It’s probably no coincidence that the International CES trade show kicks off right after the start of a new year. After all, it’s a time to make a fresh start, to look ahead to the coming months, and to dream big.
It’s also a time to remember how big plans can sometimes unravel over the remaining 11 months of the year.
So as we ready ourselves for yet another CES—the 2014 show opens its doors on Tuesday—we thought we’d prepare for what’s ahead by looking back. A year ago, we were basking in new TV technologies, smartwatches, smarter cars, intelligent appliances, slick tablets, and more. What happened to those CES 2013 standouts as the year progressed? And what can that tell us about managing our expectations in 2014?
4K HDTVs: Hardware but not a lot of content
What happened then: Much of the excitement at CES 2013 centered on 4K or Ultra HD resolution sets—big TVs with four times the resolution of 1080p HDTVs. At the show, LG, Sony, Samsung, Sharp, Westinghouse, and Vizio all promised 4K sets, though their stratospheric price tags—suggested prices last January topped out at $25,000—probably dulled consumer anticipation to some extent. Still, Sony’s beautiful 56-inch OLED 4K prototype, for one, impressed with its stunning resolution of 3840 by 2160 pixels. (At least, it impressed when the demo worked.)
What’s happening now: Prices have fallen significantly since last year’s CES. Both Samsung and Sony slashed their 4K TV prices in August. By December, a 50-inch TV from little-known manufacturer Seiki was being listed for a little less than $1000.
More than just money stopped 4K TVs from taking over the world in 2013. For much of the year, consumers couldn’t find much in the way of 4K content. Sony did launch a new $698 4K media player in April—the Sony FMP-X1—as well as a fee-based 4K movie download service. But otherwise, the pickings were pretty slim.
That situation may be changing, though. At the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin this past September, manufacturers showed off several technologies designed to bring 4K content into your home. And in December, Netflix hinted that at CES 2014 several television manufacturers will announce UltraHD Smart TVs loaded with a Netflix app that can deliver season two of the popular House of Cards series to viewers in 4K.
What could happen next: TV makers are clearly eager to usher in another buying boom with 4K models. But the popularity of 4K TVs will continue to depend on the amount of programming available to fill those supersize screens.
Gaming: Valve may move to the front of the line
What happened then: A few innovations captured the attention of gamers at last year’s CES—most notably, Nvidia’s portable Shield gaming device and the Razer Edge Pro gaming tablet. Alas, the promise of last January faded as the year went on. Cool though the Nvidia Shield is, its best feature—streaming desktop games to the device—works only if you have an Nvidia graphics card in your home computer. It’s expensive, too. As for the Razer Edge Pro, its high price and limited functionality prevent it from qualifying as anything other than a luxury item. Gamers are better off buying a laptop.
What’s happening now: Long after last year’s CES, Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 injected some life into the languishing I-just-want-to-sit-on-my-couch console market, and the Oculus Rift—though still just prototype hardware—is at the forefront of a burgeoning virtual-reality market.
But the largest indicator of movement in the category comes from traditional desktop devotee Valve, whose Steam retail service is synonymous with PC games. Valve’s upcoming Steam Machines, which we expect to see at CES 2014, run a customized operating system (Steam OS) and squarely target your living room.
What could happen next: CES isn’t typically a big show for gaming—that’s what the E3 confab is for. But if the rumors pan out and a Steam Machine does debut in Vegas, gaming could take center stage at this CES.
Tablets: Enthusiasm for Surface didn’t surface
What happened then: Microsoft may have left CES behind, but it made an exception at last year’s show on behalf of the Surface tablet. A few Microsoft representatives touched down in Las Vegas last January to show off the new Surface Pro with Windows 8 Pro in a backroom, all-but-off-the-grid demo.
The Surface Pro arrived on the heels of the original Surface tablet, which apparently sold only about 1 million units in the fourth quarter of 2012. Microsoft hoped that customers would embrace the Surface Pro, which launched the following month, as the “real” Surface version.
They didn’t. Though the Surface Pro performed well in PCWorld’s review, buyers evidently considered the Windows-based Surface family to be overpriced compared with its Android rivals.
What’s happening now: When Surface tablet sales struggled during the first quarter, panic set in: Microsoft first tossed in a free copy of Office 2013 with a tablet purchase, and then cut the price of the Surface RT by 30 percent. Microsoft took a $900 million charge to accommodate those discounts, and followed that by cutting the Surface Pro’s price by $100. Even the launch of Windows 8.1 didn’t help.
