We came, we saw, we got lost in a virtual world. And now we’re back. The show that was supposed to be the last of the biggest — the end of the best — actually turned out a little differently than the critics predicted. A show that could have limped instead leapt in places. A show that could have declined seemed to rise instead. But it rose in all kinds of interesting directions. Towards hardware startups funded by the crowd, towards connected devices that actually seem to make sense, to televisions that offered a logical next step instead of a gimmick. This year’s show offered a glimpse of what may not just be the New Thing at this CES, but the heart of CES for years to come — the indie hardware maker, a new kind of force in the industry that is quickly changing our perceptions of what can be done and how it has to be done. It's exciting on many levels.
So there was good stuff. No, great stuff. And we think that stuff deserves to be rewarded (or at least called out) for being what it is: the best of the best. We present that list to you, unedited and uncut, for your reading pleasure, without interruption. Also, vote for the best thing you saw too!
Samsung promised a TV with an “unprecedented shape” at CES 2013 — an exaggerated bit of hyperbole that stands in stark contrast to the beautiful minimalism of the new 4K TVs the company actually did announce. The floating easel design with integrated speakers is stunning in person — these are the first TVs to demand a room redesign since flat panels first arrived. Unfortunately Samsung says the TVs will start at “under $30,000” for the 85-inch and go up from there, but expect to see the company bring this new design language to more mainstream sets in the years to come — moving the speakers to the frame is the next step in producing an even thinner TV.
– Nilay Patel
Apart from a few exceptional years, CES has never been a major show for mobile news, but of the few phones announced this year, the Sony Xperia Z was the standout. Featuring a sleek industrial design that harkens back to Sony’s heyday of consumer electronics, the Z joins the growing raft of phones with 5-inch, 1080p displays and quad-core processors. Sony has tried to differentiate the Z from the rest by making it water-resistant and offering some novel software features, but that may not be enough to let it rise above the tide of phones that are sure to be announced at next month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. We still don’t have a price or firm release date for the Xperia Z, but Sony says that it should be hitting retailers by the end of this month.
– Dan Seifert
There was a fierce debate amongst the Verge staff when it came to best tablet — we were evenly divided between Panasonic’s 20-inch 4K Windows slate and Vizio’s 10-inch Android tablet. In the end, though, the Vizio was the winner: it’s one of the first Tegra 4 devices in the world, it has an outstanding 300dpi display that matches the Nexus 10, and it’s running stock Android. Oh, and it’s tremendously lightweight — both David Pierce and I were shocked when we held it. Vizio still has to release pricing and availability details, but the company says we’ll find out more in the coming months.
– Nilay Patel
At first glance the X100S looks like an incremental update to the X100, Fujifilm’s excellent retro camera from 2010. There are two huge improvements, however — the rangefinder-aping manual focus system that overlaps two images, and the all-new phase detection autofocus that Fujifilm calls the ‘world’s fastest.’ All in all, the X100S should provide a significant bump over its occasionally laggy predecessor, which was already more fun to shoot than just about any other digital camera out there.
– Sam Byford
Sometimes it’s the little things that matter. With ultrathin computers, that’s always been the case: when space is at a premium, it’s an incredible challenge to balance power, price, battery life, and build quality. At CES 2013, Lenovo’s approach was go all out, building a $1,499 convertible that doesn’t scrimp to save. The ThinkPad Helix isn’t just a lovely 11.6-inch 1080p tablet with a cleverly crafted detachable keyboard, it’s a bona fide ThinkPad laptop too, with comfortable keys, a crazy five-button trackpad, an unbelievable number of ports and hours of manufacturer-quoted battery life for a device this light and thin, and a velvety grippy texture that feels wonderful.
— Sean Hollister
There’s no debate amongst the Verge staffers —the Oculus Rift is the most revolutionary gaming experience we’ve seen in years, despite the fact that we only tested a relatively low-res prototype of the upcoming dev kit. The hardware’s simplicity belies the incredibly visceral, immersive experience that begins as soon as you strap it on. Sure, it might make you feel motion sick at first, but after trying it out, going back to playing games on a flat display seems positively archaic. It’ll be unleashed to the developer community by the end of March — we’re looking forward to seeing what sorts of native games come out of that.
– Nathan Ingraham
Some of the most interesting products at CES were also Kickstarter projects and the biggest Kickstarter of them all, the Pebble smartwatch, is our favorite of the many watches we saw at CES. As we said in our hands-on with the Pebble, it’s far from the smartest or most ambitious of the smartwatches on the floor here. However, instead of packing in a ton of features and the usability issues they often entail, Pebble just focuses on a few simple features and nails them. You can only get quick notifications for texts, email, and calls along with custom watch faces and some music control — but you can do it in a smartwatch that doesn’t look ridiculous. In fact, the Pebble looks pretty good, with an e-paper display packed into a smaller-sized form-factor than much of the competition. Sometimes you need to remove the bells so you can focus on the whistles. The Pebble smartwatch is a pretty darn good whistle.
