Brian Lam is the editor of Wirecutter, a list of the very best gadgets.
Hello! I just found a handful of wonderful technology in Las Vegas, an oasis in the desert, at CES, the country’s biggest electronics show.
There are over 100,000 people here to see roughly 20,000 gadgets brought to the light of day in less time than it takes for a rattlesnake to shed its skin.
Without hype, these are the gadgets that will be worth knowing about in 2012. I found about 9, with the help of my friends.
(Below these, I’ve listed a few dozen that were lauded, but I believe are not very important, interesting, or relevant.)
A HOBO PHONE: The most important phone at CES is the SpareOne, a simple phone that can run off of an AA battery—perfect for stashing as an emergency phone along with a prepaid SIM card.
ART CAMERA: This is the only gadget at the show that melts my heart every time I think about it. Fuji has a new interchangable lens camera called the XPro-1 that follows up their adored X100 street camera, which even regular people lusted after. Why? The X100 looks like a rangefinder/leica, manual controls when you needed them, and took great photos with its fast, fixed lens. X1-Pro camera is the followup that will have changeable lenses and potentially be able to use Leica M mount lenses with an adapter, said Fuji. It will also have an awesome lens collection of three primes: a wide, 50mm equivalent and a modest zoom macro. These are the kinds of fast lenses that can give your photos those romantic out of focus backgrounds that make every place look like Paris. The body alone is $1700, which is DSLR priced, but the images should keep up with DSLRs of the same price. I want this more than anything else I’ve seen at the show, and I think I might get one over the also amazing Sony NEX-7 Camera, which is technically astounding but has a mediocre lens selection that is not worthy of a $1300 camera. If you want to know a LOT about this camera, check out DP Review’s awesome preview.
That’s all I care about in cameras at CES. But wow, I care about this camera a LOT.
A DRONE FOR THE REST OF US: The Parrot AR DRONE 2.0 is an update to the ipad-controlled quadcopter toy that makes it a bit more serious and a lot cheaper as a tool for aerial photography. The new one is better at staying in place (it has an air pressure sensor that lets it maintain altitude more steadily) and an HD wireless video camera. When I saw it running, the drone was loitering in place, occasionally flipping over in mid air. It is also cheaper than the last model than at $300. I want one. My dream is to fly one over the beach and film the ocean from above.
BIG TV: The real action in TVs is, as always, not with the mega high end concept televisions but the Panasonic and Samsung plasma TVs that are the ones people will end up owning.
Samsung’s amazing D7000 plasma HDTV was one of the best TVs of last year, and its follow up in the PNE8000, will also be great as a TV. It will have gesture and voice commands, which are a useful way to control the TV when the remote is on safari. Considering how hard it was for Microsoft to master Xbox’s Kinect and its voice and motion controls, it could suck.
Samsung is also going to be dropping 2 to 4 sets of 3d glasses in the box of every new 3D tv. These generally cost over $100 each, so this is more than an afterthought–it’s serious charity that everyone else will have to follow.
Vizio, the king of cheap TVs, had a rough year in 2011 winning few awards. This year, they’ve also got a super widescreen HDTV called the cinemawide that is super cool. No, really–it’s wide as a hollywood movie at 21:9 (2560 x 1080) instead of the more standard 16:9 and much wider than all other TVs you can buy now in the US. If you’re a movie buff, this could make watching films super cool as long as the sets perform well. It’s 58-inches. At the very least, it will look amazing in a livingroom. I want.
That’s everything you need to know about TVs in the coming year.
THIN COMPUTERS: Everyone’s talking about ultrabooks! I don’t even know what an Ultrabook technically is, but they all seem to be Macbook Air like, thin and powerful. That is a good thing.
