Ever since 1967, the first week in January has seen the enormous Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This year was no exception, with over 180,000 attendees from over 150 countries and over 4,500 exhibiting companies meeting in an enormous 2.5 million square foot exhibition, sprawling over the Las Vegas Convention Center and spilling into other nearby hotels and locations too.
We’ve been occasionally attending CES since the mid/late 1980s. These days, as an attendee, it is not nearly as much fun as it used to be when it was half the size it is now. It has become almost “too big”, with way too much walking around, and if you don’t have your appointments well scheduled, you can find yourself needing to walk 15 – 20 minutes between each appointment.
Even a place as enormous as Vegas fills up – the hotels are full, restaurants are crowded, and taxis are hard to find. Getting between your hotel and the show and back again is a miserable experience, with long lines, and even the monorail is unbearably crowded and crushed.
Because there is such a huge spread of equipment now being showcased, it is harder to identify specific themes from year to year, because obviously an automotive theme is unlikely to be connected to a cellular phone theme or a computer theme. Except that, increasingly, the connectedness of everything is actually allowing such themes to be sensed again – in this year’s case, connectivity that spans one’s television, other electronics and appliances, phones, and even automobiles.
This year was a more muted show than in some of the past years, with perhaps a bit less exuberant enthusiasm for new technologies, and a greater awareness and sensitivity to the ugly and controversial side of many new technologies. Should we welcome or fear AI? Are the increasing “conveniences” being offered by so much software worth the privacy compromises involved? Can we really trust companies such as Google knowing more about us than our employers and spouses? Are we truly ready for self-driving cars, and will we ever truly see a flying car?
Some of the recurrent hype of previous years was deservedly being greeted with more skepticism and even cynicism than in the past.
Companies were being very careful to play up the “protections” inherent in their new technologies this year, but whether such claims are more than window-dressing or not remains to be seen.
Google vs Amazon
The big battle at CES this year was between two enormous industry titans – Google and Amazon, each urgently trying to deny the other any slice of the pie marked “voice control” while publicly pretending they welcomed the competition.
Amazon proudly announced that its Alexa voice controlled service had been sold on over 100 million devices. But then Google said its Google Assistant was available on over 1 billion devices. An apparent victory for Google? Well, maybe yes, but you know what they say about lies, damn lies, and statistics.
The actual “real” numbers of installations of both products is anyone’s guess, as is the amount of use they are getting and the level of consumer satisfaction. We have both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant unavoidably installed on various devices (Amazon Kindle Fire tablets, Android phones) but never use either service on any of these. So adjust the numbers for us, and probably many/most other people and devices included in those ridiculously inflated numbers.
Both companies are eagerly working with just about anyone to get their service included on devices, fighting for space in the kitchen in particular, and, this year especially, trying to get into your car, too.
With two companies each totally committed to the two different services, and each with very deep pockets, this remains a very interesting marketplace to watch.
5G Phone Technology
You probably know that cellphone wireless data technology has gone through a series of quantum leaps in terms of the speed available. These have been called 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G (G for generation), and sometimes there have been some compromise middle points like 2.5G offered as well. Most phones these days usually connect at 3G or 4G speeds.
4G can be extremely fast, and very much faster than most of us actually experience, most of the time. In theory it can reach 50 Mbps, in practice, it tends to be more like 1/10th that speed. Compare that to 2G, which was essentially the first “real” data service, which runs at about 40kbps; in other words, 100-1000 times slower.
If you want to know what 2G is like, go somewhere international with T-Mobile’s “free unlimited data” plan that restricts you to 2G speeds. Be prepared to wait many minutes for a single webpage to load.
But, as wonderful and fast as 4G is, the wireless companies want to go faster, and also want more bandwidth, so as to service more people and devices simultaneously, so there is a new faster speed being developed and poised for release this year. You can probably guess its name – 5G.
5G is extraordinarily different to the data services that have gone before. The good news is that it will be capable of supporting speeds up to about 1000 Mbps as a user-achievable speed with peak rates reaching an unthinkable 20,000 Mbps (20 Gbps). It will also allow for very dense service, up to 2.5 million connected devices in a single square mile.
This is truly science-fiction type amazing.
But, there’s a downside. Alarms are being expressed about the levels of radio wave radiation that we’ll all be flooded with, from 5G cell towers (and LEO satellites), and also from the many transmitters on phones and other devices all around us.
One of the futuristic aspects of 5G is that it uses incredibly high frequencies. Never mind AM radio (about 1 MHZ) or FM radio (about 100 MHz) or earlier cell phone service (750 MHz) or more recent cell phone service (2.5 GHz) or Wi-Fi (2.4 or 5 GHz). Some of the frequency bands being proposed will be in the area of 24 – 86 GHz. This is only two octaves below the start of infrared radiation.
With increasingly credible concerns about regular cell phone radiation, and noting that higher frequency waves have more energy, articles such as this are appearing.
Anyway, at CES, there was a lot of talk about the upside of 5G, and little/no talk about the downside. We expect to see a few major cities with 5G capabilities appearing this year, and Samsung has said it will release a 5G capable phone this year, with more to start following subsequently of course.
But AT&T has decided, for marketing purposes, to start describing its 4G technology as 5G, even though it is not 5G, and will not be compatible when 5G comes out. This has attracted derision from the other carriers, which has been responded to with nonchalance by AT&T. Apparently all’s fair in love, war, and wireless carrier marketing.
