CES 2010 redux: Evolutionary, not revolutionary

Unlike last year's Consumer Electronics Show, the 2010 edition showed very few breakthrough products and many refinements on previously-announced technologies. Here's a review.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Unlike last year's Consumer Electronics Show, the 2010 edition showed very few breakthrough products and many refinements on previously-announced technologies. Here's a review.

In my preview of CES 2010, I wrote about six technologies I thought would permeate the air at this year's show. They were:

  • Small laptop fragmentation
  • 3DTV
  • Brighter, crisper, more flexible displays
  • Smarter car tech
  • Smartphones and tablets
  • Eco-friendly everything

By and large, these predictions turned out to be true. Here's what we learned at CES 2010:

Small laptop fragmentation overrun by tablets and e-book readers

In my preview, I wrote that the portable computing market would show all sorts of new varieties of the tried-and-true laptop: netbooks, ULVs, thin-and-lights, smartbooks and more. And while new systems were indeed announced in the run-up to the show, the devices that really dominated weren't devices with keyboards but devices without them.

Still, lots of refreshed netbooks and related devices were around:

Really, e-book readers were everywhere -- and I mean everywhere. It's as if everyone's mother was busy at home knitting one of these things out of silicon and plastic. In an array of sizes, colors, form factors (slate, hinged book, etc.) and prices -- $200 to $700 -- electronic-ink e-book readers really crashed the party.


The problem? Not much interest was shown in the devices, and the general feeling was the same as if standing in the drug store looking for toothpaste: too many options and no clear choice to solve a problem. (Not to mention some of the exorbitant prices attached to some of them.) By sheer ubiquity, the e-reader may become a staple of the electronics store, but that doesn't mean it's an essential gadget to purchase.

Complicating the issue was the prevalence of tablet and tablet-like devices -- including a prominent mention of an HP slate at Microsoft's keynote -- which exchange an e-ink screen for a true LCD display. That means color and high refresh rates at the expense of battery life and eye comfort. Lots of homebrew Linux environments were spotted on these devices, and the most interesting devices were those that combined old and new, such as Lenovo's IdeaPad U1 Hybrid, which used a traditional laptop form factor as a safety net for a tablet computing device.

(Here's another strange one: Asus' twin-touchpad Core i7 NX90 laptop.)

But tablets were clearly in their infancy, and in hindsight, nothing was truly stunning. I'm waiting on 2011 for real tablet progress.

The rise of 3D TV

If there's one technology CES 2010 actually delivered on, it's 3DTV. All the major home theater manufacturers -- Sony, Toshiba, LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Vizio and so forth -- announced not only 3D HDTVs but 2D-to-3D upconversion technologies that allowed consumers to preserve their existing movie and TV show libraries and still approximate a 3D experience.


The problem, besides those expensive, funny glasses? Whether consumers actually want the 3D experience. Sony showed a clip of Jimi Hendrix playing "Purple Haze" at Woodstock during its press conference, which felt a bit cartoon-y (and on another note, sacrilegious) to me. It wasn't an engaging experience, and the tech felt distracting.

But it's no matter. 3D capability will make its way very quickly into most new TVs on store shelves, giving home theater makers a way to reengage the consumer with home entertainment. Whether or not you actually use it, 3D TV is coming.

(More interesting, in my opinion? IPTV.)

Brighter, clearer, more flexible displays

This year, brighter, clearer and more flexible displays weren't the main event, but a means to achieve other technologies, such as 3D HDTV. Behind all the 3D excitement was the increasing prevalence of OLED, or "organic light-emitting diode," displays -- which are indeed brighter and crisper than conventional LCD displays. Most of the new 3D TVs had these screens, as well as several new phones and portable media/MP3 players.

We also saw some experimentation with transparent displays, as well as the overall dominance of touchscreen everything. Intel showed off "intelligent" digital signage, and I spotted a transparent LCD display on a laptop at one event. In an effort to slow the transition from PMPs to smartphones, Samsung also debuted its transparent-display IceTouch player.

Smart car tech

Ford definitely set the tone of this year's CES with its Touch interface, which dovetails with its Sync communications system to transform the tech inside your car's cockpit to a version not far from the computer you use at home. Kia announced a similar in-car system built with the same underlying technology.

The quality of this announcement overshadowed the quantity of car tech announcements, of which there were very few. Really, Ford set the stage in showing that the door to the automobile was open to the consumer electronics industry, which has long-term implications for pretty much everyone, from software developers (more platforms!) to hardware makers (competition!).

Smartphones get impressive, tablets get aggressive

As I mentioned above, tablets were aggressive enough to overshadow traditional laptops and netbooks.

But no mobile manufacturers took advantage of Palm's risk last year of using CES as a springboard for a major announcement (then, the Palm Pre and webOS). Sure, Palm refreshed its handsets for Verizon, Motorola announced the Motoblur'ed Backflip and a few Qualcomm Brew handsets appeared to fill out the bottom end of the smartphone market. But the real announcement was the availability of the mobile industry's worst secret, Google's Nexus One -- which happened far away from CES, in California.

Eco-friendly everything

Electronics makers were touting the efficiency of OLED screens and newer processors, but aside from that, green tech was fairly disappointing at this year's CES. There was an expanded "Sustainable Planet" section of the show floor, but it was filled with mostly small companies trying to invent new batteries or rechargeable energy sources -- hardly sustainable when you think about how much volatile waste is created to manufacture and ship such things.

For now, it seems that the only thing that's sustainable about CES is progress.

The Toybox take

CES 2010 was hardly revolutionary, and most tech folks were hard-pressed to name a singular headlining gadget that really rose above the rest this year. (Last year, it was the Palm Pre, hands down.)

But that's probably a good thing. Tablets aside, instead of working to reinvent the wheel, most companies sought to improve on the technologies that already exist, with a general awareness that the Internet will eventually connect everything.

Sometimes, we don't need a new gadget from CES. We just need a better one.

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