The Best of CES 2021

CES is quite a bit different this year. For the first time ever, CES is entirely virtual, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to talk about. Senior Writer Lauren Goode talks with WIRED staff about the newest tech from the show, including TCL's rollable phones, shower head speakers, UV phone chargers, Samsung's microLED televisions, the future of ARM processors and much more.

Video Transcript

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LAUREN GOODE: It's the first ever entirely virtual CES. The fact that the world's largest Consumer Electronics Show has gone online this year means that we at Wired can't really experience it the way we normally would. We can't see the dancing robots or the giant displays or the smart toilets in person. But we're still trying to cover it because technology is marching on. Companies are trying their best to adapt to the pandemic, and they're making big bets on innovations for the future.

So I decided to ask my Wired colleagues what they're seeing on the ground at CES this year, or should I say, through their screens at CES this year, and what's piquing their interest. So I want to take it to Michael Calore who's my editor. Mike, thanks so much for joining me on this video.

MICHAEL CALORE: Hi Lauren.

LAUREN GOODE: Mike, the big question that I want to ask you is does anyone care about CES this year?

MICHAEL CALORE: I do think people care. I think consumers care, our readers care because, you know, CES is the time you get to see all the stuff that's coming out this year. Companies are still showing up, and they're still putting out a bunch of stuff. So there's going to be things that you can buy next Christmas season, and that's usually what CES is about.

Also companies show up to do business with each other. You know, the TV buyer at the big box store is going to be talking to all the TV manufacturers and seeing what's new. So I think that people still do care, even though it's smaller and a little bit sadder.

LAUREN GOODE: Do you get the sense so far from what you're seeing or hearing from the press conferences that companies are adequately addressing some of these crises that we're facing right now, or is it a lot of lip service and people just want to get to the robot that pours you a glass of wine?

MICHAEL CALORE: I think some companies are addressing the pandemic, but they're doing it in a really weird way. Like they're showing you all of the different UV light sanitization and stuff that they've put into their gadgets, and that's not always effective at killing germs. But I think the fact that everybody is hyper aware of germs this year makes those sorts of things a little bit more appealing. So people are, you know, catering to that.

LAUREN GOODE: Right, and we're also seeing a lot of companies market their products as ideal work from home products now, because many of us are spending much more time at home, and working from home, and home schooling from home. Have you seen anything in those categories that you find particularly interesting?

MICHAEL CALORE: I think the most interesting thing for working from home is noise canceling headphones. Anybody who lives with other human beings be they fully grown or very small will know the value of a good pair of noise canceling headphones, and like this is a great year for noise canceling headphones. There are dozens of them. They're all coming down in price, and they all have incredible battery life so they last all day. So you can shut the world out all day while you toil at your desk in your kitchen or whatever.

LAUREN GOODE: Like it seemed for a while that if you wanted really good powerful headphones you had to get big ones that went around your ears, and now everyone's into buds.

MICHAEL CALORE: I've actually been surprised by the quality of wire-free earbuds. You know, the kinds that don't have any wires connecting them. Just sort of like Apple's AirPods. Everybody makes a version of those now. Over the last couple of years, they've been getting really good. 2021 is going to be the year where you can buy a pair of those, and they're going to sound excellent, and they're going to have really good battery life.

LAUREN GOODE: What are you hearing about immersive audio technology or speakers that are going to fill your home with really great sound?

MICHAEL CALORE: Yeah, one big trend that we see in audio this year is spatial audio or 3D audio. This is a technology that lets you take just one speaker, like a soundbar underneath your television, and then it can make it seem like sounds are coming from all around you. So it's like having surround sound system with just one speaker. It's really hard to find out if they're effective, but thankfully, within the next five or six months, people will start sending them to us so we can test them and listen to them.

LAUREN GOODE: Mike, one of the things that you and I have both covered in recent years at CES is the rise of the Frankengadget gadget. Tell us about this trend, and are we going to see more of it?

MICHAEL CALORE: This is like the coffeemaker that's also an alarm clock and a speaker. That weird category of like hybrid device. This year there's a really cool one that is like a bluetooth speaker that is built into a showerhead, and as the water flows through the showerhead, there's hydroelectric power that powers the Speaker. That's pretty cool. I mean, I want one. Don't you.

LAUREN GOODE: Maybe, question mark. It's probably my response for a lot of gadgets at CES. So let's go to Julian Chokkattu who's in New York, and he's been paying a lot of attention to what's going on in displays.

JULIAN CHOKKATTU: So Samsung has its big fancy microLED TV. This is this new competitor against OLED. OLED obviously has this organic LED, so it's basically going to give you much nicer blacks, because every single pixel is controllable. So when you're seeing black on the TV, it's actually perfectly pitch black. It's turned off. This new comparator is Samsung's microLED tech which is using millions of LEDs behind every single pixel to further give you excellent blacks and contrasting better colors.

