Welcome to tech heaven: our breathless CES report-back from Las Vegas

Date:27 February 2013 Tags:,

Bigger, bolder and noisier than ever, the annual International CES in Las Vegas continues to dominate the expo landscape with its vast and diverse mix of consumer tech. PM editor Alan Duggan was there to ask questions, play with the gadgets and generally marvel at human ingenuity.

Enormous TVs with ultra-high definition (4K), fabulously powerful smartphones, crowd-funded gadgets aplenty, a flood of celebrity-branded headphones, appliances equipped with near field communication (NFC), a plethora of action cams, non-invasive healthcare monitors that communicate directly with doctors and medical institutions, bloody skirmishes in the ongoing ecosystem war (major protagonists: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft)… 2013 promises to be a tumultuous and exciting year for consumer technology.

Nowhere is the tumult more evident than at the International CES in Las Vegas, where upwards of 3 250 exhibitors gathered in January to unveil some 20 000 new products across 15 categories. Drawing more than 150 000 attendees, including 35 000-plus from more than 170 countries outside the United States, the expo retained its title as the world’s largest annual innovation event – and PM was there to share in the techno-mayhem.

Frankly, it’s a madhouse, with bigger crowds and more visual distractions than you can imagine, leading us to the bold claim that anyone who lays claim to the “definitive” best-gadget list is harmlessly delusional. After all, who’s to say that a new-generation action cam is more significant than a tiny GPS tracker, a fingernail-painting machine, a battery powered monowheel, a party speaker that doubles as a dancing robot, or a device that employs “extraterrestrial technology” to cure ailing pets? (Actually, scrap the last one: despite our best efforts, we cannot accept that quantum teleportation has advanced to the point where it can cure living creatures via data downloads, let alone deliver “the ultimate in sexual pleasure on a multi-dimensional basis”.)

Back in the real world, and the vicious wireless/smartphone battlefield, CES highlights included the launch of Sony’s Xperia Z (of which more later), the Huawei Ascend Mate and the ZTE Grand S. In video displays, LG featured its touchscreen Ultra HD, Sony launched the fi rst Ultra HD OLED display, Samsung featured its bendable OLED, and Hisense launched its transparent 3DTV. Digital health and fi tness launches included new products from Fitbit, Withings and BodyMedia.

For gamers, the 2013 CES saw the launch of Nvidia’s Project Shield, the Oculus Rift, the Sifteo and Razer Edge. Other noteworthy products included the Valve Steam-Box, Tobii eye recognition technology, the Kickstarter-funded Pebble smart watch, Qualcomm’s Vuforia augmented reality, multi-device connectivity from Ultraviolet, NFC technology from LG and Sony, tabletop applications from Lenovo, MakerBot’s Replicator 2x and Samsung’s Smart TVs with voice recognition.

MAKING A COMEBACK BID

Having survived several years of plummeting revenues and an expensive but effective world domination strategy by its main Korean rival (the social media sphere at this year’s CES was dominated by Samsung), Sony is fighting back hard with a slew of innovative products and groundbreaking technologies that would appear to give the Japanese electronics giant an excellent chance of a comeback.

In a round-table discussion during International CES in Las Vegas, vice-president Masashi Imamura, head of the company’s home entertainment and sound business group, said Sony intended to “redefine the battlefield” in its turnaround bid, making the point that its most important strategy was to make a very good product, and to reach customers’ hearts through their five senses.

To that end, the company has unveiled an impressive line-up of new products and genuinely useful technologies encompassing almost the entire consumer entertainment experience, both in and out of the home. They’re stylishly designed, the functions are intuitive, and the thinking behind them makes sense, so the coming months and years should prove interesting.

The company’s CES showcase offered something for everyone, from groundbreaking innovations in smartphones, tablets and PCs to the latest developments in digital imaging and 4K and connected TVs. Sony’s CES exhibit was built around a growing need for networking and interacting functionality across platforms and applications, with an emphasis on efficient connectivity, good picture and sound quality, and a mix of electronics, content and network services.

