In Las Vegas, appliances and smart home tech take center stage

We'll be on hand at CES covering all of the latest appliances and smart-home gadgets. Here's a preview of what to expect.

'Twas the week before the yearly Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas, and all of the relevant creatures were stirring -- the startups, the manufacturers, the marketing teams, and of course, the journalists assigned to report on all of it.

Here in Louisville, we're busy gearing up to cover all of the appliances and smart-home tech that'll be on display next week. That includes everything from robot vacuums and refrigerators to smart sensors and connected cameras. With six days to go, here's a preview of what we're expecting to see.

More smart-home tech (of course)

The smart home has been a key point of focus at CES for a few years now, and there's no reason to think that's going to change in 2016. There's an entire section of the show dedicated to the connected home at "Tech West," and for the second year running, CNET will stick its second stage right in the middle of the action.

The Tech West floor at CES 2015.

James Martin/CNET

We're expecting to see plenty of new products in a variety of connected home categories, along with updates from a wide variety of established players. What's less clear is how much opportunity these products will have to really break through, especially now that big names like Apple and Google are officially engaged in the battle to own the smart home.

Even without a presence of their own at CES, those major players are sure to suck up a good deal of oxygen on the show floor. For instance, just as last year, we're sure to see lots of new products boasting compatibility with things like Google's Nest Learning Thermostat, and with Apple HomeKit, the set of smart-home protocols built into iOS devices that bring voice-activated Siri controls into play. Personally, I'll be curious to see if any of those sorts of announcements breathe new life into either of those larger platforms, or if they just come across as more of what we saw from 2015 -- much of which was underwhelming.

Something else to watch for is the potential emergence of Google Brillo, the tech titan's stab at building unified smart-home protocols using Android-specific software for the Internet of Things called Google Weave. We expect to see some of the first smart-home gadgets designed to work with Brillo and with Weave at CES -- hopefully, they'll help paint a clearer picture of Google's vision for the connected home.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Echo, Echo, Echo...

It typically isn't long after a smart-home product breaks out that you start to see countless other gadgets scrambling to climb aboard the bandwagon. Well, the Amazon Echo smart speaker was a bonafide breakout this year, and it's been one of the easier bandwagons to hop aboard thanks to an open approach to the software that powers "Alexa," the cloud-connected, voice-activated AI housed within.

Scores of savvy smart-home players have already synced up with Amazon Echo, including big names like Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue. We're expecting that number to jump significantly next month at CES -- adding compatibility with Alexa is a no-brainer move for any connected-home device looking to raise its profile.

What's especially interesting is that Amazon didn't just open up the software that allows devices to work with Alexa -- it opened up Alexa itself, via the "Alexa Voice Service," claiming that any device with a microphone, a speaker, and an Internet connection can add Alexa in with just a few lines of code. If any third-party devices choose to go that route, then CES would be the perfect time to make a debut.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The smart fridge strikes back?

Large appliances have gotten plenty of attention at CES in recent years -- just look to this past year, when LG's washer-in-a-washer stole the show.

Interestingly, though, it's been awhile since we've seen a splashy smart-appliance debut. That's largely because the first wave of app-enabled large appliances fell flat with consumers and reviewers alike, many of whom scoffed at the idea of Wi-Fi ovens and touchscreen-equipped refrigerators.

That initial response might have sent manufacturers back to the smart-appliance drawing board, but none of the ones we've spoken with has given up on the idea of bringing large appliances under the smart-home umbrella. That means that a new wave of smart appliances is probably headed our way -- whether we see any of them at CES (and whether they're any more compelling than before) remains to be seen.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Betting on black

Speaking of appliances, one trend you can expect to see a lot of at CES next month is dark-tinted stainless steel, which more than one manufacturer is already pitching as the new must-have luxury finish for modern kitchens.

LG is particularly bullish on the finish, with models like the "Diamond Collection" four-door refrigerator and LG LDT9965BD dishwasher already up for sale at your nearest retailer. Samsung's in the mix, too, with a number of black stainless-steel models of its own. With a new year's worth of appliances set to make a grand entrance in Vegas, we're expecting that a lot of them will be sporting that darker design.

What's less certain -- and a lot more important -- are what features those appliances will be showing off. At the end of the day, the appliances that surprise us with compelling and unexpected functionality are the ones that tend to break through the noise, not the ones that look the trendiest. Nobody cared what color that LG Twin Wash standout from last year was -- they only cared about its unique washer-in-a-washer feature.

Manufacturers are well aware of this (at least they really ought to be), so if there's one thing to expect from CES this year above anything else, it's that we'll see at least a couple of surprises (or, at least, a couple of attempts at them). Our team will be on the scene, covering everything from Tech East to Tech West and all things in between. Stay tuned.

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