live (though without liveblogs), so stay tuned starting today and through the first half of the week.

The main CES keynote will come from Verizon (so expect 5G talk), but the usual suspects like Sony, Samsung, LG and others will have their own presentations. One consequence of moving the entire show online is that companies seem to be stretching out their announcements to fill the suddenly larger virtual space. So although CES’s official start is this week, many of the biggest announcements have already happened. This year’s TV announcements are essentially half-finished thanks to Samsung and Sony going so early.

This year, there will be a few trends to watch for. In TVs, 8K will continue to be everywhere but the real showdown is going to be between more traditional OLED TVs and Mini LED. But the real thing to watch for is HDMI 2.1, the new iteration of the spec that has the necessary bandwidth for more advanced gaming features. It ought to be everywhere this year. Oh, and LG has already shown off its weird concepts this year — transparent TVs are cool.

LG’s bendy TV for 2020

LG’s bendy TV for 2020

LG

There will be plenty of 5G talk, but since this isn’t a phone show much of it will amount to more promises. Verizon is doing the keynote, however, so perhaps it will have something to say about improving its lackluster 5G network, which can often be slower than LTE. (Verizon’s 4G LTE network remains great, at least.)

Laptops and PCs will likely show up with their usual mix: a few weird concepts and a lot of decent spec bumps. I’m going to keep an eye out for two things: whether AMD can pick up more models from Intel and whether Intel can get a critical mass of “Evo” laptops with decent battery life. Because like it or not, the stunningly good Arm-based MacBooks are going to loom like a shadow over the whole proceeding. Perhaps a few companies will take a shot at making a better Arm-based Windows laptop, too.

As for smart home stuff, there’ll be the usual mix of oddities like smart toilets and improvements to the basics like fridges, ovens, and smart lights. I do wonder if there will be a small lull this year as we await the new CHIP industry standard that should reduce fragmentation in how these things communicate with each other.

Image: JBL

One thing we’ll definitely keep an eye out for is health gadgets — and that eye will be extremely skeptical. CES is always the place where quackery and technology team up, but this year my worry is that more than a few overzealous companies will try to make COVID-specific pitches for their gadgets.

Last and perhaps least: phones. CES is rarely a phone show, and this year the fact that Samsung will be announcing its flagship Galaxy S21 just afterwards will tamp those announcements down further. I suspect we’ll see a lot of low and mid-range phones that bring down the cost of access to 5G, but I doubt anybody will try to front-run Samsung.

There may be surprises, too! You never know. We’ll be covering it all from the safety of our homes, so stay tuned. I’ll send out more newsletters than usual this week to try to keep up. And speaking of keeping up, below are the CES and CES-adjacent announcements that have already happened.

TVs

Samsung’s 2021 TVs have dramatically better picture, thanks to Mini LED. Samsung’s big bet on Mini LED continues, including more dimming zones. Not having the chance to see Samsung’s TVs in person is one of my bigger regrets this year, because it is doing so much to try to innovate with LED tech instead of just going to OLED like everybody else.

But to me, the best thing Samsung did was tout a whole new set of accessibility features. In particular I like that its TVs will give users the option of enlarging the ASL bubble that appears on the lower-right of the screen. But it’s doing much more than that.

Samsung made a solar-charging Eco Remote for its latest TVs. Samsung also made a lot of noise over the environment and here I was less sympathetic. If one were to do a study of the extra carbon cost of building this remote with its solar panel and integrated battery versus just letting users replace a couple of AA cells every so often, I wonder which would come out ahead.

LG imagines a bed with a hidden see-thru OLED TV set. I dunno LG, a semi-transparent TV is cool enough on its own that adding a motorized gimmick and suggesting it go at the foot of a bed is just gilding the pixel lily.

The screen achieves 40 percent transparency, LG Display says, which is an improvement over past transparent LCDs the company claims achieved only 10 percent transparency. … LG imagines the screen sitting at the foot of a bed, where it can rise up partially or in full to show information or videos while retaining a view of the other side of the screen.

Watch this flexible LG gaming TV bend from flat to curved. Okay I dig this.

Sony’s 2021 TV lineup runs Google TV and fully embraces HDMI 2.1. Sony’s TV lineup is a little less flashy but a lot more functional this year. It’s switching over to Google TV from Android TV, for one thing. And I love this bit about the legs:

Sony has also focused on small touches, like adjustable legs that can be configured to allow enough space for a soundbar in front of the TV without obstructing the picture. Going down the lineup, you lose certain niceties (like an antireflective coating exclusive to the 8K set), but all of the TVs support Dolby Vision HDR.

Roku says Roku TV was best-selling smart TV OS in North America for 2020.

Other very good big screens

Acer’s latest gaming monitors include its first with HDMI 2.1. At some point, I am going to need to figure out a way to play PS5 games without using the main television for hours on end — there’s other people who want to watch TV. This looks like a great, overkill solution for that which could also serve as a really solid gaming monitor. Not cheap, though, and as Cameron Faulkner points out it is getting awfully close to “just buy an actual TV instead” territory.

In terms of specs, the standout product is the new Nitro XV28, a 28-inch 4K monitor with an IPS display and a 144Hz refresh rate with FreeSync Premium. It’s Acer’s first gaming monitor to use HDMI 2.1 ports, giving it the spec (assuming you’re using an HDMI 2.1-compliant cable) to support up to 4K gaming at 120 frames per second with variable refresh rate (VRR). … So, not only is this a solid option for PC gamers hoping to squeeze the most out of their Nvidia RTX 3080 or AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT, it’s an option about which PS5 and Xbox Series X owners can be equally excited.

