CES 2015, from tablets to curved screens and wireless charging: A pragmatist's verdict

CES can show you whatever you are looking for, so whatever you think of the industry, this one event won't change your mind.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Explaining CES in advance, Gary Shapiro, the head of the Consumer Electronics Association, noted that the show is whatever the CEA wants it to be. As the interest in big TVs waned, CES added phone accessories and cars and startups and wearables and appliances - and a whole range of other things that contain electronics and are bought by consumers.

But CES isn't just what the CEA wants it to be; it's also what commentators want it to be. If they're missing Apple products - Apple doesn't attend because it doesn't show products at anyone else's event - they can still point to dozens of companies with phone cases and tablet cases and hardware accessories - from Olloclip's iPhone 6 camera lens that improves the front camera as well this time, to the Smarter coffee maker that you can drive from an iPhone app, to TYLT's ever-impressive range of external batteries and stay flat cables.

If you like notebooks, you can point at the interesting new notebooks; I like the super light, super thin NEC La View Ultrabook that is so thin that when you fold the keyboard back, you have a Core i7 tablet with 8GB of memory and 128GB of SSD that weighs less than two cans of soda.

If you don't like Windows tablets you can say that Dell and Toshiba and eFun launched some fairly me-too models - and what will you use a 3D RealSense camera for on an 8-inch Dell Venue tablet anyway? - and that Wacom has gorgeous but expensive tablets for artists.

If you do like Windows tablets, you can say that the clever circular spine on Lenovo's lovely little Yoga Tab 2 gives you an efficient battery, something easy to hold while you write on screen with anything from a metal chopstick to a carrot, and a multi-position kick stand you can also use to hang it on the wall. You can also say that N-trig has colorful new pens with a range of nibs so you can get the feel of a gel pen or a felt tip for writing on screen as you prefer.

Judging by CES, every phone needs an external battery, everyone with a phablet wants a fold-up keyboard to use with it, there is literally nothing you can't put a Bluetooth connection in (down to a child's dummy). Windows isn't dead, the PC isn't dead and even the desktop PC isn't dead, although it might be much smaller or bigger than you're used to.

Whatever opinions you start with, you can find things at CES to back them up.

I always take a pretty pragmatic approach to CES; I look at the products and especially the new components and technologies I find interesting and ignore a great many things that I don't (without feeling that they represent a drag on the industry, because Sturgeon's Law applies to CES the way it applies to everything). This year I came down with a chest infection on the first day so I got a much more pragmatic view than usual; I missed all but two press conferences, didn't walk the show floor until the last day, and saw only the highlights at (most of) the meetings I'd arranged.

Even with that reduced view of the show, this CES feels much like other years. As usual, there's plenty of incremental progress and not a lot of revolution; this is an industry, not something that turns on a dime.

There are some strange and confusing developments; I'm cynical about the privacy, security, and reliability issues of some of the things we're choosing to connect to the internet. When the Intel-powered door unlocked but didn't open in the Intel keynote and the Intel CEO repeated three times that the door was open before it actually was, I just assumed that it would be raining if I ever had to wait for the door to finish a firmware update before it decided to let me in.

I can't wait until the Netgear Arlo security camera is available. It looks as simple as the current Vuezone model with the same long battery life (I've had a Vuezone stuck to the wall for over a year without needing to change the battery), but it has HD and built in night vision so I don't need a bulky infra-red emitter as well. And it's waterproof so it can live outside the front door and catch the couriers who leave packages in the hedge or leave a 'while you were out' card while I'm in because they can't be bothered to ring the doorbell.

I can't wait for Netgear's next mobile hotspot either, because the $199 US price will include 1GB of data that never expires - on Sprint's new LTE network - and when it runs out I can buy about 1GB for $25 without ever having to talk to a carrier. If you travel, that's the simplicity you want.

I'm equally enthusiastic about USB 3.1 and the fact the new reversible Type C connector will show up in devices this year; I saw data transfer speeds of 817Mbps both reading and writing data on SSD using a USB connection. I'm even happy about the fact that the MHL Consortium has created its own Super MHL cable for connecting your phone to an 8K TV to stream video, because that will be USB on the other end.

The 50 foot optical USB 3 cable coming from Corning might deliver what I hoped LightPeak cables from Intel would five years ago and this time it's a thin and light cable that can also give me power. You can do DisplayPort over a USB cable, or use USB over a Wi-Fi signal, making it really universal. With only one port on a device to worry about - and a dock for connecting multiple peripherals - the design of devices can be more about what works and less about making space for multiple ports.

I'm starting to see the point of 60GHz wireless; yet another adapter that tries to replace the HDMI cable isn't that interesting, but SiBEAM is using it like a USB port that doesn't need the port. If you want a tablet with a detachable keyboard, you could make a custom connector that fits them together, but the physical connection is always fragile. With SiBEAM's Snap wireless connector, you put 60GHz 12Gbps wireless antenna where the physical connector would usually go. When they're close enough - about 10-15mm in practice - you get a USB connection between them that just works, with no fragile data cables to worry about protecting.

I've even started to like curved screens - not so much for TVs but for monitors. Both Samsung and HP showed curved monitors that make me want to sit at a desk again; after all, when you hook up twin monitors you always put them at a slight angle, so this just feels natural.

I'm less confident about wireless power. Not that I didn't see the usual impressive demos; the emphasis this year was either on going through walls and countertops or on tracking which charging coil was in use, to deliver the right power automatically. But for a technology to really go mainstream it needs to be an interoperable standard and as well as Qi, which is in some 50 million phones already. I saw a plethora of new wireless power groups who want to go their own way and plugging in a cable is easier than deciding which one to back.

As usual, there was no one big industry changing product or technology at CES. I'm not sure there ever has been. But there are lots of interesting things coming out of CES, not least the discussion about what's happening in the industry. On the one hand you have Gary Shapiro justifying CES being in the first week of January with the practical point that you have to book space for something this big years in advance and not clash with other events - and then sounding utterly tone deaf by saying that he's privately convinced we actually like the chance to get away from our families after spending all that time with them during the holidays.

That makes CES sound like a show for the male executives who used to dominate it and who gave the majority of keynotes, and it explains why Shapiro never mentioned diversity among the challenges and opportunities for the industry. But that sounds increasingly out of touch when you have CEO Brian Krzanich standing on stage and saying Intel won't just put money into diversity but it will do data led studies on what works. You can't fix a societal problem with a purely engineering approach, but you can't change anything you can't measure, so this is something to watch.

With consumer electronics expanding to cover just about everything we buy, how the industry works is more important than ever - and it can't stay as business as usual.

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