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Last year's CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, was the last time many of us talked face-to-face, exchanged invisible droplets, dabbled with the same germinating devices, and enjoyed food and drink in windowless restaurants.
This year, due to the ongoing pandemic, the annual CES takes place entirely on our computer screens. The first completely removed staging of the consumer tech industry's tentpole event begins on Monday, January 11th.
Experiencing CES from a distance poses some obvious challenges for those of us covering the show. We cannot stroll through the nearly 3 million square meter exhibition hall or try out the new products that are on display. However, we'll do our best to bring you our expert analysis of this year's Tech Festival based on a slew of virtual briefings and our dozens of years dealing with CES in the past. So start Zoom, strap on your VR headsets and get ready to join in.
Let's get small
If you want to attend CES this year, you don't have to spend any money on registration fees, airfare or accommodation. You can see all the announcements and activities in your pajamas.
However, there is no doubt that this year's CES will be scaled down. The Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, says around 1,800 exhibitors will be attending this year's show. That is less than half of the 4,400 exhibitors who presented technology last year. The CTA also indicated that as a fully digital event, the show "will be open to audiences around the world," but declined to say how many people actually signed up for this year's virtual CES. An estimated 170,000 people attended in person last year.
Some tech companies are opting out of CES this year or releasing new products on their own schedules. Amazon won't have an official presence, though you can probably expect its Alexa voice assistant to show up in hundreds of products. Google, which recently installed massive Googley installs in Las Vegas at CESes, says it will host partner meetings but is otherwise pulling out of the show. Microsoft President Brad Smith will be delivering a keynote address on technology being both a weapon and a tool – a particularly relevant topic – but most of the Microsoft-related news at CES will come from its PC manufacturing partners . Facebook and its Oculus division will also not participate. Instead, the company decided in a blog post earlier this week to tease its upcoming “smart glasses”. And the main focus on Facebook right now is its role in disrupting American democracy anyway.
Samsung and LG Electronics are holding virtual press conferences and providing information on their new displays and home appliances. It's worth noting, however, that Samsung is unveiling its annual Galaxy phone on Jan. 14 – during CES, but not actually part of CES. We will also be closely monitoring the press conferences with Intel and Sony on Monday. Key highlights include meetings between General Motors, Verizon and AMD CEOs.
Look, but don't touch
So what new technology will we see virtually next week? Some exciting things are happening in TV-land, according to WIRED's Parker Hall. The most impressive TV we saw before the conference is a new 110-inch MicroLED model from Samsung. (MicroLED is a relatively new display technology that uses tiny, inorganic LEDs, three per pixel, and is said to provide perfect contrast.) More and more TV manufacturers are turning to 8K screens, including Samsung, LG, and Sony, as well as manufacturers of lower-cost sets such as TCL and Vizio. And that may seem small, but many new TVs this year will be shipping with updated HDMI 2.1 ports – so the new game consoles for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X can run on the displays at their full 120 Hz potential.
Some TV manufacturers may withhold their announcements until spring, when most of the new TVs hit the market. It's just hard to generate the same hype for displays when you can't show off an impressive OLED waterfall in person. And 8K displays have the same limitation as 4K a few years ago: it will take a while for 8K content to become generally available.
AMD, ARM and ACPC at CES
CES is usually a good opportunity to try out new laptop technologies, even if some of them don't ship until the fall. (It turns out that laptops are indispensable devices in everything from work to schooling your children during a pandemic.) You often hear, "The pc is dead, the pc is not dead," says Patrick Moorhead , Founder and Principal Analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "But I see a lot of action on computing devices, especially around the ACPC – the always-connected personal computer." That means we may finally see more ARM-enabled PCs with cellular capabilities. So if we can be on the road again in the future, we will always have a data connection.
WIRED's Scott Gilbertson says this is also "the year of the AMD laptop". From Chromebooks to high-end gaming machines, manufacturers offer AMD models alongside the usual Intel options. The Ryzen 3000 C series chips from AMD, specially optimized for Chromebooks, will be offered in new models by Acer and other PC manufacturers later this year. Scott also says that support for Wi-Fi 6 and better looking displays with higher refresh rates will become the standard on laptops in 2021 to meet the demands of modern gaming. And the entire WIRED Gear team is hoping that laptop webcams will get a lot better in 2021. This improvement is long overdue.
Calling the future
Most of the major smartphone manufacturers will be holding separate announcement events sometime in 2021, as they have for at least a decade. However, some of the mobile announcements that will be made during or around CES point to lasting trends.
This year, almost all phone manufacturers are likely to offer a 5G phone at a price below $ 400, says Julian Chokkattu, senior associate editor at WIRED. Qualcomm just announced 5G support for its Snapdragon 480 chip for low-cost phones. The result is that Qualcomm can now offer 5G for its full range of phone processors, not just the high-end chips. Of course, the cell phone providers will continue the conversation about building 5G networks. Expect more about this during the keynote speech from Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg on Monday evening. Though Moorhead says he shouldn't expect any "swing-me-around-the-room announcements" around 5G.
Also in smartphones later this year, even if not announced at CES: more foldable, rollable displays; High-end Android phones that run on the snappy Snapdragon 888 chip; Support for the new Wi-Fi 6E standard; higher screen refresh rates; and, a cue from Apple, fewer phones that come with charging adapters in the box.
If there is any other trend that has fully emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to continue in 2021, it is our obsession with our homes – working from them, training in them, and refreshing them. Or, as WIRED senior author Adrienne So puts it: "Companies rely on us to vacuum our carpets, tone our abs and keep our butts fresh." (We may even see a commercialized version of a toilet that analyzes your poop.)
Companies like Samsung, Roborock and Eufy will be showcasing robotic vacuums with eye-catching designs and new cleaning technologies at CES this year. Bathroom faucets are becoming “smarter” – more household appliances with jammed Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips.
On the connected fitness side, most wearable manufacturers are skipping CES this year, Adrienne says. However, this means that it may be a year that hardware innovation takes a back seat to software, with an emphasis on smart training and recovery apps, AI-powered treadmills, and personalized training services, all on the phone or on the go the smartwatch you already own.
And of course there is always a stab in technical solutionism when there is a serious health crisis: Boone Ashworth, a contributor to WIRED, says he will get lots of parking spaces for high-tech cleaning equipment. Think hand air purifiers, antimicrobial screen protectors, and touchless sanitizing stations that disinfect as they show you ads. Some of these are more legitimate than others, but it's safe to bet that disinfecting things can be an ongoing obsession for many of us even after the pandemic has ended.
Not the same
We won't really be able to capture the mood at CES this year – the curiosities, the novelties, the size and scope of the displays, the elegance of the concept cars. Not to mention, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the Las Vegas tourism and hospitality industries, and the cancellation of major events like CES will only add to the trauma. However, the CTA says this year's CES is not intended to replace or re-create any in-person show and that the organization "looks forward to returning to our home, Las Vegas, in 2022 and beyond." I never thought I'd write this, but I'd look forward to going back to Las Vegas for CES at some point.
WIRED's Julian Chokkattu, Adrienne So, Parker Hall, Scott Gilbertson and Boone Ashworth contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.