The CES conundrum: Nothing you need, lots you'll want

In tech, of course -- our intrepid reporter finds a few new wrinkles in old tech at the annual Consumer Electronics Show

International CES welcome
Reuters/Rick Wilking

There’s a chance I might be getting too old for Vegas. There was a time when I could traipse the show floor all day, consume a dozen cocktails across three or four press parties before midnight, ring in the dawn with a madman’s buffet of after-hours clubs, high-roller tables, and a wide assortment of ladies. Then I’d guzzle a carafe of pharmaceutically spiked caffeine and do it all again with nary a migraine — not anymore.

I tried that recipe last night and didn’t make it past 2 a.m. Also, today my mouth tastes like turpentine and my head feels like someone gave me a sunroof with a hacksaw. All I want is a quiet room, a soft bed, lots of water, and a potpourri basket of Advil and Zantac. But I can’t fade.

I won’t fade because it would be unfair to you, dear and gentle readers. I broke laws to be here and deliver the annual Cringely CES keynote, so there’s no way a few pints of liquor will stop me. I’m still alive today and it’s time for round 1 of the Cringely CES Compartmentalization.

To review, I survive this annual geekmageddon by dividing coverage into three stages: the Obvious, the Curious, and finally, the Hidden Hotness. The last couple of days have given me ample time to be blasted, bombarded, and violated with news of the Obvious – everything from press releases saved on thumb drives and embedded in anime dolls to body-painted models strutting the floor emblazoned with logos on their happy bits. The problem with the Obvious definitely isn’t finding it, but deciding what’s worth mentioning.

The 4K folly

We can start with the superobvious CES trend of 2015, which is, unfortunately, the same as the superobvious trend of CES 2014: big, honking 4K TVs, many with curved screens that inexplicably drive the crowds here insane with excitement. No, I don’t know why.

LG and Samsung are once again slightly ahead of the curve here (hey, I had to), but Philips is making more noticeable waves with its Smart Laser Backlight Ultra HDTV. This contraption combines a red laser with cyan LEDs for an ultrasharp picture that these poor bleary eyes could in no way distinguish from the other ultra-high-def panels in the surrounding booths. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s last night’s chemical concoctions, but all these screens, while beautiful and impressive, look the same to me. The only detail that made my peepers pop is when the kindly booth mamma whispered the expected price in my ear. I think I’ll wait.

A related development that also falls into the Obvious, because everyone is chattering about it over press-party drinks, is the subdued death of Google TV. In a move that’s becoming typical of overstaffed companies fire-hosing products into market, Google has decided not to take the time to upgrade the existing Google TV to a new platform, instead opting to do what Kim Jong-un does every Friday to a random relative: drag it into a backroom and kill it.

To take your minds off the carnage, Google has debuted a shiny, new smart TV standard: Android TV. The company’s VP of engineering, a man whose etymology must be an interesting cocktail conversation, Hiroshi Lockheimer, says a bunch of big-name TV makers have agreed to support the standard this spring. Also, Google TV is dead and gone, so cry him a river if you liked it.

Feel the burn

In perhaps the most startling news out of Vegas, CES seems to be abandoning its traditional chair-bound, pear-shaped, geek audience in favor of annoyingly athletic, nerd-wannabe, executive types. You may know them by their Prada underwear, kale shakes, and Linux power-user status (that is, their phone runs Android).

Gadget-mongers are sucking these folks in with a swarm of health and fitness trackers in every form imaginable, including smart watches, earbuds, and even a Band-Aid. These contraptions tell you everything from how far you’ve stumbled to the coordinates of where you’ve stumbled to how much you’re sweating (not a joke) with all the other information that looks good on a booth sign but is absolutely useless when you’re hiking in the hills – like email, schedules, and your boss’s task list. I wanted my own health assessed by a computer, but it started playing "Taps" as soon as I strapped it onto my wrist. If you’re into this sort of thing, check out Garmin, which seems to be the big name this year.

Another major Obvious that still seems a little cloudy in terms of physical products is the Internet of things. Everything in this place threatens to either be or soon become “smart” or “connected.” Apparently, it’s not enough that sociopaths can hack and track you using your browser and phone – they need to do it using your car, your watch, your glasses, your home appliances, and even your nightstand lightbulb (again, not making that up). Pretty soon, staying off the grid will mean making your own clothes.

Unexpected gems

But the obvious doesn't have to be odious. With the Obviously Cringely Loves It entry, I’m sticking to good, old-fashioned computers unlike the rest of the pundit herd. There are loads of new PCs sparkling in booths all across this great geek gathering, including a couple of entries from Dell: the slick ultraportable XPS 13 and the Venue, a tablet that didn’t make me retch.

But as I type this on a scotch-stained Lenovo Yoga, I’m really dreaming of the new X1 Carbon. Sure, Lenovo introduced what it claims is the world’s lightest Ultrabook here, the 1.7-pound LaVie, but if you want to do more than Doodle Jump, the X1 is for you. Here's what you can expect inside the slick, 2.8-pound carbon fiber chassis with the full load: i7 CPU, up to 8GB of RAM, up to a 512GB SSD, a touchscreen for freaks who like that, TPM, biosecurity, a patented thermal technology that will allegedly keep your thighs from getting scalded, and 10-plus hours of rated battery life (which should get me across the country or the pond in real-life usage), all built to military construction specs. Drool.

There’s more, like 3D printing variations (chocolate printers!), a battalion of toy robots, drones galore, and a host of phablets. But I don’t have the stamina or space to list it all. I’m heading back to HQ for a drink and a brief coma. I’ll need the rest – tomorrow, it’s all about the Curious.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.