The Consumer Electronics Show happens every year in early January, and it’s hard to keep up with all the gadget news during CES. But what exactly is CES, can you go, and why should you care?

What Is CES?

CES is the “Consumer Electronics Show.” It’s held in Las Vegas each year in early January. The first CES happened more than fifty years ago.

More than 182,000 people attend CES, with more than 4,400 companies showing off their products. That’s according to the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES. Individuals and companies come from all over the world to attend.

The show is enormous, and it sprawls out across the city of Las Vegas. There are two massive show floors covering the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and Sands Expo center, making up more than 2.75 million square feet of space in total. On top of that, many companies have private suites at the hotels where they show off their products by invitation only.

So Can I Go?

Sorry! Despite the name, CES isn’t actually for consumers. It’s an industry convention centered around consumer electronics, not an electronics show for consumers. It brings together everyone from technology journalists to big companies, startups, suppliers, purchasers, and other businesses.

To register and gain admission, you have to convince the Consumer Technology Association of your industry credentials.

In the past, we’ve seen people hawking admissions badges on the Las Vegas strip, trying to sell tourists on the opportunity to walk the show floor. But the convention has stepped up security recently and now prints photos on those badges in an attempt to stop people from passing them around.

What’s the Point of CES?

CES is an industry convention. For us in the media, it’s a chance to get a hands-on look at a variety of different products that might be released throughout the year. We hear about (and see) things like quantum dot TVs before they appear in stores. Startups want to get their gadgets in front of as many people as possible, too. Not all the products end up being released, though. Electronics companies may show off new technologies like rollable TVs that might not be released immediately.

The big show also provides a chance for the technology industry to drive the hype and conversation, pushing big new technologies like 5G, the Internet of Things, smarthome technology, self-driving cars, smart cities, autonomous drones, and 8K TVs. We’re sure to hear a lot more about 5G and see a lot of Wi-Fi 6 gadgets at CES 2019, for example.

But it’s not just about the media; a lot of CES is business-to-business. Are you a representative of an electronics store, like Best Buy? CES will expose you to all sorts of products you might want to stock. Do you need a bunch of selfie sticks or smartphone cases made cheaply? You can find suppliers that can cheaply manufacture these products for you. There’s a lot of business-to-business action going on, often in back rooms.

For example, Kodak’s nonsensical Bitcoin miner back in 2018 wasn’t targeted at the press. Kodak was just using the show floor to look for “investors” who had the cash and wanted to buy into their mining scheme, which was ultimately shut down by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

And CES is more than just about business and electronics. Like a lot of conventions, it’s an excuse for people in the industry to visit Las Vegas, gamble, and party with each other—all on the company dime. That’s not the only reason it’s held in Las Vegas, though. CES is a huge show, and most cities wouldn’t have the hotel and convention space for it.

Why Should I Care?

Look, let’s be honest: If you’re not involved in the technology industry, you shouldn’t care about CES. CES is an industry event. It pops up in the news because journalists are getting hands-on with the latest products, and you might be interested in those products.

CES is a deluge of news and products, many of which will never be released or may not be released for a while. Not all of them are interesting. Do you want to see ten different smart dog collars that monitor your pet’s fitness activity? Do you want an Alexa-enabled kitchen faucet so you can turn the water on and off by speaking a command? Do you want yet another “smart assistant,” a bunch of selfie sticks, or an autonomous drone? What about a huge number of basically identical smart TVs, some of which run Firefox OS for some reason? Perhaps you’re interested in a smart trash can, or a huge and expensive laundry folding robot? We’ve seen all those things at CES.

You can hear about the most interesting things just by paying attention to the tech news at home, anyway. It’s a bit easier to digest the news on your computer or phone when you’re not wandering through a packed convention center or racing across Las Vegas to your next private meeting. Want to see a particular company’s press conference? You can stream those online. And you won’t end up with a nasty cold or flu after the convention, either.

It’s also worth noting that many of the biggest technology companies aren’t even at CES. Apple isn’t there, and neither is Microsoft. Google is, but only shows off its existing hardware—Google saves the announcements for its own events.

CES Is Great, and CES Is Terrible

For journalists, it’s cool to hate on CES. It means you’re a jaded professional who’s been around for a while. You aren’t buying into the hype. You’re experienced!

There’s a lot of nonsense at CES, but it isn’t all nonsense. We try to cut through the hype and find the most interesting, actually useful tech. In 2018, we saw the first Google Assistant smart displays, which were the predecessors of the Google Home Hub—our favorite product of 2018. We heard about improved Wi-Fi security with WPA3, standardized USB fast charging, and 5G’s promise of super-fast data everywhere. We saw and played with all sorts of interesting gadgets.

CES is great because there are a lot of awesome gadgets and technology, and it makes for a lot of interesting news and products. But it’s not all interesting. Samsung is still desperately pushing Bixby, big electronics companies try to convince us we all need expensive smart refrigerators, and startups are selling Alexa-enabled everything.

It’s our job to find the most exciting stuff. If you think CES is a non-stop parade of interesting products and promising technology—well, that’s because the technology media is doing a good job. You don’t have to walk past the endless booths of selfie sticks, drones, and iPhone cases.

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6 and Chicago's WGN-TV, and his work has been covered by news outlets like The New York Times and the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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