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If we never have to hear about work from home tech again, it will have been too soon. Don’t get us wrong — the Consumer Electronics Show (or CES for short), by and large has made a commendable effort over the past two years adapting to our new hybrid world, announcing a flurry of tech meant to help you enjoy (or work in) the great indoors, and seamlessly incorporating virtual presentations and product demos into the convention’s DNA. But this year CES tried to leave that energy behind, and was back to a semblance of pre-pandemic craziness after 2022’s highly-anticipated physical presence was thwarted again thanks to the surge in the Covid-19 Omicron variant (…mostly. Although 40,000 attendees isn’t anything to shake a stick at, the halls were, anecdotally, a ghost town). You know how it goes these days — it was supposed to be “the Summer of George“, and all that.
We, like many others, made the decision to cancel our own trips and covered virtually last year, but we couldn’t help but feel like there was something undeniably missing. CES is a massive event meant for tech companies to flex their biggest, boldest ideas, and it’s admittedly difficult to get a sense of how impressive some of these new innovations can be when you can’t try on the latest AR/VR glasses, or take a test drive in the latest car. One of our own winners from last year, the Noveto N1, a darling of CES 2022 who promised to be the world’s first “invisible headphones”, quietly announced insolvency in June before we were ever able to test it ourselves.
But 2023 was a new year, a new CES, and like “the boys”, as Thin Lizzy once so eloquently put it, everyone was back in town. There were grand activations, in-person product demos, and a CES back in full swing, resolutely ready to move into a “post-pandemic” future. In so many ways, CES 2023 was much of the same as before the pandemic — a flurry of companies, attendees (around 100,000, nearly double that of last year), and plenty of Hyperloop rides around the Las Vegas Convention Center. So did CES 2023 burst out of the gate, ready to hit the ground running with more gaming-changing product innovations than ever ever before? Well. Kind of?
From economic inflation, to manufacturing delays and material shortages, the past three years have had a palpable impact on the world’s biggest tech companies. For whatever reason, what aimed to be a flood of buzz-worthy personal gadgets and mind-blowing AI advancements turned out to be more of a trickle. Announcements this year ranged from uncontroversial new releases we had been expecting for a while (we’ll get to the “Matter” smart home ecosystem later), to minor updates to existing tech (plenty of gaming laptops ditched the 17.3-inch standard for new 18-inch models). Overall, companies followed the K.I.S.S. method and “kept it super simple”, a trend that touched ever aspect of new tech presented this year at CES.
So We’ve Got to Talk About TVs
It’s not CES without a barrage of flashy TV releases, but this was a decidedly odd year for new announcements. Instead of bracing ourselves for the typical big three Sony, LG, Samsung cage match of new releases, we found ourselves left a little confused. Sony abstained from any new TV announcements at all to focus on their new electric car collab, Afeela, with Honda, with Roku throwing a respectable hat in the ring for the first time with news of their affordable Select and Plus Series OLED TVs. But they proved that it’s not always about pushing software to its limits — by breaking free from integration with other manufacturers’ TVs and soundbars, Roku is carving its own path, and we’ll be watching how they innovate now that both the software and hardware is in their own hands.
High-end TV manufacturers overall ditched a lot of the gimmicks we’ve come to expect in favor of minor, yet solidly impressive, updates. Less companies than usual seem to be jumping on the 8K bandwagon (potentially signaling the death of the trend), and 3D TV is deader than a doornail while 3D laptops are thriving. While LG did feature a stunning transparent TV prototype (arguably one of the coolest demos at CES this year), one subtle, impressive tweak made to a previous model proves why they’re still best-in-class — LG‘s M3 97-inch OLED TV not only has 4K resolution picture and a super smooth 120Hz presentation, but it’s completely wireless (sans power cord).
We were also impressed by what Samsung’s 77-inch QD-OLED brought to the table — it’s the first QLED at this size — which aims to make the brightness of an LED TV and the color accuracy of OLED accessible enough to compete with LG’s offerings. OLED is widely known as the best picture technology, and combined with “quantum dots”, Samsung’s displays have never looked better. TVs in general have never looked better, either, even if their core designs remain fundamentally unchanged. The same can be said for laptops.
Laptops Updates Were Minor, But Exciting
Laptops, for the most part, have looked exactly the same for the past few decades. It’s hard to improve upon a classic (that old clamshell design is just so solid), which is why a lot of new laptops that come out of CES lean too hard on form over function, and end up falling into gimmick territory. Asus even admitted that their ZenBook 17 Fold “folding laptop” from last year was “not a mass market product“.
Conversely, there were several user-friendly releases that streamlined their designs and eliminated the awkwardness inherent to most laptops trying to reinvent the clamshell. Lenovo‘s Yoga Book 9i has dual full-size OLED touchscreens with a plethora of ways to fold them, and it uses every inch of this surface versatility to its advantage, making it a true on-the-go work companion. Some laptops made minor tweaks like Alienware’s X14 R2, which is still the world’s thinnest gaming laptop, but has an impressive new display panel that delivers more visual real estate and heightened resolution, all without added bulk.
