The Best (Actually Useful) Tech We Saw at CES 2018

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Ever wish you could live in a Jetsons-like future, where robots bring you beer and you could fly a car to work? Well, most of that probably won’t be real anytime soon, but CES likes to pretend it will. We hit the show floor this year so we could separate fact from fiction just for you. Here are our favorite things we saw in Vegas that you’ll actually use in the coming year or two—and a few things that were downright stupid.

The Cool Stuff You’ll Actually Want

Hidden among the thousands of robots, phone cases, and flashy screens are some gadgets that are actually intriguing…and real enough that they might end up in your home soon. Here are some of our favorite new gadgets and technologies from the year.

5G (If It Works as Promised)

Everyone was talking about 5G and how it will transform the world, ushering us into a new era of limitless high-speed data everywhere. Samsung called 5G “wireless fiber”. It promises speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, which is 10 times faster than current 4G LTE speeds of up to one gigabit per second. As presenters were fond of noting, this means you could download a full HD movie in a few seconds instead of a few minutes.

5G could even enable wireless Internet service providers to offer wireless home broadband Internet. This could mean real competition for Comcast and other other wired internet providers…and we all know how badly they could use some competition.

This technology sounds amazing, sure, but there’s not really anything to test yet. Even if the speeds are as good as promised, what kind of data caps will cell phone carriers slap on their plans? If you’re charged extra for actually using that data, or quickly throttled down to slower speeds after you use a few gigabytes, that advanced new 5G connection is much less compelling.

Verizon has plans to launch 5G in a few US cities in 2018, but they’ll initially be using it for home broadband Internet, not mobile phone service. Deployment will hopefully pick up in 2019, but 5G may not be truly widespread in the USA until 2020—at least.

NVIDA Big Format Gaming Display (BFGD)

NVIDIA showed us a lot of cool stuff this year, but none quite as impressive as its new 65″ gaming display. It’s technically a monitor (since it doesn’t contain a TV tuner), but for all intents and purposes, it’s a TV designed for 4K, HDR, low-latency PC gaming and streaming. It comes with SHIELD built-in so you can watch all your favorite movies and shows, stream or play your favorite PC or Android games, all in gorgeous 4K HDR, and at 120Hz with G-Sync. They haven’t announced pricing, but you can bet these’ll be expensive—for most of us, it’s a product we’ll drool over more than actually own.

Honorable mention from NVIDIA was the new version of GeForce Now, which allows you to stream games from the cloud and play them on even the cheapest, crappiest of PCs.

Windows 10 ARM Laptops

We’ve been curious about Windows 10 on ARM since it was first announced, especially now that manufacturers are boasting all-day, 20-hour battery life. CES gave us our first hands-on peek at a device from Lenovo known as the Miix 630. It’s more of a convertible tablet than a true laptop (similar to the Surface), which seems to be what Microsoft is pushing for ARM—tablet laptops, rather than laptop tablets, if you will. We still don’t have any kind of performance benchmarks or information on how x86 apps will run on it, but the mere existence of these devices is getting us excited.

Google Assistant Smart Displays

Amazon’s Echo Show and Echo Spot showed us what voice assistants can do when you tack on a screen, and now Google has gotten in on the fun by partnering with a few companies to introduce Google Assistant-based smart displays.

Lenovo, JBL, and LG have come out with their own versions of a screen-equipped Google Home of sorts, with the Lenovo model being the most beautiful and Google-like. Its screen can show your upcoming calendar events, provide you with directions, show you feeds from your security cameras, and more.

Lenovo’s 8-inch model will retail for $199, while the 10-inch version will be priced at $249, and will release at some point this summer.

Roav Viva Alexa-Enabled Car Charger

You may not have heard of Roav before, but they’re actually a subsidy company of Anker, one of our favorite accessory makers in the industry. They announced a new car charger called the Viva, which comes with two USB ports equipped with Anker’s PowerIQ. But the best feature is that it has Alexa built in, so it’s like having a tiny Echo Dot in your car.

The Viva connects to your car’s stereo and your phone via Bluetooth. From there, your phone’s data plan gives Alexa its internet connection. With the Roav app installed, you can ask Alexa for directions, stream music, call family and friends, and more. The best part is that it’s only $50, and available for pre-order right now.

HTC Vive Pro

We like the HTC Vive, and the Vive Pro improves on it in almost every way. The headset is easier to put on and tighten, feels more balanced on your head, includes built-in headphones, puts dual cameras in the front, and allows for a wireless adapter to get rid of the long cables connecting the headset to your PC.

By far, though, the most impressive improvement in the Vive Pro is the improved screen resolution: at 1440×1600 per eye (up from 1080×1920 on the original Vive), graphics are far sharper than they were on the old model, and the “screen door effect” is far less visible (though it’s still somewhat noticeable, especially in lighter scenes).

Beyerdynamic Aventho Wireless Headphones

There were a lot of cool headphones at CES, but we kept coming back to Beyerdynamic’s Aventho Wireless. It has a pretty interesting combination of features:

  • aptX Bluetooth for high-quality wireless
  • Smart sensors that pause the music when you remove one ear cup from your head (not unlike Apple’s AirPods)
  • Active noise cancelling with three settings for different noise environments (which worked surprisingly well in the noisy CES room when I tested them)
  • Sound personalization: take a hearing test using the headphones, and it will equalize your music to make up for any gaps in the spectrum of your hearing.

We weren’t able to test that last feature, but it’s certainly intriguing—and the other features worked well, so Beyerdynamic has our attention.

USB Fast Charging, Standardized

USB fast charging is a mess. Manufacturers have their own standards like Qualcomm Quick Charge, Samsung Adaptive Fast Charge, and Huawei SuperCharge. This means you need different fast chargers for different devices.

