CES 2015 points toward the future of our gadgets
By Jim Bray
The annual Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas has wrapped up again, a huge undertaking that seems to get bigger each year. Heck, since the first time I went the show has expanded with the Las Vegas convention center, from one main show floor and assorted other rooms to an entire second building with two display floors – and of course various hotel conference centers and suites. It's quite intimidating to see all this stuff packed together!
Vegas is the perfect place to host CES. Where other than the gambling center of North America can manufacturers of all size – from startup to multinational giant – throw their latest brainstorms before the assembled dealers and pundits, gambling that their strokes of genius will pay off big time in the marketplace. Many don't, but some of what's on display each year does.
I couldn't make this year's CES thanks to scheduling issues, but it's hard for a tech writer not to get inundated with press releases and pitches whether you're on site or not. So, with the caveat that I'm doing this from press releases, pictures and other hype, here are some of the products I wish I'd seen the most at this year's CES.
Convergence has been a theme nearly since I started attending the show back in the late 1980's, when the show's central word "electronics" meant more audio and video than anything else. The computer industry started to make inroads during the 1990's, so much so that the big Comdex computer show – basically a PC version of CES – went out of business and now most of the computer world's movers and/or shakers set up shop at CES alongside the TV's and stereo systems and other gadgets.
Convergence now means that car manufacturers are getting involved and showing up in a big way as well. Cars have been a part of CES for years, but mostly via aftermarket suppliers of audio equipment and the like – and I remember Tesla showing its Model S there are few years ago – but now more of the manufacturers themselves are showing up, demonstrating not only driverless vehicles but also presenting new ways of using cars and having them interact with your other devices.
Audi, according to a report, sent an autonomous car from the San Francisco Bay Area, which is a heckuva drive for such a vehicle. Mercedes-Benz showed one, too, a 15 foot long "living room on wheels," while BMW and Volkswagen showed self-parking vehicles in the tradition begun by Lexus and Ford – except that they can supposedly find parking spaces in big parking garages as well. What's really needed, of course, is a way for the car to tell you where it is when you're returning to the garage and forgot where it parked itself. Is there an app for that?
VW's Golf R Touch Concept Car incorporates gesture control, which I assume has nothing to do with gestures you may make while in traffic. Some new way of controlling a car's many systems is needed if car makers are going to keep mounting their LCD's high and out of the driver's reach. Knobs have been tried, as has a computer mouse-like thingy and now even trackpads are being inflicted on some cars. I look forward to trying gesture control in a real world environment – though I wish people would just make simple and easy to use touch screens and be done with it. To each his/her/its own, of course.
Speaking of how cars interface with the driver, Ford showed its Sync 3.0, which hopefully addresses the well-meaning but ultimately confusing MyFord Touch's shortcomings. Audi also showed off its "Virtual Cockpit," which is scheduled to be released on the next Q7 SUV, being introduced at the Detroit Auto Show. And watch for Keyfree, a digital key that uses your smart phone to unlock and start your car remotely, which can be a really handy feature in very cold or hot weather or maybe if you think you're being stalked and want to make a quick getaway.
Speaking of convergence, again, the movement of virtually everything to the online "cloud" world is promising to free consumers from the tyranny of the broadcast networks and cable providers. This has been coming for a while but thanks to services such as Netflix you can get your TV fix whenever you want, for a pittance compared to what the usual suspects charge – and no forced bundling of channels you don't want.
Sure, you don't get the "live" current broadcasts of your favorite shows, but that's changing as more players get into the act. Sling TV, for example, which promises U.S.-based Dish Network customers a selection of current TV channels (stuff like CNN, Food Network etc.) for about $20 a month with no contract – and it'll supposedly run on many connected devices, from Roku to iOS and Android. Sony will be following with its PlayStation Vue – and of course new generations of Smart TV's should continue to expand their built-in offerings by adding more channels/apps for free and/or subscription. So it appears the days of the big broadcasters and cable companies having a near monopoly on what you watch are definitely numbered. Ain't competition great?
South Korea's LG showcased a couple of interesting new appliances, including a new dual mode washer and a new "quad mode" refrigerator. This is over and above the plethora of TV's and other stuff they showed, including some new OLED and Ultra HD TV's. With LG's new Twin Wash system, you can actually do two loads of washing at the same time – and wouldn't that be a wonderful time saver? The second wash uses a separate drawer the company said can be installed under any LG front-load washer, as if it were a pedestal, and you can use it for the smaller, more dainty loads while the main machine chugs away at whatever cycle you've set it for.
LG's new fridge is the double "Door-in-Door" Mega-Capacity Model LPXS34886C, which has two independent compartments inside each greater door. The door in door on the right is accessible from outside and from the inside (why you'd want to be inside is beyond me…), and LG says the system reduces cold air loss because you don't have to open the whole shebang all the time.
Panasonic introduced its first native 4K UHD Blu-ray player, which awaits content of course but which gives 4K TV owners a way to buy and play that content if it ever comes. Just in time for 8K, which Sharp showed off with an 85 inch LCD. Panasonic also showed off a new home security system that lets you monitor your home from anywhere in the world your smartphone can connect. The camera starts recording when it detects motion, saving the video directly to its microSD card. And you can supposedly communicate with an arriving guest - or maybe frighten off a wannabe home invader - from your app, thanks to the camera's built-in two-way audio capabilities.
3D printing is becoming very mainstream, as evidenced by the LulzBot Mini 3D printer. It's set to sell for about $1400 U.S. which is less than I've paid for a 2D laser printer in years past. And for those who have everything but whose pets don't, the Petcube is kind of like a baby monitor, but for Fido or Fritz. It has a built-in camera, a laser to get them moving, and a speaker you can use to say "Down boy!" from wherever outside the house you may be. The wide angle camera can supposedly capture a full room and it streams in 720p, which is more than adequate. I think this one could be a lot of fun and it lets you create your own "aren't my pets cute?" service. As if the world needs another one...
And for the scatterbrained – or, as my own life can unfortunately attest, the "muddle aged" - there was the TrackR Bravo, which is a little $30 tracking device you can attach to your purse, your keys, your forehead (well, that might be a tad unnecessary) or whatever and keep track of where it is via an app. If it were me, I'd stick it in my car when in big parking garages...
Last, but definitely not least, it looks like my friends at Rotel, the audio/video equipment maker, have finally decided to release a North American successor to its classic RSP-1098 preamp/processor. I loved the previous unit and used it until it was made basically obsolete by the onward march of technology – I now use later, HDMI-equipped Rotel pre/pros and love them - but have been waiting with baited breath for the big 1098's replacement. From the description of the RSP-1582 that I saw coming out of CES, this seems to be it. It doesn't appear to offer automatic room correction, which is a shame and an oversight, but it will have pretty well everything else an audio/videophile could want, including great connectivity and 4K input and output. All for an estimated $3500 U.S., which (if true) undercuts the old RSP-1098 by about $500.
I can't wait to try it, and I hope to couple the test with Rotel's current heavyweight home theater amplifier, the 200 x 5 watt per channel RMB-1585. I remember well the older model that would be comparable to this new amp, the RMB-1095, and it was a lovely unit that, in Rotel's tradition, sounded great.
Winners and losers? Who knows? But as usual, there'll be some neat new stuff on store shelves for us to buy later this year. And next year the survivors will be even cheaper!
Copyright 2015 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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