The 2013 instalment of the Consumer Electronics Show, held every year in Las Vegas in early January, closed its doors two weeks ago. What were the biggest happenings, the biggest announcements? What trends can we expect to see in consumer electronics over the next year?CES is the holy Mecca to which thousands of electronics brands (3,250 in total), members of the public (150,000) and members of the press (3,500) the world over make their yearly pilgrimage—some to discover, some to dictate, what the trends will be for the months to come.
Every year the show overflows with products (over 20,000 were presented this year), services and content. CES 2013 may not have stood out compared to past years, but Vegas is nonetheless an inevitable stop for consumer electronics firms—especially Asian brands—hoping to heighten their visibility by showing off their tech savvy. The sector has been a war zone of late, with countless companies striving to make their 'in' on a market dominated by a select few.
The sales figures that were being touted around the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, LVC and the Venetian were less than encouraging. It's simple: in 2013, smartphones and tablets will continue to make the big bucks, while the other sectors (TVs, cameras, computers...) get quietly nudged to the side. As we wait to see how this all pans out, let's take a breather and look at what the biggest trends were in Vegas this year.
UHD, OLED, Smart TVs, NFC: The TV of Tomorrow Needs an Identity Check
First it was HD, then smart TVs, then 3D... Now this year the buzzword is 'Ultra HD'. We're already seeing major TV makers adorn their LCD TVs with the Ultra High Definition (UHD, not to be confused with 4K!) label. Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba and Sharp have all begun flaunting giant screens with 3840 x 2160 resolution (four times more pixels than Full HD!). The standard will start rolling out in over-50-inch panels at astronomical prices—Sharp and Samsung have both hinted at a price range running from around £13,000 to £25,000 for 84-inch models.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that UHD will help this hurting sector grow or up its value. And then there's always the nagging problem of the lack of UHD content...
We'll have to wait and see what kind of image the UHD upscalers give. After all, let's admit it: the whole HD/Full HD craze smacks of marketing ploy—think Sony with the "Mastered in 4K" stickers it slaps on so many Blu-ray discs to confuse consumers into believing that their Blu-rays have actually been made for UHD.
Another spectacle at CES was OLED TVs. With their ultra-thin screens, breathtaking images and remarkable contrast, OLED technology certainly has its selling points. But to get one, you have to be willing to fork up at least £6,500. Here, too, one of the most interesting technologies the market has is out of reach for the average household!
LG and Samsung took the 'wow' effect a step further with their curved OLED screens. The advantage of having a curved TV screen? To hear the peddlers explain it, the curve makes for a more immersive experience. But it also sounds a lot like the way they used to talk about 3D. While you still find TVs today that have 3D, brands have stopped talking about it. Is that surprising? Not really, given the public's manifestly lukewarm enthusiasm for glasses-free 3D TVs. As for Sony and Panasonic, they generated buzz with their UHD OLED TVs—after all, why go to CES if not to dazzle consumers and rival brands?
Smart TVs are still a thing. Brands are trying to simplify interfaces and improve their remote controls to support their TVs' online features. Samsung gave us a possible glimpse on the future with its TVs' visual, gestural and face recognition features, and Haier showed off the first-ever Android TV, the HTX.
A few TVs have even been equipped with NFC for contactless content sharing. LG, for example, claims that soon you'll be able to use NFC smartphones as remote controls and conveniently share content from your mobile to a big-screen TV; all you'll have to do is sync the TV and smartphone once. This raises the question: is this the end of the remote control?
Tablets: Space Fillers, But Lower Priced
CES 2013 saw no earth-shattering announcements or technological breakthroughs when it comes to tablet hardware—the only exception being Panasonic's Ultra HD slate, which would be a great tool for a photographer or architect. The segmenting of the video game tablet market took a step forward with the Razer Edge, a tablet more bold than the Archos GamePad that may not stand out for its design, but that has a joypad on both sides of the screen. As for Archos, the French brand has obviously taken a liking to the iPad's 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS panel and announced two tablets to come out in March, the 97 Platinum HD (quad-core + 2 GB of RAM) and 97 Titanium HD (dual-core + 1 GB of RAM).
The tablet has become a permanent fixture in software and service developers' thinking process. And cloud gaming has appropriated the tablet as its own personal emissary; for proof, just consider how much Nvidia has used it to show off its cloud gaming platform, Grid. As for Samsung, it didn't have much new in this department, but it did demonstrate some dedicated apps for its Wi-Fi-enabled digital cameras (real-time photo transfers, LiveView, etc.).
All in all, brands seem to be playing a game of who can devalue the tablet the most, with the 7-inch slate as the most common avenue. This time it was Asus and Acer, who are currently sparring to become the first big-name manufacturer with an under-£125 tablet. At this pace, we have no doubt that Google will try to reign everyone in around the £100 mark, if not lower, by late 2013.