The USB Implementers Forum—the industry group that defines the USB standard—has fixed this. “Certified USB Fast Charger” is a new logo that will appear on devices that support the “Programmable Power Supply” feature, which is part of the USB Power Delivery 3.0 specification. Manufacturers can use their own custom algorithms to try to speed up charging, but the underlying hardware will be compatible with all devices with this logo.

The USB-IF assured us that manufacturers are very interested in this standard. This means fast charging will “just work” in the future, and you won’t need different fast chargers for different devices. Just look for the logo.

WPA3 for Better Wi-Fi Security

The Wi-Fi Alliance announced WPA3 to replace the WPA2 standard for securing Wi-Fi networks. WPA2 has served us well, but it’s had its share of problems, like KRACK.

Technically, this is a certification, too. Four new Wi-Fi features will be required for “Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WPA3” branding. WPA3-certified devices will start appearing in 2018.

WPA3 promises to solve the problem of snooping on public Wi-Fi networks. When you connect to an public Wi-Fi network like one at a coffee shop, hotel, or airport, your connection is often unencrypted, allowing people to snoop on some of your traffic. WPA3 will solve this problem, encrypting all communications between devices and the router.

The new standard will also protect against “dictionary attacks”, making it more difficult to guess a Wi-Fi network’s passphrase with password-cracking software. It will make it easier to connect devices with no screens (like smarthome devices) to Wi-Fi networks. We don’t know all the details yet, but we’ll learn more about exactly what WPA3 brings in the future.

A Few Disappointing and Downright Ridiculous Things

Most of CES wasn’t terrible this year—it just felt kind of forgettable. But as always, there were some things that just angered us. So, as a little bonus, here were some of our least favorite things we saw this year.

Kodak’s Bitcoin Mining Scheme

Kodak—the camera company that went bankrupt in 2012 and is now just a shell of its former self–decided to join the cryptocurrency craze at CES. They’re selling a Bitcoin miner named the “Kodak KashMiner” with “Kodak HashPower”. Or rather, they’re selling a Bitcoin mining contract. If you pay $3400 up front, you’re in a two year contract where you get half the Bitcoin the miner produces, and Kodak gets the other half. Kodak “estimates” you’ll get a return of $375 a month every single month for two years. That assumes the price of Bitcoin stays stable (which it won’t) and that the mining won’t get more difficult within those two years (which it will). It makes you wonder: If Kodak really has a magical money making machine, why wouldn’t they just keep all the profits for themselves?

This stuff is snake oil of the highest degree—check out the misleading marketing material Kodak was handing out.

That’s not all Kodak is doing. They also announced KodakOne, their own blockchain-based service for keeping track of photo licensing. It’s integrated with KodakCoin, a cryptocurrency for paying photographers…for some reason. This is entirely separate from their Bitcoin plans, except that both involve cryptocurrency and a blockchain.

Kodak isn’t bringing anything new to the table here. The Kodak KashMiner is appears to just be a Bitmain Antminer S9 with a Kodak logo slapped on it. And the KodakCoin appears to be a rebranded version of RYDE coin, which never got much attention. But people are paying Kodak to rent out their trusted brand name, because that’s what Kodak has been reduced to.

Samsung. Just…All of It

Samsung’s booth this year was an amalgamation of all the bad ideas its ever had, combined into one product line.

Remember, Bixby, the virtual assistant that nobody wants, and people are actively trying to disable?

Remember smart fridges, the product that no one needs?

Combine both of those, add in a bunch of similarly ridiculous products, put them into an Apple-like ecosystem, and you have a basic idea of what Samsung is doing this year. It’s creating more smart appliances you don’t need, putting Bixby on everything, and making it all work together, so you’ll buy a ton of Samsung products and have everything work together. Meanwhile, other companies are putting Google Assistant in their TVs and working with the products you already use. Samsung is losing me fast. (Though their quick TV setup does look interesting.)

Alexa-Enabled Faucets and Other Nonsense

Alexa and Google Assistant were getting integrated into everything this year. Some things made sense, like a thermostat or light switch that eliminates the need for a separate Echo in that part of the house. Others…were head-scratchers. Delta Faucet, for example, unveiled a smart faucet integrated with Alexa. It has what Delta calls “Touch2O” technology (barf), which allows you to touch the faucet to turn it on and off. That’s actually not terrible, despite the name.

But the Alexa integration doesn’t make much sense. You can say “Alexa, turn the faucet on” or “Alexa, turn the faucet off”—but isn’t it faster to just turn it on with your hands? It’s not like you’re going to turn the faucet on when you aren’t near it. You can tell Alexa to dispense a precise amount of water, so at least that’s…something?

I asked how much the faucet would cost, but Delta Faucet wasn’t ready to announce that yet. But considering regular, non-smart Delta faucets are hundreds of dollars…you can only imagine what a Delta faucet with a computer inside would cost. I’m not sure I’m that compelled.

We live in an amazing time where humanity is capable of making all kinds of crazy things. Lots of products at CES are interesting pieces of engineering, but aren’t an impressive product anyone should actually buy—especially if they have a high price. We wandered past a smart air fryer that allowed you to say “Hey Google, turn the air fryer on”. But you’re only turning on an air fryer if you’ve placed food in it, and in that case you’re standing right there and you can just press the button—isn’t that faster?

But if you can make it past all the nonsense, the talking robots, and the $1000 toys, there’s some useful stuff to see. Laptops and USB standards may not be as eye-catching as a robot that folds your laundry, but it’s something that’ll directly affect your daily life really soon—and that excites us more than a mythical Jetsons-era product that won’t come to fruition.

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