ENTER THE SNAPDRAGONPOWERED XPERIA Z

Among the highlights of Sony’s CES showcase were the new Xperia Z and Xperia ZL smartphones, both equipped with a Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core 1,5 MHz processor delivering excellent multitasking functionality (one day, we predict, all smartphones will go this route). Major goodies include full 1080p HD, a needlesharp 5-inch touchscreen, a 13-megapixel camera with HDR video, and LTE (naturally).

A very cool feature: Exmor RS for mobile, the world’s fi rst image sensor with High Dynamic Range (HDR) video for smartphones, which allows you to capture videos or stills even in strongly backlit conditions (we tried it for ourselves and it works like a bomb). But arguably the most impressive of all the new phone’s features is something called Battery 2013

Stamina mode, which provides up to four times the standby time of competing models. In essence, it works by shutting down background apps when the phone goes to sleep, and reviving them when you wake it up.

In addition, a combination of familiar Sonymedia applications – Walkman, Album and Movies apps – allows you to find, share and play content with intuitive, common controls via an intuitive interface that can be shared across PC, tablet and smartphone.

Oh, and the phone is dust-resistant and water-resistant to a depth of one metre for up to 30 minutes. In other words, if you drop it in the loo, don’t panic. (Expect to see the Xperia Z in South Africa sometime in March.)

STAYING IN TOUCH

A compelling technology found in many of the new Sony products at CES 2013 – including the Xperia Z – is One-touch, a function based on NFC. This must be the easiest and fastest way to wirelessly connect and enjoy music, photos and videos from a smartphone. Sony’s range of NFC-enabled devices with One-touch functionality includes a Blu-ray disc home theatre system, a formidable-looking sound bar, wireless speakers, headphones and mobile devices.

A new product called the Personal Content Station features 1 TB of storage and connects wirelessly to a home network, allowing you to store, view and share photos and videos from your smartphone or tablet. The One-touch function also connects smartphones with selected Bravia TVs.

Oh, those TVs. If you’ve never experienced ultra-high resolution, be prepared for a viewing experience that will blow you away. With more than four times the resolution of today’s HD TVs, 4K technology delivers a more immersive and dynamic viewing experience. Sony actually launched the 4K revolution with the first commercial 4K projector for cinemas – there are now more than 13 000 4K projectors installed in cinemas around the world – and the first professional camera to produce 4K content, the F65.

The company now offers a 4K home projector and a full line of 4K-capable home entertainment products, including the recently introduced 84-inch 4K LED TV and a pre-loaded 4K content delivery system. If you’d like one, start saving now. Fancy something a little more modest? If you’re prepared to wait a few months, you might be able to buy one of two other 4K LED TV models, these featuring 55- and 65-inch screens, and selling at prices described as “more accessible”.

Sony is combining 4K technology with another display technology it pioneered: OLED (organic light-emitting diode). It launched the world’s fi rst 11-inch consumer OLED TV back in 2007 and followed up at CES with a 56-inch prototype 4K. On show was a prototype of its first 4K consumer camcorder as well as other ultrahigh def digital imaging solutions such as “PlayMemories Studio” and the industry’s first line-up of 4K-mastered Blu-ray discs of existing films.

As the company tells it, the new TV models reflect changes consumer viewing habits, meeting their desire to simultaneously access information through built-in guides and from secondary devices such as smartphones, tablets and PCs. To make this easier, the new TV SideView application uses second screen connectivity to provide a dynamic graphical interface through which you can interact with your TV, view listings and operate embedded applications on the big screen. It also extends the social nature of TV, allowing you to share your experiences in real time with others.

TV SideView can be used as a universal remote control for a TV or to control other devices via IR, allowing cross-search of content from various sources using voice recognition.

