CES 2013: Threes Ups, Three Downs

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Another year’s CES is headed into the books. This time around, the consumer-electronics industry’s annual gathering featured dubious developments in TV, what might be an overdue acceptance of reality by camera vendors, and a flowering of innovation among vendors of some of the smallest gadgets around. Here’s a quick scorecard.

Big-TV boondoggles. “4K” televisions with four times the resolution of mere HD–this new standard now officially goes by the term “Ultra HD”–don’t look much more appealing a year after their round of publicity at last year’s CES. We still don’t have any good sources of 4K programming, the sets still feature five-figure pricing, and from normal viewing distances you can’t see the difference those extra pixels make on displays smaller than 55 or 60 inches.

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Things look even worse for big-screen OLED sets. It’s now been six years since the CES debut of ultra-thin organic light-emitting-diode models, and we’re still waiting to see the price of large OLED sets become remotely competitive with ever-improving LCDs (almost all of which are now backlit by lighter, brighter LEDs instead of fluorescent lamps).

Smart TV gone dumb. Your Internet-linked TV should be able to play back videos from sites like Netflix and YouTube, but should it also let you check your calendar and e-mail? Some manufacturers (for instance, Panasonic, Samsung and Toshiba) seem to think so, resulting in overgrown interfaces that remind me of how “portal sites” like My Yahoo looked around 1999. Reminder to manufacturers: Most people likely to buy a connected TV probably already have a smartphone or tablet at hand in the living room.

Connected cameras. Have camera vendors learned from their initial, clumsy attempts to provide wireless photo transfers from cameras to phones, tablets or computers? Maybe. With so many manufacturers touting wireless photo connections (usually via Wi-Fi, but in some cases with shorter-range Near Field Communication), the pressure of competition ought to yield more pleasant results. Right? Please?

Friendly robots. Out on the show floor, Parrot’s A.R. Drone ”quadricopter” drones were as popular as ever. Offsite, one of the more obscure exhibitors from last year’s CES, Las Vegas-based Romotive, showed off a more polished version of its iPhone or iPod touch-powered Romo that’s now heading into production.

Sensors for everyone. Declining prices for motion, temperature, humidity and other electronic sensors make it easier than ever for gadget builders to cobble together exercise-tracking pods such as Withings’ upcoming Smart Activity Tracker and self-aware home-automation systems like Belkin’s WeMo, Lowe’s Iris and others from startup competitors. Note that this does not guarantee that these systems will be anywhere as easy to use as advertised.

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Convertible laptops. Windows 8′s reliance on touchscreen controls is pushing laptop vendors to make more tablet-esque models, either by allowing the user to fold or rotate the screen to face out and cover the keyboard or by permitting you to detach the entire screen. I don’t know that this concept will get too far; only the most compact (and often feature-thin) laptops are light enough to be comfortably carried as tablets, and some of these hinge or latch arrangements look a little delicate.

Fat phones. Samsung’s 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II is about to yield its claim to being the biggest smartphone in the market. Huawei’s Ascend Mate, with a 6.1-inch screen, will soon have it beat, while Lenovo’s K900 will match the display dimensions of Samsung’s enormophone. Will that new upper limit satisfy phone users who still feel starved for screen real estate when using today’s plus-sized hardware? Ask me after CES 2014.

(Disclosure: For most of last year, I contributed weekly blog posts to the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington, Va., trade group that runs CES.)

Credit: Rob Pegoraro / DNews

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