But a real head turner at the show is the Dell XPS 13, which is lighter and smaller than a Macbook Air but with better screen resolution. It has some cloud connect thingy that lets it check your email and get it ready for you to read, among other tasks, while its in sleep mode so you can get back to work as soon as you open the lid. It has a backlit keyboard, and is aluminum and carbon fiber. Mark from Laptop Mag has a solid hands on here. The kicker? This pup starts at just under $1000. The thing that makes it inferior to the Air is its screen is lower resolution.
There’s one laptop I liked with better resolution and slightly more power potential than the Air, although at a larger price and footprint: HP’s Specter 14. It has a gorilla glass lid and a $1400 price tag. (The reason it’s not the primary laptop of choice here is because most agree the XPS has it by wow factor.)
But here’s the bottom line: Sometimes this year, Intel’s faster chipset called Ivy Bridge as well as Windows 8 are coming out. Wait for them to get a PC.
That’s all I care about in computers. (If you want to know about computer components, check out Anandtech.com)
WIRELESS SOUND: I trust Bang & Olufsen to make good, expensive gear, and so I have a good bit of faith the Beolit 12 wireless speaker will be wonderful. Some Jambox wireless speaker competitors have tried and failed to take the throne, but this B&O airplay speaker is high powered at 120 watts, so it kind of opens up a new category out of nowhere: Wireless airplay speakers that can make you deaf.
MATERIAL MATTERS: Gorilla glass, the miracle glass that is strong enough to put on gadget faces like the iphone or even TVs, is now 20% stronger in version 2.0. This means it can be implemented in a thinner manifestation on future gadgets to improve touchscreen responsiveness, weight and thinness. It’s amazing to think about Gorilla Glass as a lost technology that Corning couldn’t monetize until Steve Jobs pushed them to convert a factory to start making it again, in 6 months. I can’t recall exactly, but in Walter Isaacson’s bio, I think the tech was decades old.
ANNOUNCING THE BEST GADGET OF CES: An expensive fridge by LG that can take a can of beer from warm to cold in 5 minutes. Here’s a video by my friend, John Mahoney, for Pop Science: http://bcove.me/q4z2nhu7
APPENDIX: LOVED OR UNLOVED STUFF THAT DID NOT CAPTURE MY INTEREST
Onkyo is doing this thing called Instaprevue, which lets us see thumbnails previes of the video inputs on a receiver. It’s neat and useful, but not worth upgrading a receiver for.
Buffalo is showing off an 802.11AC router. The AC spec is faster than G or N. This won’t matter for awhile because the standard needs to settle and N wireless has been keeping up with media streaming pretty ok these days. Plus, your laptop and phone won’t work with it.
Netgear has a wireless extender that works with dual band routers.
Intel’s refocusing on smartphone processors. This is good news because competition for ARM is good news. Or, it will be once gets into things we can buy.
The Nokia Lumia 900 is the first Windows Phone to come to the US–it’s basically the older phone with a bigger screen, on AT&T. I am appreciative but dispassionately unaffected by Android. Windows Phone, on the other hand, makes me crazy. It’s got a slick interface and wonderful Nokia hardware. Too bad the apps are atrocious. I am carrying a Windows Phone now, next to my iPhone. And if you know me, that is a crazy thing in and of itself. I reluctantly say Windows does not matter, but I want it to matter a lot.
Eton Solar Speakers. I’m embarrassed I want this, but I do. Probably because I live in a van in the desert sometimes.
Android phones of note are a Droid 4, which is supposedly to be one of the best with a keyboard and a Droid RAZR Maxx that is the RAZR from last year with an extended battery, which kind of defeats the purpose because the RAZR was intended to be thinner than everything. I’d prefer a Windows Phone.