It's positioned to be potentially better than OLED. We don't know yet, but it was just spectacular to behold, and that's the sort of way that I think Samsung is going to try and pivot to. You can actually buy this one, this 110-inch version in Korea for about $150,000. So at the moment a little out of reach but maybe one day.

LAUREN GOODE: So one of the things we saw this week was TCL, which is traditionally known as a TV maker, and one of the things the company showed off was a rollable phone. What is a rollable phone, and how is it different from a foldable phone?

JULIAN CHOKKATTU: Think a normal phone, and then you can essentially pull out the display, whether it's horizontally or vertically to enable more screen space. So when you want that extra screen space, maybe you're going to watch a movie or watch a TV show or just use two apps side by side, you can just pull out the display.

The benefit here over foldables is that foldables are pretty thick and chunky. With a rollable, you're basically using a similar normal phone that you can just extend that display out. It sounds like we are going to see some rollable phones actually come out this year at some point.

LAUREN GOODE: What are you hearing about chips in laptops so far?

JULIAN CHOKKATTU: There's, I think, this sense that we're all going to eventually shift a lot of these laptop processors to ARM-based processors, which is what Apple is using. And ARM-based processors are what we traditionally use in our smartphone chips. For the ability to use the same type of architecture in your laptop and your phone, that ideally would mean that transitioning from your laptop to your phone would be very, very seamless.

And I mean that if I pulled up a couple of applications in my laptop and then I switched back to my iPhone, I'll be able to pull up those exact same applications in the same way that I left them from the laptop. It's still early days even for Apple, so we still have to see a lot of the benefits outside of improved performance and efficiency-- so longer battery life. But I think the sense is that we're going to see laptop manufacturers sort of investing in ARM chips for their laptops rather than going Intel.

LAUREN GOODE: Right, I keep hearing about how all this experimentation and chips for laptops is going to lead us to AC-PCs, which sounds like a band but actually just means always-connected personal computers, but I have to say I like the idea of an AC-PC.

JULIAN CHOKKATTU: That I think it's just a natural thing that developers are going to really like, because it makes you stay in their app more often, I think, if you can just quickly seamlessly transition over from one device to the next.

LAUREN GOODE: Let's go to Alan Henry in New York, who has been covering everything that's going on in games. Hey, Alan. I like your blazer.

ALAN HENRY: I got to dress up for something.

LAUREN GOODE: That's right. Tell me what you're seeing so far in the gaming world at CES.

ALAN HENRY: Some of the big things, obviously, off the tail end of last year-- we got new consoles, PC hardware, we have new graphics cards, we have a ton of new games, right. So leading into the beginning of this year, we're seeing a lot of people kind of capitalizing on all of that new hardware. So there's a lot of software features around cloud streaming and game streaming and streaming not just games across different devices, but also like on Twitch and things like that. So there's some community advancements going on but not a lot of big hardware releases at the moment, because you know, they already announced a whole bunch of things.

LAUREN GOODE: One thing I'm hearing is that we're going to see more AMD chips in laptops. I'm wondering if you can tell us what this means for PC gamers.

ALAN HENRY: AMD has been manufacturing some really, really affordable CPUs, which means PC gamers are getting a lot of more bang for their buck when it comes to building their own gaming PCs. And companies that make their own gaming PCs as well are able to pack more power into the same price point. That's one thing.

Yeah, AMD has been firing on all cylinders, and that includes consoles too. Sony and Microsoft have been including AMD processors in the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, which has done a huge thing for narrowing that kind of PC console gap.

LAUREN GOODE: So this is getting really in the weeds, but another thing that I'm hearing about CES so far this week, HDMI ports on TVs are getting an upgrade to the point where they can now support the higher refresh rates. They're getting more high-powered so they can support the new gaming consoles. Talk about this.

ALAN HENRY: With an upgraded HDMI, you're getting frame rates on large screens that traditionally were reserved for smaller PC displays with really powerful graphics cards. The difference between 30 and 60 frames per second in a console game used to be like the big marker of whether or not your console was any good. And now, we're starting to see console developers start talking about developing their games in 120 Hertz, or like they do for PC games like 144 or something like that. They're starting to go up exponentially to the point where it's not so much about powering as many pixels as it is creating a very emotive seamless experience that doesn't stutter and doesn't load a lot.

LAUREN GOODE: Typically, at CES in Las Vegas every year, Nvidia puts on a pretty big event. They make a splash. They show all kinds of new technologies, but it doesn't appear like that's going to be possible this year because of the virtual nature of CES. What are you hearing from Nvidia?

ALAN HENRY: Every year Nvidia releases their brand new desktop graphics cards. They did that end of last year, now, it's their turn to kind of show off the chipsets based on that that are low power for laptops and other mobile devices. I don't see them with any announcements that are going to resolve the pipeline problems they've been having, but they will have some cool laptops cards to show off.

LAUREN GOODE: And what are some of the pipeline problems they've been having? Can you sum this up quickly?

ALAN HENRY: I mean, I shouldn't say that it's their problem specifically. It's just that they can't produce enough graphics cards to meet the demand.