Mercedes-Benz unveils its absolutely massive 56-inch ‘Hyperscreen’ display. CES is nothing if not a show about screens, and I am sad that I won’t have a chance to go behold this screen (which is technically three screens) in person.

Sony is going to start selling its Mandalorian-like virtual set displays. I’ll take two.

Audio

These are Sony’s first 360-degree audio speakers. These speakers look really interesting! I do wonder how they sound, of course. I also wonder just how much content is really going to support 360-degree audio.

Sony’s 360-degree audio is coming to streaming video.

JBL’s new stereo amplifier pairs retro looks with modern connectivity. Click through and look at this thing. It’s very pretty!

The JBL SA750 is a new stereo amplifier pairing modern streaming technologies like Airplay 2 and Google Chromecast with a design that wouldn’t look out of place in a hi-fi rack from the ‘60s or ‘70s. It’s got a set of reassuringly chunky-looking dials and switches as physical controls, an understated display, and its sides are covered with wood veneers. The amplifier, whose release coincides with JBL’s 75th anniversary, will cost $3,000 when it goes on sale beginning this May.

JBL’s Bar 5.0 Multibeam is an all-in-one soundbar with Virtual Dolby Atmos.

The JLab JBuds Frames are open-ear headphones you clip to your glasses.

PCs

LG’s 2021 Gram laptops feature Intel’s 11th-Gen processors. There are “Evo” laptops, Intel’s badge for devices that meet certain benchmarks for battery life and included features. As Monica Chin notes, LG might have exceeded those benchmarks in at least one category:

LG claims you could see up to 19.5 hours from the Gram 17, Gram 16, and 16 2-in-1. That’s a claim I’d usually be skeptical of, but I will say the 2020 Gram 17 had some of the longest battery life I saw from a laptop last year. It lasted around 10 hours of my daily workload (which is fairly intense). So LG knows what it’s doing when it comes to efficiency, and there’s reason for optimism.

Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 hands-on: promisingly boring. Last year Samsung and Google did their level best to steal the CES show with a very red, very pretty Chromebook that ended up being very disappointing. This year Samsung is retrenching — this laptop is not a successor at all. As Monica Chin calls it, it’s a “regular-ass Chromebook.” Nothing wrong with that as long as it’s executed well. We’ll see.

Lenovo’s new IdeaPad 5 Pro includes AMD Ryzen mobile processors. Lenovo is joining the 16:10 aspect ratio club, which is the hottest laptop screen club even though it’s not quite as fancy as the 3:2 aspect ratio club.

Lenovo’s new Yoga all-in-one has a rotating display for better TikTok videos and Twitter scrolling. Sure, the monitor rotates and that’s rare in AIOs, but I am jealous of the feature that lets you plug in your laptop and make the two computers a little more symbiotic.

Of particular note is how Lenovo is taking advantage of USB-C with the Yoga AIO 7. Plug in your laptop with a USB-C cable, and you’ll be able to use the Yoga AIO 7’s hardware — including the display, speakers, mouse and keyboard, power supply, and even the integrated hard drive — directly with your laptop.

Lenovo chases dream of making a PC Nintendo Switch with the LaVie Mini concept. Another concept that is unlikely to actually end up on store shelves, as Mitchell Clark notes:

Most, like Alienware’s UFO concept from last year, don’t ever end up making it to market, as these prototypes are often less about making viable consumer products and more about experimenting with new ideas and form factors and getting the requisite press attention during CES. Some do go on sale but don’t end up appealing to enough gamers to really make an impact, like Razer’s Edge or the initial Nvidia Shield handheld.

Gadgets and gizmos

LG’s newest cordless vac automatically empties itself. I don’t know if LG will actually sell this or not — the company loves doing weird concept stuff at CES. I do know that I very much hate emptying out my vacuum so having a stand that does it for me is very appealing. Probably not appealing enough to actually buy the thing, but appealing enough for me to pay attention. That, after all, is the point of weird concept stuff.

Intel launches RealSense ID, facial recognition tech that uses the company’s depth-sensing cameras. As Ian Carlos Campbell, Intel has been trying to make RealSense a Real Thing that gets included in devices for a long time now.

Intel’s RealSense tech has been knocking around for several years, popping up in odd, tech demo use cases like inserting your face into Fallout 4, and more useful ones like unlocking a laptop with Windows Hello. Intel suggests this new application of RealSense could be used in a variety of settings, like ATMs, registers, and smart locks. What the company doesn’t mention is the other popular use of facial recognition: governments and law enforcement agencies tracking and profiling people.

I hope to someday sit in Kohler’s new voice-activated smart bath. If your bathtub doesn’t have color-changing lights and a literal fog machine built in, well, Kohler has the solution for those pressing problems.

The 2021 Moto G Stylus, Power, and Play focus on big batteries, bigger screens, and low prices. Of all of these, the one I’m most interested in is the Power. At these price points, it seems unlikely that these phones could compete with flagships in any way. That’s true except in one case: the Power might have battery life that’s hard for any phone to beat.

Kensington’s SD5700T Thunderbolt 4 dock has all the ports you could need. Monica Chin:

Thunderbolt 4 is here, and so is the first fully powered Thunderbolt 4 docking station. Kensington’s SD5700T includes a whopping 11 ports, 90W of power delivery, and transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps. It provides either one 8K output at 30 Hz or two 4K outputs at 60 Hz. … Make no mistake: This is a fancy dock. It’s listed for $289.99 on Kensington’s site.