The winners of the venerable trade show often reflect mistaken predictions about how the market will move.
Every year, the Consumer Electronics Expo names one product the Best in Show. It’s the one piece of kit which is supposed to sum up the show, and be the highest quality release of the upcoming year.
The winners are chosen by the “official media partner” of CES. In 2014, that will be Engadget, but CNET had the role from 2005 to 2013, and TechTV had it before then.
But with the benefit of hindsight, what they chose doesn’t always look too good. How many of the products selected have actually gone on to blaze new trails in their categories? How many have become household names, and how many were just flash-in-a-pan trends?
The best of show winners over the last ten years can be roughly split into three categories: the boring, the wrong, and the TVs.
And the winner is.. boring!
The boring category holds those winners which can’t really tell us anything about the future of tech; awarded the top slot for quality, rather than blazing new trails, they were certainly good examples of their type, but just as certainly forgotten the instant a better version came out.
That includes 2005′s Best In Show, the Yamaha YSP-1 “digital sound projector”. A $2,000 speaker, the YSP-1 used digital modelling to bounce sounds off the walls and ceiling, in theory offering users surround sound without needing to install a full circle of speakers around them. But even by the time of its release two months later, reviewers were doubting this was worth the price increase, and the sound quality never quite lived up to promises.
Also filed under boring is 2007′s Best In Show, the LG Super Multi Blue player. It had a single purpose: be the first that could play both Blu-Ray and HD DVD discs in the same drive. For that privilege, you had to spend £1,000, enough to buy (in the words of gadget blog Crave) “an Xbox 360 with the optional HD DVD drive, a PlayStation 3 and a Wii, and still have enough change for a bottle of overpriced lager from a tediously trendy London bar”. And then, less than a year later, Toshiba abandoned the HD DVD format, ceasing all production of the discs and drives for the rival hi-def format.
Then there’s 2004′s winner, the Denon NS-S100 multimedia server. Made by the Japanese high-end audiovisual equipment manufacturer, it was an A/V receiver, Sky+ style personal video recorder, and digital media streamer in one. Or, in other words, it let you play video that was stored on your computer on your TV. In other other words, it was 2004′s equivalent of the Apple TV, another spectacularly underwhelming product which barely anyone bought because of the tiny niche it served.
Great screen, shame about the…
TVs may be able to fit into the boring category, but there’s so damn many of them that it’s worth breaking out into their own bracket. A TV – a television set - won the Best Of Show award in 2008, 2010 and 2012, each time telling us less about the future and more about where the hyper luxury end of the market was going.
Philips’ 2008 winner, the Eco TV, was a 42in LCD screen with a number of power saving features. Panasonic’s 2010 winner was a 3D TV (which got special praise for actually including a pair of the necessary 3D glasses). LG’s 2012 winner was a 55in TV that used organic-LED technology to provide a brighter picture with a 4mm thick screen. At least the judging panel haven’t yet seen fit to award the prize to the buzziest of buzzwords, the “smart TV”. (Though give it time…)
And the winner is… wrong
But for a truly wonderful look at the scale of wrongness the CES awards panel go for, it’s worth seeing the times they tried – and failed – to get the zeitgeist.
Take 2006′s winner, the Creative Zen Vision:M. As with almost all of Creative’s post-2001 audio players, it can best be described by the Apple product it’s mimicking, in this case the device now known as the “iPod Classic”. The same height, and width, as an iPod, but thicker and heavier, the Zen’s apparent edge was, as ever, in the features list: its screen had richer colour, it had an FM radio, a voice recorder, and could let users carry round their Outlook data.
Then there’s 2009′s Palm Pre. In fairness to the judges, the Pre was actually a noteworthy contender. With its “Cards” UI, it pre-empted Apple’s iOS 7 multitasking by four years, and it featured clever hooks to get contact, email and calendar data wherever it was needed.
But the smart ideas were underpinned by a slow operating system built entirely in HTML and a stubborn refusal to ditch the hardware qwerty keyboard which left the physical phone chunky and oversized. (Not actually as big as in the picture.)
A little over a year later, HP acquired Palm, and brought out two final models of the Pre before shuttering the line completely in 2011.
In 2011, CES was full of tablets, rushed out in the year since Apple’s iPad started the race. It was clear that they were the consumer electronics story of the day, and the eventual winner, the Motorola Xoom, was arguably the best of the lot.
Of course, given Apple’s longstanding absence from CES, “the lot” was limited to the early Android tablets and the BlackBerry PlayBook, a tablet computer which required a separate phone to handle emails. By the time the Xoom actually came out, Apple had released the iPad 2, rectifying the biggest problems of the first and leaving even less room for error. The Xoom wasn’t a terrible gadget, but it certainly wasn’t the best device of the year. It wasn’t even the best tablet of the year. And its shipment figures were awful - fewer than a million over three quarters.
So when this year’s best in show is announced, take a step back before assuming that it’s a marker of the future. On past evidence, it’s just as likely to be last year’s trend in a fresh coat of paint.
No pressure, Engadget.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010