By The Beast
I went to Vegas to go hands-on with the latest products, and found a few that are actually worth buying--and can be picked up right now.
By The Beast
Every year, tech companies show off their latest gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The show is known for flashy, “coming soon-ish” stuff like robot suitcases and talking toilets, but there are practical gizmos on the show floor too. I went to Vegas to go hands-on with the latest products, and found a few that are actually worth buying--and can be picked up right now.
Headphones are a dime a dozen at CES, but Dolby--the company that licenses its audio encoding technology to movie theaters and AV manufacturers--surprised us this year by releasing their own branded product for the first time. On the surface, the new Dolby Dimension wireless headphones look like any other pair of cans, but they contain a few interesting features.
First, these communicate with your TV or receiver using low latency Bluetooth, so your audio isn’t out of sync with the video on your TV (a problem with many typical Bluetooth headphones). Second, they include active noise cancelling, so you can silence clatter from the world around you--but with a slider that lets you choose to let outside noise in when necessary (say, if you want to be able to hear your spouse calling you from the other room).
Finally, and perhaps most intriguing, it tracks your head movements and pans the audio across both ear cups accordingly. So, if you turn your head to the left, the dialogue will come from the right earcup, still anchored to the characters on screen rather than following your ears around the room. The magnetic charging stand is a nice touch, and I found them very comfortable, which is pretty much a requirement if you expect to use them for two hours or more while watching a movie. Dolby soft-launched these headphones late last year on their own website, but they’re now available to buy from Amazon for $600.
Ever since the iPhone 8 and X made wireless charging truly mainstream, CES has been full of companies trying to get in on the trend. Most wireless chargers look the same: little circular pads you plug in and lay on a table, adding to the ever-increasing tech clutter of your house. Twelve South, long known for their well-designed Apple accessories, produced one of my favorite simple and practical gadgets of this year’s show: a wireless charger that is built into--and indistinguishable from--a regular ol’ picture frame. Stuff in a 5x7 photo of your family, put it on your desk, and plop your Qi-compatible phone into the frame whenever you need some juice. That way, you can keep your phone topped off without looking at an ugly charging pad all day. You can grab the Powerpic now in black or white for $55.
Few smart home products are as versatile as the smart outlet. Plug any lamp, space heater, or other appliance into a brick like the Belkin WeMo Mini, then plug that brick into the wall, and you’ll be able to control it with your phone (or with your voice assistant of choice). Unfortunately, most smart plugs add extra bulk to your setup, making things a little less aesthetically pleasing (and a lot harder to fit behind a couch or other obstacle).
That’s why Topgreener, a long-trusted manufacturer of in-wall USB outlets and other similar tech, has built a traditional outlet with Wi-Fi smarts built in to the receptacle. With some DIY skills (or the help of an electrician), you can install them in your wall and control any device plugged into them, without the bulk of an external smart plug. (They’ll also let you track the electricity usage of your appliances, which is handy.) You can grab one of their Wi-FI receptacles now for $41, and they’ll be releasing a version with USB outlets later this year.
Kano has been around for a few years, making build-your-own-computer kits for kids ages six and up. This year, they launched a Touch version, allowing your kid to build their own tablet using a Raspberry Pi, a touch screen, and other assorted parts. Once it’s up and running, they can run challenges that teach them how to code and play their favorite games (like Minecraft). If you have a kid interested in computers, this makes a great project that gets them started with electronics building and hacking. It retails for $280, but is on sale right now for $215 on Amazon.
For every unique product at CES, there are 100 “same old, same old” gadgets like Wi-Fi cameras, smart switches, and battery packs. When I saw that Lifeproof, the Otterbox-owned accessory company, released a second iteration of their Power Pack this year, I yawned...until I looked a little closer. The Lifeactiv is a slightly more rugged power back than your typical fare, with drop protection up to 4 feet and water resistance up to 6.6 feet for one hour. It has two 10,000 mAh batteries inside for a total of 20,000 mAh of power, plus a flashlight on one end and USB-C ports, so you can even charge your MacBook or other USB-C-powered laptop as well.
What really sold me, though, was the little lanyard that you can buy and attach to the end--at first glance, it looks like a simple loop for easy carrying, but you can twist it apart to reveal the USB cable required for charging your phone. It seems silly, but after lugging around many battery packs over the years that required stuffing an extra cable in your bag, it’s nice to see one well integrated into the actual pack (without being permanently attached, and eventually outdated). For $99, the Lifeactiv Power Pack isn’t a CES show stealer, but if you’re in the market for a battery pack, it checks more of my boxes than the other battery packs I’ve seen.
Back in 2013, Google made a splash with its Google Glass prototype, a pair of high-tech specs that could show you notifications, give you walking directions, and perform other augmented reality-type tasks. That never really moved beyond an ugly proof-of-concept, but we saw multiple pairs of smart glasses at this year’s CES trying to finish what Google started. None, however, were quite as stylish as North’s Focals, which--once you put them on--look just like any other pair of glasses. Through a small projection on the lens, you can see your notifications, get directions, send messages, and even invoke Alexa. You can also navigate Focal’s features using a ring that has a small joystick on the side--less conspicuous and clunky than Google Glass’ touch interface, but one that requires a bit more hardware. A battery case keeps your glasses charged when you aren’t wearing them, and should last all day according to the company. The glasses aren’t exactly cheap at $1000, and right now you’ll need to get them custom fitted at North’s showroom in Brooklyn or Toronto, but if you want the latest and greatest wearable tech has to offer, we were pretty impressed with how they worked. If you need a prescription pair, you can pick those up later this year.
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