It's official: another CES is in the can. And with two show floors, it was more packed than ever. So what did we learn? And what does it mean for tech in 2015 and beyond?
John FalconeSenior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
ExpertiseOver 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping adviceCredentials
Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
We've heard all of those opinions voiced publicly and privately over the past week during the 2015 International CES in Las Vegas. Truth be told, we hear them every year. The biggest tech show in the US forces strong opinions, and no wonder. CES is gigantic, with 170,000 attendees and 3,600 exhibitors this year. CES is brassy, brimming with swaggering startups, the hyperbole of hopeful marketing, dizzying bright lights and supersized TV screens. Not present, however (on the show floor, at least): some of the world's biggest tech companies, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple.
Rather than a single overarching product or trend, the most important thing about CES may be the show itself: The industry as a whole came together in meetings, at parties, in back rooms, and on the show floor to coalesce around tech's dominant and increasingly intertwined themes. By the end of the week, we gained a sense of what the tech of 2015 will look like, and we saw more than a few shining examples of what's to come.
This is the future we saw in Las Vegas.
Watch this: Dish's Sling TV puts live TV on your tablet
The cable TV model is about to get disrupted in a big way. Years from now, the one announcement from this CES that's likely to be remembered is Sling TV. Dish's over-the-top video service will give subscribers -- anyone with a broadband connection in the US -- a decent lineup of channels (including ESPN, CNN, Food Network and more) for a starting price of just $20 per month with no contract on a wide variety of devices, including Roku, Fire TV, Xbox One and iOS and Android devices. And hot on its heels will be Sony's similar PlayStation Vue.
Watch this: Walking around in VR with Oculus Rift Crescent Bay
Virtual reality is a reality. Virtual reality, or VR as it's known, has been lurking at the fringes of the tech world for the better part of three decades, but it's often felt more like a gimmick or a sci-fi trope (thank you, "Lawnmower Man"). But no more. VR innovator Oculus Rift was showing the latest version of its hardware in a sizable public booth in the convention center's South Hall -- a far cry from its behind-closed-doors hotel suite presence at CES 2013 and 2014. (Clearly, that $2 billion-plus check from Facebook is being put to good use.)
Samsung reaffirmed its commitment to Milk VR, a recently announced VR content play for its own Oculus-powered Gear VR accessory. And CNET's own Next Big Thing supersession at the show drove the point home: virtual reality is really here, and it's here to stay.
Drones and 3D printers are continuing to evolve rapidly. Whether the laws are ready for them or not, quadcopter drones seemed to be everywhere at CES. The same goes for 3D printers, which are moving beyond plastic filaments with such materials as metal, wood and stone -- not to mention chocolate. Notably, both technologies -- drones and 3D printers -- played a big part in Intel CEO Brian Krzanich's CES keynote address (as shown above).
The Internet of Things connected home is amping up, and even regular appliances are getting innovative makeovers. As the evolution of the smart home continues, it's becoming a standards battleground with Apple's HomeKit -- which saw its first big compatible products unveiled -- Google's Nest and Samsung's SmartThings all on the front lines. Make no mistake, though: everything in your home (and maybe even on your body) is getting a chip or a sensor in the near future, even if the industry hasn't quite figured out how to tie it all together yet.
Meanwhile, old-school appliances are going upscale with fresh new designs, with familiar Korean consumer names leading the charge: Samsung's dual-door oven can be used as two separately controlled units, while LG introduced a clever washer that lets you do two loads of laundry at once. FirstBuild's ChillHub , meanwhile, put a fresh (and USB-powered) spin on the smart fridge concept.
Self-driving cars hit high gear. Audi set the tone for automakers at CES by sending a car -- with no driver -- from the San Francisco Bay Area to Las Vegas. Not to be one-upped, German rival Mercedes-Benz pulled the curtain up on its own autonomous prototype, a 15-foot-long, space-age-looking "living room on wheels." And while commercial versions of those models might still be years away, BMW's and Volkswagen's self-parking vehicles brought the same automated navigation technology to the show in a more practical way, with vehicles that can hunt down their own parking spots in a large garage. Toyota had futurist Dr. Michio Kaku provide the rationale for its bold (albeit previously announced) hydrogen-powered Mirai.
