If it's January, then it's time for the Consumer Electronics Show. This is when the industry trots out the latest and greatest to whet our appetites for new TVs, mobile phones and portable computers.
CES is exciting and fun, to be sure, but it will end up costing you money if you fall for the hype. But if you know how to read between the lines, you'll be able to easily plan upcoming purchases.
The most important distinction is between what's being promoted as groundbreaking, cool new technology and what's actually going to reach the mass market. At every show, companies debut examples of products in development or those meant for very limited production. In years past, we've seen 100-plus-inch plasma TVs (price upon request) still seen only in a handful of sports bars in places such as Las Vegas, where the industry goes to gather, and super-skinny LED TVs available for exorbitant sums relative to their tiny screen size.
Last year's much-hyped 3D TVs are a great example. When the recession hit in 2008, many electronics companies halted expensive research and development, trimmed costs and scaled back new product releases. Some even stayed away from consumer shows like CES altogether, deeming them too expensive to attend. Those that came, had little to show.
Hence 3D TV.
As one veteran reporter quipped, "when you've got nothing else to show, bring out the 3D." It's not that the technology doesn't have merit or isn't fun, but rather is it compelling enough to get consumers to pay more for it, or buy new TVs to have it. Add to that a lack of content and glasses that have to be worn at home, and it's hardly an easy sell. But 3D technology has been kicking around for a long time, so it was easy enough for companies to resurrect it and bring it out in lieu of more impressive new technology.
Don't expect to see much talk about 3D TV coming out of CES this year, however.
"Connected TVs are the big focus this year," says Jason Oxman, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, sponsor of the show. "This year, it's the range of apps and the TV will start to look a lot like a cell phone."
Indeed, the TV is merging with computers. More and more can be connected to the Internet, with apps — or widgets — embedded into the TV. You might not have full Internet access, but the apps will take you to Netflix, Hulu and Yahoo! to download and watch content.
No, 3D TV isn't dead, it's just becoming part of a package of features you'll see included in new TVs this year. "Literally every high-end TV will have 3D as a feature, but what manufacturers have discovered is that we're looking for TVs that do a lot of things," Oxman says.
We'll see more tablet computers this year — dozens according to Oxman — to compete with Apple's iPad in a variety of price points. There will be more 4G smartphones for faster data transfer, and connected home appliances that propose to help save consumers money by allowing remote diagnostics and monitoring peak times for power use to reduce energy costs.
All practical advancements meant to save us money. More use, less hype.
Once the show opens on January 6, stay tuned for more reports from the convention floor. Follow Laura Heller on Twitter for up-to-the-minute details.