The home entertainment industry remains desperate for “the next big new thing” to cause consumers to go into a new wave of tv upgrades. They tried and failed with 3D television (although a few companies continue to push that largely dead issue). They tried and succeeded with various new audio upgrades with more channels of surround sound. They tried and succeeded briefly with Blu-ray until the shift from buying/renting to streaming marked the end of the road for volume sales of movies in any format.
They tried and succeeded with HD tv, and then tried and succeeded again with 4K televisions, mainly because the price-point on 4K monitors has dropped to a point where there is little or no extra cost involved; indeed, it is become hard to find a regular HD large-screen monitor any more.
So what comes next? 8K, of course. It is important to appreciate that 8K is not a doubling of resolution (and neither was 4K compared to HD). In both cases, it is a quadrupling of resolution, because the total pixels is the result of the (doubled) vertical resolution multiplied by the (doubled) horizontal resolution.
So, in terms of actual pixels, a regular NTSC television had something like about 100,000 – 300,000 or fewer pixels on the screen (it was an analog signal so this isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples). An HD tv (1920×1080) has 2.1 million pixels. A 4K tv (3840×2160) has 8.3 million pixels, and an 8K tv would have 33.2 million pixels.
We all could see the improvement between regular tv and HD television. The improvement between HD and 4k is hard to tell unless you sit very close to the screen, because at usual viewing distances, the individual pixels merge into each other to make a smooth continuous picture, just like you also see on your cell phone.
So how much extra quality would be apparent on an 8K monitor? Short of jamming your nose to the screen and using a magnifying glass, you’re unlikely to see any difference at all. This truly is getting into the realm of quite literally vanishing returns.
It also would mean that the bandwidth needed to stream an 8K video to your set is likely to be around 60Mbps. How fast is your internet connection at present? 4K is about 15 Mbps which most of us can handle and still have some left over for other people (or ourselves) in our home to be browsing web pages, chatting, sending/receiving email, etc. HD is 5Mbps or less.
And, talking about streaming, one of the barriers discouraging faster adoption of 4K has been the lack of 4K content. This is slowly being addressed, although it is also relevant to note that some of the so-called 4K material is actually just up-sampled HD video, with no extra quality or picture information in it.
As for 8K video, none exists at all, and close to none of the library of existing television programs and movies are stored in a format capable of being scanned and digitized at 8K resolution. Regular 35mm film is pushed beyond its limits for 8K scanning, and of course, all the videotape that was recorded at 720×480 or lower resolution can never go any higher.
8K does have some potential uses in the future, in making wall-sized monitors which could have a 4K video in one quadrant, an outside view in another quadrant, various advisory information in a third quadrant, and other internet/computer things in the fourth quadrant. Or anything else to make use of the enormous number of pixels available – 16 HD pictures simultaneously, or whatever you desired. As for the cost of an enormous (think 100″ – 200″) 8K monitor, one can only guess and hope the equity we have in our homes would be sufficient to cover it.
But as a single video image filling the whole screen, there seems little value at all. Indeed, high quality digital projectors in movie theaters tend to be limited to 4K resolution (and many are 2K/HD).
All the major television companies were hopefully offering 8K sets, but none were disclosing pricing. Don’t go looking for 8K televisions in your local Costco this coming Christmas.
Foldable Screen Phone
A lot of buzz was generated by a cell phone with a foldable screen. When folded over, you had more or less a regular phone, and when unfolded, you had more or less a regular tablet. But the hinge was very thick with a wide radius, and it didn’t really fold at all flat. The whole thing strikes us as being clutzy rather than clever.
We suspect this will be yet another example of a product everyone loved at CES, but which either never made it to the market and/or was never actually bought by anyone.
We suggest you wait little more than a month, at which time Samsung is expected to reveal what will most probably be a very much more polished implementation of a foldable phone.
Some Other Things That Caught Our Eye
You will soon be able to get a 1TB SD card, but we recommend not to. SD cards can be a bit unreliable, and the last thing you want is to have your entire life’s pictures lost. Use smaller cards, and back up often.
A 4TB USB thumb drive was also shown at CES. We’re not sure of its potential longevity, but again find ourselves a bit anxious when contemplating it.
One of the quietly growing areas of “smart things” is in the field of home security. We’re all familiar with Wi-fi connected and internet monitorable security cameras, more and more other security devices are also getting such capabilities. This company had some good things.
A fascinating concept that has been crying out for implementation has been crowd-sourcing weather monitoring; not only so we know the current weather conditions anywhere, but also so we can get much more accurate forecasts. Cell phones are starting to get barometers built into them; sadly thermometers remain an impossibility (they’d be impacted by the heat generated by the phone itself, the heat of your pocket, the difference between inside/outside temperatures, etc), and this sees the concept of crowd-sourcing weather forecasting become slightly more practical.
A couple of gadgets for guys – a homebrew making system, and a heated razor. There were a number of things for women too, including a device that apparently will automatically and exactly size you for a bra.
And, for both him and her, a device that promises instant* hot water, with the asterisk implying that the hot water, while quickly available, will only flow at a very slow rate and limited to a small quantity – a quart or so. Another gadget which might never make it to market.
There wasn’t so much hype about self driving cars this year, and similarly, a muted approach to electric vehicles, although a couple of electric motorbikes were featured, including a $28,000 model from Harley Davidson. One wonders what a Harley without its thunderous roar would be like.
But what was shown is, to my mind, the world’s creepiest car. Not only can it drive on its four wheels, but they can articulate out and become four legs to walk over obstacles. Details and video here.
To give you one final overview of the show, here’s a list of finalists for Engadget’s Best of CES Awards.