Samsung and LG made TVs using OLED technology. Samsung’s OLED TVs are supposed to be 40% more color accurate and 1000x more responsive than LCD. Sony has a concept TV where 6 million LEDs light up a TV instead of using traditional methods . LG is showing off a 4k (basically ultra-hd) 84-inch TV, Sony’s got a 4K projector, and JVC has a camera to get this content. These future techs are amazing, but wildly expensive. I’d guess 4 times more expensive than a plasma. If you can afford a yacht, maybe one of these sets is right for you in the near future–when there’s actually content worthy of it. One day, maybe they’ll be more than museum pieces. But not today. Today they are as useful as sand. I won’t file any of this stuff as junk, though, because 10 years ago, LCD TVs couldn’t touch tube TV prices, either. I’ll call it wonderfully irrelevant in an Epcot world of tomorrow way.
Panasonic is Samsung’s major competition in TVs and they’ve followed up their top line VT30 and budget ST30 HDTVs with the VT50 and ST50s. They’ll be solid, as are Panasonic’s TVs every year. But Samsung’s been catching up and is less expensive these days, so who knows what the reviewers will pick. I heard Panasonic is building MySpace into its TVs, which is obviously ridiculous. Don’t hold it against them. But this could be the year that Panasonic falls to Samsung. Who knows.
I like Sony TVs and commend them for reducing their product lines from 6 to 3. Clarity is wonderful! But based on LCD tech, these TVs are always wildly expensive for the size. Pass.
Tablets–Unlike phones, where Android has made quite a few people happy, I still feel like Android Tablets are generally uninteresting because the app selection is next to nothing. Vizio has one of the best of the show from a pure hardware perspective, while Viewsonic has one of the cheapest.
Samsung has tablets of 3 different sizes under the Galaxy Brand. But the tablets at the show were not interesting to me. I prefer the iPad and Kindle Fire over these, for app selection and media buying infrastructure, at those two prices. Also, as Wilson Rothman from MSNBC said to me, “I am shocked to hear how many are shipping with Honeycomb 3.2, with promised upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich later.” (Ice Cream Sandwich is the new version of Android.)
In chatting with Mark from Laptop Mag and Joanna from The Verge, I’ve come away with admiration for both like the Lenovo U310 and Samsung Series 9 which are strong followups to last year’s favorite Ultrabooks. They’re both updates to older models from last year, and can’t be considered brand new, but these well-tested machines are still worth knowing about.
Oh, some people like the Vizio laptops, but I’ll wait and see. Nah, I’ll just get a Dell XPS or a Macbook Air.
Canon has a megapowered point and shoot called the GX-1. You can ignore it. It’s got a sensor that is bigger than most point and shoots but smaller than the sensors in the best , interchangeable lens cameras that are small, high quality and that I am in love with as an idea and category. The Canon is a non starter at $800 because it has a slow f/2.8 zoom lens and for the money you can get a better camera at the price in a DSLR or interchangeable lens cam.
Garmin realizes it can’t beat the smartphone so they’re linking their GPS to Android handsets to give it gas, weather and traffic data in their new flagship. (It’s called the 3590LMT and it’s $400.) They’re charging $20 for traffic data and $10 for traffic cameras and $10 for fuel prices and $5 for weather, per year. I still prefer a smartphone and a GPS app. At these prices, you should, too. At least they’ve got a golf course GPS that will be useful.
Polaroid has a point and shoot that runs android and doesn’t print photos. It’s bad.
Camcorders–I should know more about this. I don’t because I’m into digital cameras that shoot video rather than standalone camcorders. However, they’re still important because a good camcorder can shoot quality video that keeps up with a high end DSLR for less than $1000.
Sony has a camcorder with a projector built into it. I can’t decide if this is stupid or genius. Let’s go with go with “ehhhhhh fine.”
Camcorder Info says they’re excited to test the Panasonic flagship, the HC-X900M and Panny is claiming “near pro” level performance from this $900 camera. They’re also interested in the JVC GZ-GX1 because it follows up a camera that had too many bells and whistles. This one is more simple, and $900.
Pico Projectors–New, better mini projectors. But they are still one or two generations away from being anything but piss poor. The high end ones usually hit at the CEDIA show later in the year.