In late September, Microsoft launched the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. The updated hardware was, as expected, terrific, but Microsoft failed to produce any meaningful price cuts. Due to the late launch date, we won’t know until sometime in January how many Surface 2 units Microsoft sold. But Microsoft’s Surface exited 2013 on a bumpy note: After a firmware update bumped up the Surface Pro 2’s battery significantly, a second update introduced further problems.
What could happen next: We don't expect to hear a lot of fresh tablet news at CES this year, though that’s no reflection of Microsoft’s Surface Pro struggles. Rather, tablet makers likely are keeping their powder dry until the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona next month.
Cars: More connectivity, more apps
What happened then: Last year’s CES gave us early glimpses of two car-tech phenomena: apps and autonomous driving features (Audi showed a car that could park itself with driver prompting). Connectivity also surfaced, in the form of using a phone as a conduit for streaming data to a car’s display.
What’s happening now: Right after CES 2013, the pace of automotive integration with technology picked up, focusing on owners who want their car to understand their smartphone.
To meet this need, several car makers have upped their connectivity offers: The Tesla Model S promises free 3G connectivity for the first year of ownership. GM says it will build 4G LTE connectivity into most of its 2015 model-year cars. Audi says its 2015 A3 will have 4G connectivity, too. (Question: who is going to pay for these data plans?)
Apps were also big in cars last year. Chrysler’s Uconnect lets the driver send hands-free text messages via voice and get real-time stats on car performance. Mercedes-Benz and Acura are offering apps that let you monitor your car from afar.
What could happen next: A fully autonomous car is still years away, but all the elements for one started to come together over the past year. Vendors hasten to add that you can’t let go of the wheel yet, but we know that change is coming eventually. Stay tuned for much more on car tech at CES 2014.
Smart appliances: Still clever, still expensive
What happened then: If there’s a screen, there’s a way, as CES 2013 proved for smart appliances. Remember LG’s intelligent appliances equipped with near-field communication technology? Or Samsung’s T9000 refrigerator, which let you manage your life with Evernote and calendar integration?
What’s happening now: Okay, so no one you know has a connected home at this point. The day may come when your refrigerator can design a recipe from the food you’ve placed inside, and then tell your oven to start preheating—but that day didn’t happen in 2013.
As with 4K HDTVs, one of the factors discouraging mass adoption of smart appliances may be price: Supersmart, high-end appliances come with shock-inducing price tags to match. Take Samsung’s fancy T9000 fridge, which retails for $3500: The thing has earned great reviews, but who can afford to buy it?
What could happen next: Appliances makers will continue to trumpet the virtues of the connected home, and we’ll continue to admire the amazing gadgets designed to add Jetsons-like futurism to modern living arrangements. We just hope the prices come down at least a smidge.
Gadgets: Technology you can wear
What happened then: CES sometimes sets the tone for technology for the rest of the year—and that certainly seems to have been the case with wearable technology in 2013. Two of the more memorable products from last year's CES fell into this category—the FitBug Orb and the Pebble Smartwatch.
The FitBug Orb charmed attendees at last year’s show with its small size and $50 price. As for the Pebble, it didn’t debut at CES—it was a Kickstarter darling in 2012—but its makers showed up at CES to announce the smartwatch’s arrival later in January.
As for smartwatches, the Pebble was the opening act for Samsung’s disappointing Galaxy Gear and Sony’s SmartWatch 2. Meanwhile, two potential major players—Google and Apple—remained on the sidelines of the smartwatch craze as 2013 came to an end.
What could happen next: Fitness tech is evolving beyond a focus on running. We’re starting to see fit-tech devices such as the Trace, which helps snowboarders measure their runs and sessions, and the Zepp Labs Multi-Sport sensor, a device that gives baseball batters, golfers, and tennis players a 360-degree view of their swing. (The Consumer Electronics Association says that the CES 2014’s fitness-tracker section is 40 percent larger than CES 2013’s was.)
Similarly, we expect smartwatch releases to keep ticking into 2014, though the category has stalled a bit. Apart from the gadget’s cool look, smartwatch makers haven’t yet come up with a compelling reason for consumers to buy their product, which does only a small subset of the things a smartphone (with its much larger screen) can do. The company that changes this state of affairs will change the smartphone landscape.
TechHive’s Amber Bouman and PCWorld’s Mark Hachman and Melissa Riofrio contributed to this story.