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What to Know About #CES2017

What to Know About #CES2017

To average people, the name of the International CES, formerly known as the International Consumer Electronics Show - one of the largest tech conventions, taking place in Las Vegas this week - will seem dated, if not highly misleading.

Tech companies often use the annual trade show as a marketing mechanism to bombard people with news about products that will have little, if any, impact on consumers. And the word "electronics" is awkward in an era when tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook are focusing innovations on areas like cloud computing and artificial intelligence.


Gadgets with Buttons? Not so Much

Yet there are a few product categories worth following this week: high-definition television sets, smart-home accessories and drones. Here is a briefing on things you might want to know as the show unspools this week.


4K Television may be Ready for Prime Time

First, a primer on 4K televisions: 4K is the successor to 1080p, the high-definition resolution found on many modern TV sets. The term 4K - another name is Ultra HD - refers to screens with two times the vertical resolution and twice the horizontal resolution of 1080p sets. When companies like Sony, Samsung Electronics and Panasonic introduced Ultra HD sets a few years ago, the TVs were shockingly expensive; one 84-incher from Sony cost $25,000. There was also virtually no content encoded to take advantage of the step up in resolution. In other words, 4K was a rich fool's purchase.

But this week, CES will make it clear that buying a 4K television set finally makes sense. TV makers will announce a host of improvements to 4K features, including color technologies like high dynamic range, a software feature that enhances the contrast and color profile of a picture, and wide color gamut, a technology that shows a wider range of colors. Some TV manufacturers, like LG, will introduce TVs that are only a few millimeters thick and easily mountable on a wall.

Toward the holiday season, prices on many high-quality TVs with these features will probably drop significantly, as they have in previous years, to roughly $800 to $1,300. In addition, there are now many devices capable of playing 4K content, including 4K Blu-ray players, Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro console and Roku's higher-end streaming devices.

"Now's a fine time to buy one," said Chris Heinonen, who tests high-definition TVs for The Wirecutter, the product recommendations website owned by The New York Times.

The keyword is "fine." It's still not the ideal time to buy a 4K TV because the vast majority of high-definition video content is encoded in lower resolutions. But Mr. Heinonen said that consumers shopping for a big-screen TV should consider a modestly priced 4K TV over a cheap 1080p model. Low-end TVs made with 1080p resolution lack important features, like local light dimming, a technology that lets TVs dim the area of a screen that should be darker while keeping brighter parts bright, he said.


Smart Home Systems are Maturing

The Apple HomeKit will act as a central controller for home devices from a phone or computer with the company's next software update, due out this fall.

The smart home - outfitted with internet-connected accessories controlling home appliances - was once a gimmicky niche. Older smart-home systems were difficult to set up, requiring separate hubs and clunky apps for controlling lights and locks. But the category is rapidly maturing now that giants like Amazon, Apple and Google offer Alexa, Siri and Assistant, their artificially intelligent virtual assistants, able to control smart-home accessories.

For consumers, voice assistants have broken down the complexity of interacting with smart-home devices, said Ben Bajarin, an analyst for Creative Strategies, which was among the first market research firms in Silicon Valley. (It's easy for anyone to say "Alexa, turn on the lights.") And for companies that sell home accessories like locks and thermostats, it has never been easier to make a convenient smart-home product because the companies can now team up with the tech giants.

"Now there's an ecosystem to plug into and build support around, and I think that's going to help a lot," Mr. Bajarin said.

At CES, consumers can expect a wave of smart-home accessories to be announced with voice-assistant compatibility. Apple customers should be on the lookout for a horde of lighting systems, locks and smart thermostats compatible with HomeKit, Apple's smart-home framework for devices working with Siri and the iPhone. Amazon Echo owners should also expect a broader range of internet-connected cameras, door locks and thermostats that can be controlled through Alexa. A smaller number of devices are expected to be announced for Google's smart speaker Home because it was just released in November.

What that means is that in the next year or two, shopping for a smart-home accessory will be as simple as looking up a type of product and finding one that matches up with your Apple, Google or Amazon device. That's a lot simpler than with older accessories, which required you to install extra hubs and download additional apps to work with your smartphone.

"When you go to Amazon.com or the Home Depot or Lowe's to buy a connected dead bolt from us, what you can expect from us is we want to make sure that lock is going to work with whatever platform you choose," said Rob Martens, a futurist at the lock company Schlage.


Drones are Getting Cheaper

Remember that annoying drone buzzing around and taking pictures of people at the beach? That problem is only going to get worse: Drones are getting cheaper, and lesser-known Chinese companies are increasingly getting into the drone business to drive prices down even further.

Cheaper drones are expected to have a strong presence at C.E.S., and some popular drones representing well-known brands have already dipped in price. DJI's Phantom 4, for example, is now $999, down from about $1,400 last year.

Mr. Bajarin of Creative Strategies said consumers should also expect to see drones made in China by lesser-known brands that cost as little as $600. Also in store, he said, are drones with smarter tracking abilities and extra photography angles, among other features.

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