At CES 2014, next-wave smartphone tech on display

The Consumer Electronics Show saw its fair share of smartphones, but what really stood out are the tech and trends we'll see later this year.

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Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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Watch this: Dialed In Live: Phones that mattered at CES 2014

LAS VEGAS -- CES was a weird one for smartphones this year. There were plenty of them, sure, but none of the big manufacturers and flashy hardware designs that have defined previous shows.

Instead, we saw a lot of hardware and software technology that surrounds smartphone development, like new gesture technology, bacteria-fighting glass, an iris-scanner, and tons and tons of phone-pairing wearables.

Here's what dominated the show.

Notable phones
Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola, and Nokia all took a break from showing new smartphones at CES, an unusual move for the heavy-hitters. However, there are still devices to look forward to.

The LG Flex, already available globally, is now officially coming to three US carriers: AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Sony showed off its big Xperia Z1 S for T-Mobile, and Asus is bringing its phone-turned-tablet PadFone X to AT&T.

It's also a smart idea for phone-watchers to keep an eye on the Samsung Galaxy NotePro tablet for its new Magazine interface and enhanced office productivity suite. The Note tablets often get extra features before the Note smartphones.

The smartphones of CES 2014 (pictures)

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Next-generation tech
It's the devices that usually get center stage at a show this big, but this year we also got a chance to look at some cool emerging technology behind the scenes. Eyelock ID isn't strictly for phones -- in fact, we saw it on a laptop -- but this biometric iris-scanning software can easily shrink down to the smartphone screen.

What is specifically for phones, though, is the use of ultrasound in touch-free gesturing. The company that developed it, Elliptic Labs, promises it'll be live in devices this year. It's a cool way to make hands-free navigational gestures both more elaborate and more accurate.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess we'll see it in this year's Samsung Galaxy S5, which we expect to learn about in late February or in March.

The smartphone industry is taking an interest in germs. Corning, the Gorilla Glass-manufacturer, is now peddling its antimicrobial Gorilla Glass, which will definitely show up in phones this coming year. In the meantime, iPhone owners can use this "self-cleaning" case with antimicrobial lining.

Best new iPhone 5/5S cases at CES 2014 (pictures)

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Wearables build off phone fundamentals
Wearable tech such as smartwatches, fitness bands, and even smartglasses absolutely dominated the gadget scene. This emerging industry is all about making sleek, well-designed hardware that works. Yet what they all have in common is the smartphone as their foundation.

Wearable tech at this point relies on the phone in your pocket or purse as its beating heart, often using a Bluetooth connection to get to cellular power and gather data such as contacts and social networking details for its alerts. Some devices also siphon GPS capabilities from the phone, and nearly all of them require an app to deliver a complete experience.

For good examples, check out the Pebble Steel and Martian Notifier smartwatches, and Ora-S AR Eyewear and Epson Moverio BT-200 smartglasses.

Watch this: Ora-S AR Eyewear takes smartframes further

T-mobile goes nuclear in carrier war
T-Mobile's explosive (and shamelessly self-promoting) John Legere shook things up again at CES with typical shock-and-awe style of mobile's bad-boy CEO. First, he made headlines when he brazenly attended (and was escorted out of) a Macklemore concert thrown by rival carrier AT&T.

That was just a warm-up for the big act. T-Mobile used CES as a platform to drop its latest bombshell, paying off early termination fees for customers switching from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint -- an expensive gambit, surely, but one that T-Mobile executives are willing to take.

What it all means for MWC and beyond
So what does CES 2014 mean for all of 2014? Quite a lot, actually.

Smartphones took a bit of a back seat here in Las Vegas, but that just means that the heavy-hitting device-makers are saving their best work for Mobile World Congress, the phone-focused show taking place in February in Barcelona -- and yes, CNET will be there in force.

MWC is where Samsung, HTC, LG, and all the rest are expected to trot our their truly exciting products, possibly including more curved-screen devices, gesture and biometric tech, and cutting-edge material and design.

Most of the smartphones we saw at this show continue to come in at 5 inches and above, so that trend will continue into 2014. Connected devices that work in tandem with your smartphone, like smartwatches, cars, smartglasses, and other wearables, will continue to rise.

It's going to be an exciting year for the smartphone category, with a shift toward wearable tech that will hopefully make communicating with the digital world a more convenient, streamlined part of everyday life.