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The Verge Awards: the best of CES 2014

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Another year. Another CES. Another chance to find out what it feels like to truly be alive. Alive and in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas and at the Consumer Electronics Show — a phantasmagoria of light, sound, and electricity. Actual electricity, and the kind of spiritual, psychic kind that only happens but once a year.

Another thing that only happens once a year? The Verge Awards at CES — when the editorial team of The Verge picks the best things that hit the show floor, the biggest stories, and yes, the biggest disappointments.

This CES wasn’t the craziest, most surprising, or even most interesting we’ve ever seen… but it wasn’t a total bust either. Between the gargantuan TVs, a sea of me-too wearables, and the 1,001 iPhone accessories you’ll never need, there were some truly interesting innovations out there. You just had to look really hard to find them. And boy did we look.

So, here we are. The show is over. The massive displays are being dismantled. The Verge team is battered and bruised, but not beaten. And we’ve painstakingly assembled the hits and misses of CES 2014. Without further ado, we present the 2014 Verge Awards. And hey, if you don't like our picks — go and vote for your own.

Best phone: Sony Z1 Compact

It’s the phone we’ve all been asking for — a 4.3-inch handset that doesn’t compromise on specs and features just because it’s small by modern standards. Bridging the gap in flagship devices between the iPhone and the herd of 5-inch Android phones, the Z1 Compact is Sony’s best smartphone to date. The only compromise it makes from the already successful Z1 is a smaller battery, but it more than makes up for it with a new IPS display that makes it the Japanese company’s definitive flagship handset.

Vlad Savov

Best tablet: ThinkPad 8

Lenovo surprised us at CES with a brand-new 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet just a couple of months after it launched its first mini Windows tablet. The new ThinkPad 8 combines impressive specs with an equally impressive build quality. While initial 8-inch Windows tablets felt inferior to the iOS and Android competition, Lenovo’s latest effort is simply the best Windows alternative to the iPad mini with Retina display. With the ability to connect USB accessories, a separate monitor, and a keyboard and mouse, it’s a good option for anyone who wants the flexibility and power of Windows inside a tiny tablet. And at $399 you get a lot of tablet for your money.

Tom Warren

Best gaming: PlayStation Now

PlayStation Now wasn’t a total surprise — Sony had already promised to stream PS3 games to other PlayStation devices through its acquisition of cloud gaming company Gaikai. But the announcement that it would also work on TVs, smartphones, and tablets caught many by surprise, and the games demoed at CES were impressively smooth. It’s anyone’s guess whether PlayStation Now will work as well in the real world when Sony rolls out the service this summer, but for now it’s an encouraging, progressive step towards the future of gaming.

Sam Byford

Best personal transportation:
Urb-e

The Urb-e felt like the kind of vehicle an enlightened citizen of 2030 would own. It’s fast, maneuverable, and lightweight. With a 20-mile range on a full battery charge, it could work well for most city dwellers’ daily commutes. It has similar specs to Terra’s Motor Scooter, but at around $1,250, it’s just one-quarter of the price. The Urb-e isn’t on sale yet, but look for their Kickstarter to launch next month.

Ben Popper

Best TV: Vizio’s $999 4K TV

Vizio’s first consumer 4K TVs will start at just $999.99 when they ship later this year, marking a major milestone as the technology finds its way into more living rooms in 2014. We’ve seen plenty of off-brand 4K sets fall below the $1,000 mark, but Vizio’s cutthroat pricing delivered an unexpected gut punch to major competitors like Sony and Samsung. Those companies have come nowhere close to matching it, though they may rethink strategy now that the most popular TV manufacturer in the US has undercut them. The cheap 4K TV has officially arrived.

Chris Welch

Best smartwatch: Pebble Steel

Whereas the first Pebble was all about spartan utility, the new Steel adds an appreciable dose of style to the original’s substance. The molded plastic is replaced by forged steel, the side buttons are much improved, and there’s a leather strap in every box now. The Pebble Steel successfully evolves a functional device into an aesthetically desirable fashion item. It’s the only smartwatch we’d recommend anyone buying right now.