– Dieter Bohn
A twentysomething actor named “Tornado92” trying just a little too hard to look and sound like a teen. An enormous Rolls Royce. Maroon 5 mysteriously dubbed over by Dido. Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Star Trek. A vaguely racist puppet. An upsetting and deeply disturbing scene from Blade II. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer running at full speed, arms flailing.
Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t dream that there’s any connection between these things. But Qualcomm’s CES keynote this year was anything but normal — it was a journey to the very center of your mind.
– Chris Ziegler
Say what you will about Qualcomm’s event, but there’s no mistaking how much effort the company put into its existential experiment. The same can’t be said for Ke$ha, whose appearance at the iHeartRadio event was billed as a headliner (alongside Afrojack) but ended up kind of stumbling through a three-song medley before quickly walking off stage. A typical Ke$ha concert includes 15 songs, copious amounts of on-stage drinking, and at least one giant penis costume. As Trent Wolbe put it, what we saw from Ke$ha — nay, that night she was just “Kesha” — was “lowest form of pop expression.” All we’re saying is, even if you’re going to shill for a corporate party (c.f. Jay-Z at SXSW, Kanye West at Samsung's Galaxy Note II launch), go big or go home.
– Ross Miller
Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, typically the picture of composure, seemed unsure of himself. He’d just spent an entire hour telling us about technologies the company had already announced months before. When he revealed the thoroughly leaked Tegra 4 mobile processor, it was more of a formality than anything else. But when Jen-Hsun announced that the same Tegra 4 chip would appear in Nvidia’s first portable game system, a five-inch touchscreen device with stock Android and the ability to stream PC games from a desktop computer, he brought the house down.
– Sean Hollister
When we received word just before CES kicked off that Sony may be showing off a 4K OLED TV, we were understandably excited. And we didn’t end up disappointed — Sony’s 56-inch prototype is astonishingly beautiful, with unbelievable color reproduction and unprecedented detail. The only possible complaints are the assuredly high price and long wait it’ll take before we can buy one.
– Sam Byford
A side effect of music to the cloud is that the home hi-fi experience has suffered, or so believes Swedish design house Teenage Engineering. Its answer to this dilemma is the OD-11 Cloud Speaker — a beautifully minimalistic cube with guts that are equal parts retro and modern. Its headlining innovation is built-in Wi-Fi that can connect to cloud services to pull down music or connect up to four speakers together. As with all of Teenage Engineering’s products, it combines uncompromising hardware design with a sense of simplicity and fun — and it sounds absolutely fantastic.
– Nathan Ingraham
Self-driving cars are going to be a huge story in the coming few years, and both Lexus and Audi used CES this year to make announcements. Of the two, though, only Audi’s was functional: a self-parking system rigged onto an A7 allowed the car to pick up its driver from outside Las Vegas’ Mandarin Oriental hotel entrance by hitting a button on a smartphone. It only moved a few miles an hour, but it was still extraordinarily cool — and Audi has full plans on bringing the capability to market in the future.
– Chris Ziegler
Here’s how much crazy money Samsung has to spend on its events at CES: the company paid two models to imprison themselves in plastic trays of cupcakes and champagne at its TV launch party. It was such an odd spectacle that almost everyone stopped and took a photo of the champagne lady when she entered. “Please,” she seemed to be saying as she waved her arms over the trays of blueberry-spiked flutes. “Please validate everything about Las Vegas by taking this free booze and not asking so many damn questions all the time.”
– Nilay Patel
CES has gone indie. There was no shortage of announcements from the likes of Samsung and Sony at this year’s CES, but it was the scrappy startups that brought the most inspiring, mind-bending demos to this year’s show. Immersive virtual reality from Oculus Rift, a weight-sensitive skateboard from ZBoard, and all the smartwatches you could dream of. Microsoft may have jumped ship at just the right time.
– Adrianne Jeffries
Remember when the Steam Box was just some wild rumor? Those days are gone. With nary an announcement (and more of a fortuitous run-in with Gabe Newell), Valve laid out its vision to us for gaming hardware — its own Linux-powered box, a range of branded partner devices, and some rumination on multiple new methods of interaction (e.g. biometrics). It’s a new way of thinking about gaming platforms, and it’s one that Valve really has the leverage to pull off. Now seriously, where is Half-Life 3?
– Ross Miller
The Oculus Rift changed my life. No, seriously. My childhood (at least the formative years) was spent reading novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and poring over stories about a future promised by Mondo 2000 and Wired. Virtual reality has long been the ultimate promise of technology — the magic mandala, a doorway to the infinite. But the thing is: it never happened. We got touchscreens, motion sensors, the tablet revolution, body-hacking… but we never got our cyberdecks. Until now. The Oculus Rift actually delivers on the promise, and then some. It’s really, really amazing. Truly and honestly a revelation, a trip, a rabbit hole. And I’m going in. Forever. Goodbye universe. Hello universe.
– Joshua Topolsky