CES is just around the corner, and even though the show is virtual this year, we’re still hearing the same passion and innovation from the inventors, engineers, and product managers behind the gadgets and gizmos we love so much. As always, Digital Trends will highlight for you the best of the best in our Top Tech of CES awards, where we shine a spotlight on the tech most worth your hard-earned cash.
But how accurate are our picks, really? Do we always nail it? Are the products we highlight really that great? Before CES 2021, let’s take a look back at last year’s winners and some of the gear we’ve highlighted from the last decade to see when we picked the marvels … and when we’ve missed the magic.
Last year we shook hands with someone — and handed him an award. Max Newlon is President of BrainCo, and the brains behind the company’s Dexus, a brain-controlled prosthesis that absolutely floored us. BrainCo specializes in brain-machine interfaces (BMI) and used that expertise to create a prosthetic limb controlled entirely by the wearer’s thoughts. The company’s innovation was at CES 2019 as a prototype; In 2020, BrainCo brought a working prototype to the show and blew us away. What has happened since?
“It’s been a wild year since last CES,” Newlon told Digital Trends. The company spun the prosthetics division off into a separate team, called BrainRobotics, and spent the majority of 2020 working with the manufacturing team to prepare for mass production and prepping for submission to the FDA. They’re on track to submit and potentially have approval by the end of March 2021, Newlon told us. BrainRobotics also began testing with U.S. amputees, notably Captain Carey Duval, who lost his right hand in Afghanistan.
“Carey played Jenga, held a book with both of his hands, played Connect 4, played video games, opened a can of his favorite energy drink, and even hung a wreath (since it was the holiday season) — all with the BrainRobotics prosthetic hand,” Newlon said. Amazing.
Our Top Tech award for 2019 went not to some robot butler or colossal TV, but to a humble pile of fake meat. Impossible Food’s latest recipe for plant-based ground beef did a stunning impression of the real thing. We were right on the money with this one: Since its CES showcase, the new Impossible Burger has become a sensation, showing up at supermarkets and restaurants all over the place. Burger King launched an Impossible Whopper and the United Nations awarded Impossible Foods its Momentum for Change Award for Planetary Health.
Throughout 2020, with COVID-19 transforming the country, plant-based meat products took off. According to Impossible Foods, at the start of the pandemic, the product was available in fewer than 150 grocery stores nationwide. Within six months, Impossible Burger was available in nearly 15,000 stores.
CES 2018 saw a lot of cool gadgets, but we gave Best in Show to something a little higher concept: Nvidia’s Xavier chip, a processor designed to be the brain of fully autonomous vehicles. An exceedingly complex chip with 9 million transistors and eight cores, Xavier promised a future of level 5 (no human input necessary) autonomous vehicles. But did it deliver?
This one was more concept than reality, it seems. While the platform Nvidia built — and the technical wizardry behind it — remain incredibly smart, one company can’t do it alone. Automakers have been saying for years that autonomous cars are just around the corner, and they remain … just around the corner. Meanwhile, Nvidia has broadened its vision for the use of chips and the Xavier platform, which it now describes as “ideal for autonomous machines like delivery and logistics robots, factory systems, and large industrial UAV.” But not cars, we suppose….
A more conventional pick, our Top Tech of 2017 was the Samsung Chromebook Plus. At the time, we called it “one of the sturdiest Chromebooks we’ve laid hands on, in a field full of systems that cheap out with plastic components and low-resolution panels.” In particular, we noted that it was the first Chrome OS product to support the Android app store, merging the two separate platforms and opening up new worlds for the Chrome OS.
The final product we reviewed, however? Meh. Sure, the platform was neat, but the design of the Chromebook itself was design was “old-school, fitting better with the first couple of Chromebook generations.” That said, Chromebooks in general and the OS overall have been a runaway success, in part due to the advancements that so wowed us in this model. Chromebooks dominate the education marketplace, and in general, outsell Apple’s Mac laptops. Not bad!
For two years running, we’ve found the most innovative tech in the automotive space at CES not in cars but in motorcycles. Two years ago, we highlighted Harley Davidson’s efforts to electrify its hogs, which represented a pivotal change for the storied brand. Last year we singled out the lesser-known Damon, which brought heretofore unheard-of tech to the biking world. For starters, there was the shape-shifting nature of the bike, which literally transforms underneath you from a hunched-over sportbike to an easy-riding upright position. It also incorporated important safety features that cars have had for decades: LEDs in the windscreen light up when there’s a car in your blind spot, and the handlebars will buzz urgently if you’re sailing toward an obstacle you don’t seem to notice. And did we mention that it’s powered by the QNX operating system from Blackberry – yes, that Blackberry?
Did the consumer world catch on? The company notes soaring orders for the Hypersport brand, with a 60% growth in the first half of 2020, despite the pandemic crisis. And in mid-November, Damon unveiled two new versions of the Hypersport, an SX model with a 15kWh battery and an SE model with an 11kWh battery. Can you ride one today? Not really. Because the border with Canada is closed, the company is unable to deliver … but is ready to do so as soon as possible.
Folks were skeptical when Pimax first announced plans for an 8K VR headset in 2017. They were right to be hesitant: We didn’t get our hands on or our eyes in the headset until January of 2020, when it wowed us enough to give this hardware a Top Tech of CES award. The Pimax 8K X offers 8K resolution and a 200-degree field of view, specifications well ahead of the Valve Index or Oculus Quest. Upping the resolution makes a noticeable difference in image sharpness, while fine text and details that are difficult to see on most VR headsets look crystal clear on the Pimax 8K X.
The pandemic delayed things a bit, but Pimax finally started shipping the headset in September. And true to our hands-on, reviews tend to glow — despite a crushing, $1,300 price tag. That said, VR remains very much a niche market, despite the continued attention it receives. The Pimax is an enthusiast product in an enthusiast space, meaning its overall reach and impact on the world at large is likely to be minor.
Sometimes, it takes longer than other times to get a product out into the world. At CES 2020, Lenovo released something audacious: A gorgeous 13-inch, 4:3 display that can either be used as a tablet held in your hands, a laptop folded in half, or propped up on its kickstand as a screen at your desk. It’s a tablet, laptop, and desktop, all in one. With a magnetic keyboard that makes it all work.
We finally tested the device a few weeks ago, when it shipped — nearly a year later. Did it live up to the hype? Not really. We described the ThinkPad X1 Fold as “the kind of laptop I want to love,” due to its uniqueness and innovation. It remains one of the most exciting PCs to launch in 2020. But in between those exciting experiences were moments of frustration, confusion, and disappointment. Too many to make this a product that can be recommended to anyone but the most adventurous early adopters. Whomp whomp.
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