Vlad Savov

Best audio: Samsung MX-HS8500 GIGA

Samsung’s built a boombox the size of a trash can, complete with wheels and bright flashing lights. This year’s GIGA sound system integrates the controls on top of one of the speakers, instead of as a stand-alone unit. It may not be the-best looking speaker, but it’s got a big bass boost button that nearly deafened us on the show floor, and has all sorts of other effects to emulate being a DJ. The new GIGA will play music from just about every source — including Samsung TV sets — when it ships this year. There’s no price yet, but the old one cost $1,499.

Josh Lowensohn

Best prototype: Oculus Rift,
Crystal Cove

We loved the Oculus Rift back when it was a low-resolution prototype with virtually nothing to do but walk around a castle and spaceship. A year later, it’s still a prototype, but the Crystal Cove version announced at CES amplifies its best features and mutes its worst ones. The headset’s all-encompassing virtual reality is clearer and more detailed than ever, its head-tracking system now capable of letting you lean over ledges or peer around corners. And best of all, developers have started creating the first generation of VR worlds, including a dizzying, fast-paced space-fighting game that we’re waiting for almost as eagerly as we are the final, finished version of the Rift.

Adi Robertson

Best auto tech: Audi
Traffic Light Assist

Self-driving car tech is incredible, but truly autonomous cars are still years away — early in the 2020s, by most manufacturers’ estimates — and this year’s self-driving demos at CES didn’t really move the needle anyhow. (Yes, BMW’s self-drifting car was an absolute blast, but it’s not really going to change the way we drive). Instead, it was Audi’s traffic-light assistant that got us excited: it’s practical technology with a clear path to near-term production that can seriously get us to our destinations faster and more efficiently. Who doesn’t want to make more green lights?

Chris Ziegler

Best car: i-Road

I didn’t come to CES expecting to drive a new kind of car that would change the way I thought about cars. But wouldn’t you know it? That actually happened. The Toyota i-Road is admittedly not a car you’re going to see in America (probably ever), and it’s not the kind of car you’re going to take the family for a road trip in. And frankly, it’s hardly even a car. But as a concept, and in practice, it’s an awesome way to envision getting around the cities of the future. With an all-electric motor, a range of about 25 miles, and the tight handling of a motorcycle, the i-Road is at once less a car, and much more. With a plan to roll out the diminutive rides in Asia and Europe, it’s also more than a concept — it’s becoming a plan. And it’s an awesome plan.

Joshua Topolsky

Best drone: Parrot MiniDrone

A swarm of companies presented drones at CES this year, but the most attractive new device was the pint-sized Parrot MiniDrone. A scaled-down version of their classic AR.Drone, the Mini is great for playing around indoors, and adds the ability to travel by land or air. Parrot is promising a price point well below the $299 AR when it goes on sale later this year, making the MiniDrone both fun and affordable.

Ben Popper

Best trend: connected car

Cars and automotive technology have been growing trends at CES for a number of years, but they’ve been on a relatively slow burn. Not this year: the connected car was in literally every corner of Las Vegas this week, centered in a bustling section of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s North Hall, which looked more like a major international auto expo than the Consumer Electronics Show. Ford even showed the latest version of one of its most important and iconic products — the Mustang — in public for the first time here.

Chris Ziegler

Best press event: Kaz Hirai and Sony

Kaz Hirai’s CES keynote wasn’t just a list of products or an embarrassing, surreal spectacle – it was an ode to weird, ambitious technology that covered everything from cars that can see in the dark to a “Life space UX” that would replace TVs and monitors with projectors realistic enough to be windows. His speech also heralded the release of Sony’s long-awaited streaming games service and a new cloud-based blend of live TV, video on demand, and DVR service. Sony still has a lot of promises to deliver on, but Kaz made us believe, at least for an hour, that something really exciting might be coming down the line.

Adi Robertson

Best buffet: Samsung

We didn’t think Samsung events could get much creepier than last year’s, with imprisoned girls in metal dresses that doubled as cocktail and cupcake stands, but somehow the Korean company managed to match itself. At a gathering that saw the debut of Samsung’s 105-inch TV and bendable OLED set, attendees were invited to take champagne glasses from waiters’ trays. Nothing too strange about that, except the glasses were empty until filled by a female contortionist dangling from the ceiling — and yes, there were spillages. CES in an uncomfortable nutshell.

Due to our ethics policy, we couldn't partake, but we sure took pictures.