The Smartphones of 2013
Despite the insistent pre-CES rumours of innumerable smartphone announcements, very few were actually presented. But while some brands ostensibly decided to wait until the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona late next month to show off their wares, a few, such as ZTE, Huawei and Sony, used the occasion to flaunt new models. Some of the ones we liked were the Sony Xperia Z and the Alcatel One Touch Idol Ultra, for its thin screen, but we were much more sceptical about the outlandishly sized 6.1-inch(!) Huawei Ascend Mate phablet. But Huawei gets extra kudos for the long-lasting batteries it's given to its entire product line. Also of interest, the firm has joined the diminutive circle of brands (Nokia and HTC) that have bet their money on Windows Phone, and will be releasing a WP8 handset for under €200.
The smartphones that were announced gave us a glimpse of what the standard high-end do-it-all phones will look like this year. On the menu: big screens (5 inches and up). Also, the HD displays and 8-Megapixel camera sensors of last year are making way for the Ultra HD displays and 13-Megapixel sensors of this year (ZTE Grand S, Xperia S). Samsung finally presented Youm, its flexible, unbreakable screen, which some have predicted will make its first appearance in a Galaxy gadget as early as this year. Sharp—Apple’s go-to company for mobile device panels—presented its own flexible 3.4-inch screen. Who will be the first company to put out a smartphone with a screen that doesn’t shatter every time it slips from your hand?
Where operating systems are concerned, very soon the big names of 2012—Android and iOS, with Windows Phone and BlackBerry trailing far behind (BB10 is due on 30 January)—may have to share their spoils with a new batch of competitors in 2013. Canonical, the company that makes Linux Ubuntu, is taking on the smartphone market, as is the Mozilla Foundation, with Firefox OS (ZTE is expected to release a Firefox OS phone sometime this year). Backed by Intel and Samsung-the-heavyweight, Tizen OS will also be showing its face in a number of 2013 smartphones.
As Uses for Mobile Devices Multiply, So Do Processor Cores
Nvidia opened the proceedings with its partially leaked Tegra 4, a system-on-chip with a Cortex A15 quad-core processor and a 72-core iGPU. Needless to say, this SoC is a beast, but even more so, it has finally allowed the Silicon Valley firm to offer an SoC with a 4G radio module (i500). Nvidia already missed out on a number of mobile markets and 3G/4G versions of tablets in 2012 due to the absence of 4G radio modules on its Tegra 2 and Tegra 3.
This only played into the hands of Qualcomm, who unveiled their new litter of Snapdragon processors this year. Promising 40% better performance, the Snapdragon S600 will carry the torch for the S4 Pro (found in the HTC 8X and Google/LG Nexus 4). The S800, however, was designed to ratchet up the competition, a fact that Qualcomm doesn't shy away from. Nor should it: as a 2.3 GHz quad-core SoC with an updated Adreno 330 GPU and UHD-quality video support, the S800 is a powerhouse. Both new Snapdragons are compatible with 4G LTE Category 4 and offer download rates of up to 150 Mbps.
Another SoC presented at CES this year was the Samsung Exynos 5 Octa. Now a brand that matters, Samsung added to its roster an SoC with two sets of ARM Cortex A15/A17 quad-cores (eight cores in total) that run together or separately, with a GPU that Samsung says is twice as powerful as the Galaxy S3's. The Exynos 5 Octa will most likely be appearing on the upcoming Galaxy S and Galaxy Note.
The PC Continues to Morph
What do you say to PC manufacturers when touchscreen tablet sales suddenly start raking in massive chunks of their revenue? What is the answer? From touchscreens and detachable keyboards to fully convertible laptop/tablets, over the past year we have seen this object we call the PC go through some rapid transformations as brands scramble to make their products more desirable, more mobile. Will the hybrid formula succeed in winning over the public, a public that has spent more time lately comparing tablet prices than laptops? And yet, a number of companies have been releasing PCs that truly push the envelope. One example is the Asus Transformer AiO, a computer that looks just like a "regular" all-in-one PC running Windows 8 Pro, except that its 18.5-inch touchscreen can be detached and used as a tablet that runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
That said, we would be lying if we said that the past couple of months had been chock full of new technology. One spokesperson from Asus, a brand that makes a point of presenting a host of new ideas at every major trade show, even admitted to us that IFA and the final quarter of 2012 sucked dry most of the innovations begat from the October Windows 8 release. Now, in January, brands are focusing more on bolstering their already existing product lines and perfecting concepts they adopted months ago. The Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon is case in point.
Have we already seen the best of what Windows 8 has to offer? Hybridisation can only go so far, and the coming months should see firms investing their efforts in refining strategies based on the public's reactions to this autumn and winter's slate of releases.
A Bright Future for Smart Devices and Health Gadgets
One growing sector on the North American market is health-related devices. At CES there were all sorts of gadgets with simplified interfaces and advanced online features. Among the masses were a smart fork that teaches you to eat healthier and lose weight; a scale with Wi-Fi; coaching bracelets with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and apps to help you watch your weight and figure; a nifty little gadget that tracks the health of houseplants; watches that tell you when you've received a text message; heart rate monitor watches... the list goes on.
But all this was only part of the multitude of products and prototypes that were displayed at CES 2013. Some others were: touchscreens that bring up physical buttons, a nanotechnology coating that renders any electronic device waterproof, refrigerators and ovens that communicate via Wi-Fi and NFC, and a Polaroid compact camera with an interchangeable lens.