JEFF FISHER: We know these products have been hard to find. I want to thank you for your patience as we continue to work hard to catch up.

ALAN HENRY: I'll just be over here salty that I can't get my hands on one.

[LAUGHTER]

LAUREN GOODE: All right, let's go to Adrienne So who's coming to us from Portland. Hey, Adrienne. You're keeping an eye on all the connected fitness stuff at CES this year. What are you seeing so far?

ADRIENNE SO: So a lot of the wearables that I normally cover during CES have opted not to come this year. So Fitbit won't be showing anything. Garmin isn't showing anything at CES this year. Other companies from smaller to larger ones are debuting similar fitness platforms.

Two of the ones that I'm interested in this year are Samsung Health is introducing a personalized AI coaching platform, and Bowflex has a platform called JRNY that's incorporated with the Bowflex bikes in the same way that the Peloton app is integrated with the Peloton Bike. We saw Peloton really blow up this year, and a lot of companies are hoping to lure even more people in, hopefully at a lower price point.

LAUREN GOODE: What kind of trends have you seen at CES so far this year that are reflective of this trend of all of us being home?

ADRIENNE SO: The one that I was really excited about that I definitely don't have room for in our closet was the Kohler Stillness tub, which is a meditation tub. And for a mom of two kids, I'm thinking of it as the escape tub. [LAUGHING] Things like a smart faucet that may have been of limited utility when most of us had kids that went to school, and I never realized how annoying it was to have to turn the faucet on and off for him every 30 seconds to wash his hands or rinse something off. And now I'm like, yeah, definitely getting a smart faucet. That might give me back half an hour at least of my life.

[LAUGHTER]

LAUREN GOODE: What a time to be alive.

ADRIENNE SO: [LAUGHING] I know.

LAUREN GOODE: If there's anything we've learned about CES over the years it's that there are a lot of great ideas and concepts presented, but they don't necessarily shift right away or help you out in the immediate future.

ADRIENNE SO: That's one of the main things about CES trying to fit itself into the timeline of COVID-19. Like these are devices that we're going to be seeing six months or a year or two years in advance, and who knows what the world is going to look like then.

LAUREN GOODE: All right, so let's go to my colleague Boone Ashworth, who's in San Francisco. Boone, I was really looking forward to chatting with you, because you're really focused this week on companies at CES that are involved in some way in hygiene tech-- technologies that are supposed to help us kill germs faster. Tell me what you're seeing this week.

BOONE ASHWORTH: Sanitization, disinfecting, antimicrobial tech is very much in this year. So we're seeing UV light in everything from wireless chargers to refrigerators to full on robots that automatically go around in stores or offices and disinfect everything. Air purifiers, antimicrobial materials and laptops, backpacks, phone cases, basically you name it. It's got clean tech on it.

LAUREN GOODE: What have you seen so far that you've said to yourself, I could see there being a use for that.

BOONE ASHWORTH: I could see there being a use for combination wireless charger and UV sanitizers. So you put your phone on this wireless charging mat, and it also sanitizes it with UV light, antimicrobial materials. Thinking about, you know, your phone being cleaner than the disgusting germ magnet that it is right now is always great.

LAUREN GOODE: We're also seeing some folks roll out touchless technologies, right?

BOONE ASHWORTH: I think voice and gesture controls are big, and weirdly, facial recognition as well. Touch screens in say a store or mall or something like that that you can just wave at or talk to and not have to touch would be great.

LAUREN GOODE: Boone, do you have a sense of how well these disinfecting antigerm technologies actually work?

BOONE ASHWORTH: So a lot of it is based on science that is sound. So things like air filtration and UV light protect against the virus or limit the flow of the virus through the air or on surfaces. The problem is that a lot of it really depends on context, right? So if you have an air purifier that you want to clean a room out with, it has to be big enough. It has to be efficient enough to get the airflow in the room to cycle through and get the virus out. If you have some of the small kind of handheld air purifiers that we've been seeing at CES, your context just might be too big for the tech that you're using.

LAUREN GOODE: Is there anything else that people should know about these sanitizing, disinfecting technologies?

BOONE ASHWORTH: I think just understanding how they actually work and how long some of them take to be effective. UVC light for instance has been shown to eliminate the coronavirus. In like a hospital setting, that UVC light is a lot more intense to the point where it could harm your skin or your eyes. A lot of gadgets that we're seeing now are coming out with something called far UVC light, and that is a shorter wavelength, therefore more gentle.

But at the same time, that light in order to properly disinfect something needs to sit on it for a long time. It's not going to be as simple as just beaming over your phone or your restaurant table, and then expecting it to be completely disinfected. So just understanding the limitations of this technology is important.

LAUREN GOODE: Thanks to all of you for watching this video and for following along as we cover our first ever entirely virtual CES. There are some interesting things coming out of the show this year no doubt, but it's been a pretty scaled down event. And we hope in the future, maybe, we can get back to Las Vegas and cover it in person. We've all kinds of stories about CES on wired.com, so go check those out when you get a chance. And thanks again for watching.

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