Another interesting imaging technology is called “Triluminos Display”. Designed to deliver truer blues, greens and reds, this will be available on select 2K and 4K television models. But the innovation that really impressed us was the 4K X-Reality Pro picture engine, which automatically sharpens and enhances a TVs picture by reducing visual noise and correcting image shapes. Viewed alongside a TV without the technology, the difference is amazing.

MORE GIANT LEAPS FROM QUALCOMM

As expected, Qualcomm continued to push the boundaries of chipset technology with the introduction of new Snapdragon 800 and 600 processors. Think faster smartphones, tablets (or any other device that requires serious computing power, for that matter) and much longer battery life.

According to a company spokesman, you can expect to see the flagship 800 in computing and consumer electronic devices such as Smart TVs and digital media adapters by mid-year. Why should we be excited? Because its new multimedia features are quite astonishing. HD Audio supports DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus and 7.1 surround sound, and 4G LTE Cat 4 and 802.11ac options provide blazing fast, seamless connectivity, with cellular modem boasting data rates of up to 150 Mbps and 802.11ac ‘Be prepared for a viewing experience that will blow you away.’ Expounding on the benefits of a new picture-enhancing technology called X-Reality PRO. The “visual noise” reduction is quite remarkable.

at speeds up to 1 Gbps. Video can be captured, played back and displayed in 4K (aka UltraHD) with a resolution four times better than 1080p; that is, 1 920 x 1 080 versus 4 096 × 2 304. Oh, and the quad-core Krait 400 CPU delivers up to 2,3 GHz per core.

To showcase the chip’s multimedia capabilities, Qualcomm built a soundproof mini-cinema at their CES booth – and we stepped inside for a demo. At the end of the room was a massive, 84-inch 4K display playing a 2K trailer for the upcoming movie, Pacific Rim: the effect was electrifying. Here’s the thing: the clips were playing not on a huge home theatre system, but on a tablet powered by a Snapdragon 800 processor.

EVOLUTION, REVOLUTION?

Among the products showcased at Samsung’s extravagantly large CES booth was the Evolution Kit, an innovative piece of tech that enables the company’s existing Smart TVs to “evolve” into a 2013 version simply by attaching the device to the back of the set. We’re told the hardware enhancements (CPU, memory and GPU) deliver faster Internet browsing and better multitasking (via apps), plus improved voice control and motion control. And when 2014 comes around, you can upgrade again within minimal fuss.

The company’s 2013 audiovisual products feature a number of wireless connectivity enhancements, including what’s said to be the industry’s first soundbar (see below) that can connect to a TV using wireless Bluetooth technology. Among the other Samsung products on show:

● A vacuum tube soundbar, reportedly the first of its kind.
● Portable wireless Bluetooth speaker, delivering superior sound quality with an apt-X codec while offering the simplicity of NFC connectivity. Sounded good to us.
● 7.1 channel home theatre system created as a counterpart for the 2013 TV range, with a gallium nitride amplifier.
● A premium Blu-ray player featuring advanced upscaling capabilities, allowing users to experience ordinary SD and HD content in superior resolution.
● A curved OLED TV, offering an immersive panorama effect that’s not possible with conventional fl at-panel TVs.
● Two additions to the Series 7 PC lineup – the enhanced Series 7 Chronos, which delivers professional performance in a thin and light form factor, and the Series 7 Ultra, which takes ultrabooks to the next level with enriched computing power, graphics and touch capability.

So, what’s the next “big thing” in consumer technology? Well, we noticed quite a few smartphone apps, devices and services – for example, medical monitors and security systems for connected homes – aimed at the elderly and vulnerable, which was interesting because most tech companies haven’t appeared to notice that the world’s population is ageing.

However, at the risk of sticking our necks out, we’d have to say it’s 4K resolution – with a caveat: first announced last year, UltraHD TVs are still ridiculously expensive, and unless you’re sitting really close or are prepared to mortgage your home in exchange for a 60-inch screen (or bigger), you probably won’t notice the difference. And anyway, you might have to wait a while for the programme content to catch up…