Meanwhile, the increasingly important cabin tech wasn't ignored either, with Ford showcasing its new Sync 3.0 and Audi giving a sneak peek of its Virtual Cockpit for the upcoming Q7, which will be officially unveiled at next week's Detroit Auto Show. And we finally got to see some real-world implementations of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay -- your next car may well work with both platforms, regardless of the make and model.
Wearables are getting stealthier and healthier. As expected, we saw more than our fair share of new (or semi-new) smartwatches -- many of which were notable in that they focused more on fashion and style while keeping the tech in the background. Health trackers, meanwhile, seemed to be everywhere on the show floor -- and they were only the tip of the iceberg for health and medical tech at the show. Just as the Internet of Things and ubiquitous sensor movement are reshaping the concept of the smart home, we're finally beginning to see health-focused tech products go beyond wrist-based step counters, with everything from smart toothbrushes to -- possibly -- chronic pain relief .
Startups and smaller innovators are beginning to steal the spotlight at CES. A lot of the cutting-edge innovation at the show was found on an entire second venue, less than 2 miles away from the Las Vegas Convention Center. The so-called Tech West area (at the Sands Expo Center) provided a space for startups, including many crowdsourced projects funded by Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and smaller companies to show some of the most interesting products at the show, including many of the aforementioned 3D printers, connected home products, wearables and health tech gear. It's also where we found a lot of fun tech designed for our four-legged friends.
...but TV hardware still dominates the main floor of CES. This show is still all about the screens -- the bigger and brighter, the better. The show floor was awash with new OLED TVs from LG, and LCD TVs are getting a shot in the arm from "Quantum Dot" and high dynamic range (HDR) tech across several vendors. 4K TV is officially going mainstream, with the higher resolution now de rigeur on all but entry-level models. While nearly all of the tech was a holdover from years past (OLED, quantum dots, ultrawidescreen, bendable or curved screens, HDR and even 8K TVs have been on display at earlier CES shows), the fact that manufacturers are also focusing on picture quality and contrast ratios warmed our plasma-missing hearts.
PCs are getting their mojo back, while tablets languish. Laptops and hybrids like the Dell XPS 13 (pictured above), Lenovo LaVie Z and Asus Transformer Chi are making PCs -- Windows PCs! -- cool again. Intel's new Broadwell chip series, after a long delay, will finally begin appearing in PCs in 2015. And these new PCs are thinner and lighter than ever before, thanks (in cases like the Lenovo) to the incorporation of innovative new materials like magnesium lithium alloys. We even saw a "PC on a stick" -- Intel's Compute Stick is a full-fledged Windows PC about the size of a Chromecast.
Indeed, it felt like PCs were getting a strong second wind by incorporating some of tablets' best features -- even as traditional tablets seemed to induce yawns at this CES. (One of the best tablets here, the Dell Venue 8 7000 , was actually old news, having been first unveiled way back in September.) That's an interesting role reversal as we approach the fifth anniversary of the introduction of the iPad.
Wireless and high-resolution digital is reshaping audio. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have been cutting cords in the audio realm for years, but CES 2015 offerings felt wire-free like never before. Whether it was an endless assortment of Bluetooth speakers, Bluetooth headphones, or the continuing onslaught of multi-room audio "Sonos killers" from nearly every imaginable manufacturer, wireless is clearly the key selling point for audio right now.
Watch this: LG Display shows off screen with double Note Edge-style curves
Phones and cameras (mostly) sit out the show. With a handful of exceptions ( LG's G Flex 2 and its dual-rounded screen concept phone, shown here), phones continue to recede from the spotlight at CES. The same goes for cameras. But neither category is dead. Manufacturers are instead biding their time for trade shows in upcoming weeks that are more targeted to each. Look for a bevy of new camera news from Japan's CP+ (the Camera and Photo Imaging Show) in February, and plenty of new phones, tablets and wearables at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in March. CNET will have wall-to-wall coverage of both shows.