The product that stole the show at CES 2017 didn’t even have a booth

Your Quartz guide to the winners of CES.
Your Quartz guide to the winners of CES.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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As Quartz’s time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas comes to a close, we have rounded up CES’s best phones, TVs, concept cars, and miscellany. Rather than being focused on breakout gadgets, this year was especially homogenous, dominated by similar products competing in a few categories: We saw droves of autonomous, electric concept cars, variations on the smart speaker, and half-baked home robots. The best gadgets, listed below, were chosen because they actually managed to differentiate themselves from the herd, or seemed like real, viable products amidst a field of prototypes.

Grand winner: Amazon Alexa

Even though Amazon wasn’t showing off Alexa at its own booth, the digital personal assistant stole the show as the most widely integrated technology: It was hooked up with smart speakers, refrigerators, lamps, robots, cars, and the list goes on.

There’s no reason for Amazon to be mad at other companies tapping into Alexa’s virtual brain. More people using the service means more data for Amazon, and as one of Alexa’s chief skills is ordering items from the commerce site, it probably means more sales, too. (These integrations also garner valuable press for Alexa, such as this article.) At the end of the day, the more people who see the worth of employing its services as a virtual assistant, the more robust the service becomes for users.

It’s also worth noting the only company that had dominated CES to this extent without actually attending has traditionally been Apple. In previous years, phones were measured against the iPhone’s often-imitated design, apps and peripherals were judged based on their compatibility with the App Store, and any device that was accepted for sale at Apple’s gleaming aluminum temples proudly displayed their status as an Apple Store product. This year, the Alexa logo was displayed with that same pride.

Phone: ZTE Axon 7 Max

In 2017, it’s really, really difficult to innovate in smartphones. Regardless of the manufacturer, they’re all pocket supercomputers with amazing cameras and features. That’s why the ZTE Axon 7 Max was so interesting. It has something few other smartphones have—two rear-facing stereoscopic cameras—and something no others have: the ability to take 3D photos. Tap into the camera, click on the 3D-photo function, and you can create something that looks akin to a hologram, with actual depth and definition between objects in the images. As fun as ZTE’s 3D photos are though, until there’s a critical mass of people with access to the technology, it may well remain a niche gimmick. (It’s also worth noting that most major manufacturers are saving their best phones for later in 2017.) 

Honorable mention: The Kodak Ektra.

Kodak’s latest device looks and feels more like a vintage camera than a smartphone. In addition to the normal features found on modern smartphones, the Ektra has a massive 21-megapixel camera strapped to the back and comes with a carry case that harkens back to old-school camera cases. Hipsters will love it.

Robot: Mayfield Robotics’ Kuri

CES was teeming with robots of all shapes and sizes this year, though few of them seemed particularly useful, and many of them just didn’t seem to work. But one robot stood out to us: Kuri, from startup Mayfield Robotics. The company is backed by Bosch, one of the largest technology conglomerates in the world (and renowned roboticists in their own right). Mayfield aims to be the first company to build a robot that people welcome into their homes as they would a pet.

Kuri can do some of the things that smart-home hubs like the Amazon Echo or Google Home are equipped for, like play music and audiobooks from a built-in speaker, but it can also be used to patrol your home and use computer vision to check up on pets, see when the kids arrive home from school, or determine if unwanted guests have dropped in. Kuri’s animations and personality were designed by a former Pixar animator, and the robots really feel as if they have agency and presence: They look around, get antsy, are inquisitive, are happy to see people, and respond to your stimuli.

Although Kuri will only cost $700 when it’s released in December, it’s not entirely clear if we need to invite these sorts of bots into our homes when Alexa and Siri are already doing these serviceable jobs. But compared with all the other offerings at CES, Kuri actually seemed to be happy to work for us humans.

Television: Samsung Lifestyle TV

The best tech disappears into the user’s life, summoned only when needed. Samsung took that design philosophy to heart with the Lifestyle TV, a picture-frame-shaped television that never turns off. Instead, when it’s not being used for its primary purpose, the monitor displays images, such as digital recreations of paintings, family photos, or professional photography. Plus, maybe a TV that masquerades as art when it’s not in use might help with that New Year’s resolution to watch less tube.

Concept Car: Toyota Concept-i

Looking rather like a Prius from 20 years in the future, the Concept-i is an extremely stylish sedan with gullwing doors and glass paneling in very strange places. But the real craziness in this car is on the inside: It comes equipped with an AI driver called Yui that learns your moods and responds accordingly, and is represented as a pulsing beam of light that appears all over the car. According to Popular Mechanics, Yui can also talk to drivers to help them stay attentive while driving manually. The car is just a concept, meaning we’re not likely to see any production vehicle on the road any time soon, but it’s a pretty radical representation of where one of the largest automakers in the world sees the design and use of cars heading toward.  

Honorable mention: Mercedes Vision Van

This bizarre concept van combines a delivery truck, a robot-sorting device, and drones to become the future of short-range delivery. And, for some reason, you use a joystick to drive it.

Laptop: HP Spectre x360 (2017)

It’s not a new design, but HP’s new Spectre is a win purely on principle: It’s not a sin to make a device thicker for better functionality. HP says the sub-millimeter addition to the laptop’s height allowed a 23% larger battery.

Most “CES” product: Graalphone

Is it a mobile Windows PC? Is it an Android tablet? Is it an Android smartphone? No, it’s Graalphone!

Okay, actually, it’s none of those things yet—because Graalphone is only a non-working mock-up. The 4-in-1 PC/tablet/phone/digital camera is highly unlikely to become a real product, despite the confidence of boothside PR reps. Why would it have two operating systems? Why does a phone slide out the middle? Why have such a weird optical zoom? Why doesn’t the screen stay up in desktop mode? Who wants to type on a 5-inch physical keyboard?

So many questions that will never be answered. Long live the Graalphone—at least its spirit.

Seen and heard

Most obtuse descriptor: ”A multi-layer multi-technology contingency system.” — Nick Sampson, SVP at Faraday Future, during a presentation

Most mocked tech product: A smart hairbrush by Withings

Amount gambled by Quartz reporters/money won by Quartz reporters: $1/-$0.87

Casinos visited by Quartz reporters: 9

Combined distance walked by Quartz reporters over three days: 51.7 miles