Enhancements meant to increase productivity, however small, were also welcomed — the LG Gram Style features a single haptic plane of glass below the keyboard in place of a sectioned off-touchpad, which is much more tactile. Even the new Asus Zenbook Pro 16X OLED has an ergonomic, auto-raising keyboard and a physical dial you can use to zoom or pan in multiple apps. Less is more here, and quite frankly we’d rather see regular quality-of-life updates from laptops than a quirky, new designs that require a PhD to work.
Sustainability in Tech Is Here to Stay
In lieu of new flagship product announcements, we saw plenty of brands double down on restating their commitment to a more eco-friendly production process, or launching new “green” initiatives entirely. If the word on everyone’s lips at CES 2022 was “metaverse”, then this year’s buzzword was undoubtably “sustainability”. With the climate crisis becoming a more pressing than ever, it was no surprise that nearly every company’s keynote presentation led with a sustainability commitment or touted a carbon neutral timeline of some kind. Sometimes, peer pressure works.
Samsung spent the first half of their press conference discussing energy efficiency in the household and their partnership with Patagonia, which include a new wash cycle and filter that help reduce microplastic emissions from their washers. Their latest Bespoke home appliances will now feature an AI Energy Mode that get up to 35% energy savings on select devices. Belkin is also going green as part of the company’s huge bet on sustainability, using new plastic-free packaging and updating their most popular products with 73 to 75% post-consumer recycled plastics (PCR). Even Asus claimed they had already been using 1,500 tons of recycled plastic in their products since 2017.
It seems like companies have, thankfully, gotten the message that the social and environmental impact of their tech matters to the consumers (and to the world itself). These seem (at the time being) to be long-term commitments, or at least the first steps towards them, rather than flashy new “green” product releases timed for Earth Day (Sony, I’m looking at you) or one sustainable model in an otherwise normally-produced product line.
An Even Smarter Smart Home
Speaking of home appliances, the smart home category’s biggest announcement this year wasn’t anything buzzy or gadgety, like the Motion 3 inflating anti-snore pillow, or even the U-Scan toilet sensor that analyzes your pee from Withings (although both are pretty great). No, it wasn’t even a product at all — it was “Matter”, an open-source smart home standard that after much hype and plenty of pandemic-related delays, was finally announced at CES.
Built off a multi-year, industry-wide effort between tech giants like Google, Apple, Samsung, and more, Matter dominated the conversation this year, promising a skeleton key-like wireless protocol that creates compatibility between Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, SmartThings, and other smart-enabled devices. It’s an enticing premise, and it seems like half of the home and kitchen devices we saw this year promoted their Matter-compatibility front and center. Govee’s new Matter-enabled LED Strip Light M1 that works with Google Home, and Samsung’s new SmartThings Station lets you automate all your smart home devices with the touch of a button.
Backwards compatibility is still a bit of a sore spot, since it seems like even the brands quickest to adopt Matter won’t give all the previous generations of their gadgets the software update. Matter has a lot to prove if it wants to create total smart home harmony, so it will be interesting to see who jumps on the bandwagon and who gets left behind. But it’s still more than a little draining that arguably one of the show’s biggest announcements was once again just “connecting everyone and everything to everything else”, a trend we were already sensing a few years back. Where are all the new gadgets and gizmos a-plenty?
CES 2023: Key Takeaways
Innovation is a tricky thing. You experiment too much with “bold” design, you lose your audience at the user-friendliness door. Create a product whose functionality is too niche, and you won’t pick up an audience at all (or much of an investment). So what does that mean for the seeming lack of bold, original ideas this year?
There were impressive and exciting gadgets, sure, but we can’t helped but notice that this year’s announcements played it safe. By focusing on the evolution of existing tech, or puzzle-piecing tech together into an ever-expanding ecosystem, CES felt like all the biggest, boldest ideas would be saved for another year. Perhaps, when the current state of the industry feels a little less precarious (for any number of reasons).
But then again, what are the parameters for how “innovative” a product even is? Is it an “only time will tell” scenario, or something anyone can spot it with a keen eye? Can you capture how much a gadget will disrupt or change an industry in a 15-minute product demo? Who says innovation always has to “disrupt”, to be be one giant leap for mankind?
In a way, CES 2023 proved that we don’t need to break new ground every single time. Not every new technology needs to be the company’s biggest release, or even revolutionize the way we work, communicate, travel, and live out our daily routine. We don’t always want a smartphone that can fold seven ways for no reason — some of us just want the display to be as crisp as possible, or for the battery life to last just a little longer. Sometimes, the smallest tweak can be the secret ingredient to unlocking a device’s full potential. Everything in moderation.