Sam Byford

Biggest meltdown: Michael Bay

Samsung’s press event didn’t hold many surprises, but it’s probably the one that everyone will remember from CES 2014 — thanks to guest presenter Michael Bay. In essence, a teleprompter mishap caused the Transformers director to lose his place during the proceedings. That’s it. But Bay’s inability to improv his way through the presentation and his extremely bizarre walk-off made things downright cringeworthy. Bay took to his blog to apologize for the freak-out, saying “I guess live events aren’t my thing.” In hindsight, the spectacle (and the internet explosion that came with it) was about on par with the rest of his oeuvre.

Kwame Opam

Biggest surprise: the bendable TV

Most things at CES exist somewhere on the spectrum between utterly impossible prototype and real product. When Samsung and LG both showed off huge 4K OLED TVs that actually bend and unbend with the press of a button, promising a more immersive and lifelike picture but at a presumably enormous cost, the idea seemed like nothing more than a tech demo. Neither company did anything to dispel that notion, either, until two days later when Samsung announced it will start selling them this year. Sure, it’s still going to be expensive, but you might soon be able to own a TV that’s a lot more futuristic than whatever you watch on it.

David Pierce

Biggest disappointment: wearables

In a show full of things to put on your body, there wasn’t one that actually stood out. All the wearables we saw were basically Fitbit wannabes, and the ones that were even slightly different had weird functions that we’re not even sure we would want, or need, in a wearable. While Netatmo June bracelet is pushing boundaries as one of the first wearables attempting to be stylish, its limited functionality holds it back. And while the Sony Core shows how the industry is moving toward smaller, smarter sensors, we won’t believe it until it proves how much it can do. The biggest disappointment, really, is seeing so many companies jump on the wearable bandwagon without bringing anything new to the table.

Valentina Palladino

Best comeback: webOS

Five years ago webOS was the story of CES, and since then it’s seen a series of failures, missteps, pratfalls, and just sheer dumb luck that took it from the toast of the tech world to a near-forgotten also-ran that was sold off for parts. That LG was the buyer turned out to be an unexpected stroke of good luck, because it used those parts to create a surprisingly good smart TV interface. LG says it will ship over half of its TVs with webOS, so it probably won’t be long before LG has sold more webOS TVs than Palm ever sold webOS phones — and that’s ok.

Dieter Bohn

Biggest story: Netflix

Netflix may not have a booth at CES, but its presence was a massive influence on some of the biggest companies in the industry. CEO Reed Hastings was the most popular man at the show, darting from press conference to press conference to tell the world that House of Cards Season 2 would be streaming in glorious 4K later this year, and that every major Netflix series would be shot in 4K from now on. At Sony’s press conference, Hastings added that Breaking Bad would be remastered and streamed in 4K as well. By the end of the show, every major TV company had announced support for Netflix in 4K.

That’s a big deal: as 4K sets hit the mainstream, Netflix will be the de facto provider of ultra high-def content — years ahead of broadcast and cable networks like HBO and Fox in distribution, and equally far ahead of streaming competitors like Hulu and Amazon in creating popular shows like Orange is the New Black. That’s a deadly combination; one that could disrupt the entire television industry.

Nilay Patel

Best in show: Oculus Rift,
Crystal Cove

Last year I said the Oculus Rift changed my life. Throughout 2013, I feel like I became an evangelist for the soon-to-be-realized future of virtual reality — a future being birthed by Oculus VR. I wanted to tell everyone about what was coming. I wanted everyone to experience it for themselves. And I wanted more than anything to see developers and investors gather around Oculus and companies like it so that it wouldn’t just be a pipe dream, but something real. Virtually real. Weirdly, my wish came true — and while the Rift still isn’t a commercial product, it’s getting dangerously close. An infusion of $75 million from Andreessen Horowitz and a new prototype dubbed Crystal Cove prove that Oculus isn’t slowing down. They’re just getting started. Crystal Cove provides a higher resolution display, lower latency, and most importantly, positional tracking. The new features make virtual worlds far more immersive; so immersive that I was surprised by the experience of using the new headset even after spending lots of time with the previous version. After a whole 12 months, I’m still blown away by what the Oculus Rift can do, and still excited for its future. 2014 is going to be a huge year for VR — and Oculus is right on the front lines

Joshua Topolsky


The Verge
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