Car Audio–Pioneer has an update to its App radio that works with Android and has a bigger screen. The concept is useless because it depends on specially written apps to display themselves in a special mode on the screen of the radio. Duh, just use the phone’s screen and an iPod cable with a regular car stereo.
Solar powered Kindle cover. It has a reading light and they claim the cover provides three hours of reading for every one hour of sunlight, but at $80, this thing makes no sense. A Kindle needs so little power to operate that you could charge it for a few minutes by USB and have a lot of reading time. And if you’re in the desert of some place without power, you should get a general purpose solar panel with battery, like the Orange Joos.
Here’s an obscene portable PC gaming machine from Razor. This is weird. But people who used it said it’s a solid way to play PC games, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Limke is a little dongle that charts your pulse and charts your oxygen levels and compares them to your friends online. Cute app, but if I wanted this kind of information, I’d live in a hospital full time. Heart rate and oxygen levels are symptomatic and it would be more constructive to track walking with something like a fit bit. I’m a little bit over health tracking at the moment. I find it a distraction to actually taking care of your health. Exercise, get a juicer, sleep well.
The Lenovo Yoga is a concept for a laptop that turns into a tablet but it is ultimately flawed because laptops and tablets have different power and battery life profiles. Ignore.
Cable and satellite are screwed. This is probably the most desperate gadget of the show. Dish is making a mega-DVR that can play video in many rooms and capture every prime time show from every major network with one click. They’re also previewing their satellite channel lineup for free for 24 hours–through the internet. All of this seems like a desperate try to stave off the inevitable march towards watching internet streamed TV on tablets while we bathe, cook, lay in bed, and sit on the can. Good for old fashioned mansion-ites who love live television.
The OLPC 3.0 Tablet is a tablet for poor kids designed by rich people. $100. Solar charged. Not junk, per say, but not relevant to most of us. I really appreciate it for its attempt to computerize the rest of the world.
More BS: Haier made a see through TV. Sharp is making 17 different LCD panels that are bigger than 60 inches, but that’s useless because LCDs are too expensive at those sizes. Friends at Televisioninfo.com believe it’s a way for Sharp to earn business partners by showing their manufacturing might. I buy that. They’re also making battery powered TVs up to 60 inches. This is simply dumb.
Lenovo is making a TV with Android built in. It’s not built on Google TV, though, which is Google’s interface for TVs? This is a clusterfuck. For Lenovo and for Google. Focus!
Also, too many people are making waterproof computers and tablets. Stop it.
META: For Writers At CES
The first thing I notice every year when I settle into a hotel at CES is that no matter how fancy the hotel, the tap water smells like eggs. They say the memory of smell is powerful although elusive and I use the memory of the smell of the tap water to wake me up when my eyes start glossing over at CES.
CES can buckle a strong man’s knees. The quantity of data and visceral noise on the show floor causes many junior reporters to whine and go cross-eyed and sometimes catch a cold from all the hubbub, hand shaking, and fondling of dirty gadgets. This is my 10th year visiting the show. I’ve learned the key is to wash your hands every 120 minutes and to avoid touching your eyes and nose. Also, to take the monorail, not the cab line. Get a trailer to write from if you can.
Another key to being at CES as a writer is to avoid worrying about CES’s terrible signal to noise ratio and instead, do something about it. Ignore the bullshit, shoot down the overhyped, and focus on the most interesting. If a writer complains about CES and writes 40 posts about it, it’s a little hypocritical, no?
The last key is to enjoy Las Vegas with people you only get to see once a year and get into a healthy amount of trouble. Living a fun life and escaping the news machine will give any reporter the time and perspective to think a bit more about what’s real in all the manufactured news, in a manufactured show, in a manufactured town filled with mirage. If a writer can do that, they can avoid being part of the problem and get the space to think and write at the pace of a human, not at the pace of a robot.
Quiet is cool.
This story originally appeared on Thewirecutter.com. Copyright 2012