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CES 2021: what to expect from the upcoming online-only tech expo

CES 2021
(Image credit: TechRadar)

CES 2021 is set to be the biggest technology expo of the year – though, because it's all online this year, it won’t look the way it usually does.

CES usually draws together tens of thousands of attendees and exhibitors to the Las Vegas Convention Center every January, as the world’s electronics manufacturers reveal their incoming wares – and TechRadar picks the most interesting innovations from the show floor to share with you at home. 

Amid health precautions and global lockdown measures, though, events are shifting online – and, much like the E3 gaming expo and other shows, CES 2021 has transitioned entirely to the internet, with an “all-digital” edition of the conference happening instead from January 11 to January 14 with the following schedule:

  • January 11: Exclusive media-only access
  • January 12: Exhibitor showcase and conference programming
  • January 13: Exhibitor showcase and conference programming
  • January 14: Conference programming

What we're expecting to happen this year, then, is for the biggest brands to host their own live-streamed announcements – think Sony, LG, Samsung and the like – with smaller companies either managing their own streams or possibly coming together in CES-themed showcase videos. 

It's during those keynotes and press conferences that we're expecting to hear about the latest and greatest in tech – new 4K and 8K TVs, headphones, laptops, smartphones, drones, speakes and more – that are heading our way next year.

During that week we're expecting to hear from the biggest names in tech directly in both public forums and private meetings, and we'll be able to bring you the news, previews and guides you've come to expect from the comfort of our homes.

So what, exactly, are we expecting to see? This guide will run you through what to expect from the biggest names in tech at CES 2021 – Sony, Samsung, AMD, and more – based on what they got up to at last year’s event.

CES 2021 dates: when is it?

A press release on the CES website originally put the CES 2021 dates at January 6-9, however those dates have since shifted to January 11-14, 2021. 

That first day of the show will be keynotes from AMD, General Motors, Verizon and the CTA themselves, plus we're expecting to hear from LG, Sony and Samsung, though none of them have explicitly said as much.

In a typical year, CES takes over Las Vegas for nearly a week, with tech brands and press coming from all over the world to meet, make deals, and cover the latest announcements all together. How any of that will happen when it's online-only is kind of hard to foresee, but it's something the CTA has been hammering out for months, so we're expecting things to run smoothly.

Future CES events have definitive dates, too. CES 2022 and CES 2023 are scheduled for January 5-8, while CES 2024 is pencilled in for January 9-12.

What to expect

Samsung at CES 2021

Samsung TV

(Image credit: Samsung)

CES is always a big show for Samsung. It’s the place the company picks to roll out its latest QLED TVs, concept screens and monstrous custom-installs, plus innovations in the computing and phone space.

Last year saw the rotating Samsung Sero TV unveiled, as well as the zero-bezel Q950TS 8K QLED and confirmation of two more 8K TVs for 2020. We’re expecting an even bigger 8K range for CES 2021, and possibly (if we’re lucky) news of a commercially-available transparent TV or sunlight-emitting display.

Samsung usually announces a slew of soundbars to go with its new TVs too, and we’re expecting the same from CES 2021. The brand’s 2020 soundbar range, which included the HW-Q950T and HW-Q900T, came with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X immersive audio, alongside SmartThings supports and Amazon Alexa voice control. 

At CES 2021, we could see Samsung soundbars with Google Assistant voice control as well as Alexa, and more connection options than their predecessors. We’d also like to see Samsung take a few cues from Sonos with the implementation of Dolby’s latest TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus sound codecs to deliver lossless Hi-Res Audio.

Sony at CES 2021

Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony has just released its latest noise-cancelling headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 (which we’ve dubbed the best headphones of 2020), so it’s unlikely that we’ll see a new pair of flagship over-ear headphones from the tech giant debut at CES 2021. 

However, it’s now been a year since the brand’s true wireless earbuds, the Sony WF-1000XM3, were launched – and that means CES 2021 could be when Sony launches a fourth-gen version of the best true wireless earbuds you can buy today. The Sony WF-1000XM4 could come with some of the new features we’ve seen in the WH-1000XM4, including Speak-to-Chat, adaptive noise cancellation, and audio upscaling.

CES 2020 was largely quiet for Sony though, with a dud PS5 logo unveiling and only a small number of new TV announcements. We’ll be keeping an eye out for more 48-inch models of its existing OLED sets, and new developments in its Acoustic Surface Audio tech, which vibrates the TV panel itself to emit sound.

LG at CES 2021

LG TVs

(Image credit: TechRadar)

LG usually uses CES as a launchpad for its latest TV range, and 2020 was no different. We saw a fleet of 8K TVs shown off, as well as confirmation of a new 48-inch OLED size. LG announced that the glass-panel E Series OLED was being retired in favor of a Gallery Series model, too, so we don’t expect the former to show up in any guise at CES 2021.

So, what do we expect? Another round of OLED TVs is a certainty, and we could hear more for serious gamers, given what LG has done in the past year to court them with Nvidia G-Sync support on its 2020 sets.

We’ve been hearing that the launch of the rollable Signature Series OLED R has been imminent for a few trade shows now, though, so don’t be surprised if LG makes the same announcement at CES 2021.

Hisense at CES 2021

Hisense

(Image credit: hisense)

Hisense usually puts on something of a show at tech expos, and in 2020 we saw it unveil a refresh of its projector-television hybrid, more ULED TVs, and a new DualCell technology – one that combines two TV panels for enhanced contrast. 

Hisense’s OLED ambitions have been dashed by this point, and we don’t expect any O8B successors at CES 2021. More laser TVs, as well as more mid-range quantum dot displays, seem likely. The popular Hisense Roku TV line expanded to the UK in late 2018, too, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Hisense announce a refresh next year.

TCL at CES 2021

TCL

(Image credit: TCL)

TCL runs on a slightly different release schedule than many TV brands, which can mean CES is a bit light on concrete information. At the 2020 expo it announced plans for a new fleet of Mini-LED TVs – to compete with OLED models – which use smaller LEDs for more precise brightness control than traditional LCD screens.

Those TVs just started rolling out in the US in the form of the new 6-Series R635 models and launch alongside new 5-Series TVs that, for the first time ever, use QLED technology.

On top of that, TCL recently confirmed its range of Roku TVs were coming to Europe and South America, and most likely the UK too. More details on this will likely come at IFA 2020, but there’s a chance that the company’s global pipeline – with precise product names and pricing – for its new Roku sets could take until January 2021 to see the light of day.

Panasonic at CES 2021

Panasonic wireless earbuds

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Last year, Panasonic announced its first noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds, the RZ-S500W, which represented a cheaper alternative to the likes of the Sony WF-1000XM3 and the AirPods Pro

While we were impressed with the quality of noise cancellation, the audio left a little to be desired, with muddy bass frequencies. At CES 2021, we’d love to see an improved version of these earbuds with a more well-balanced soundstage.

We expect more high-end Panasonic TVs to be on show, too. Panasonic opened CES 2020 with its new HZ2000 OLED, and news of light-sensitive HDR calibration (via Dolby Vision IQ). We may get to hear more about its mid-range OLED plans at CES 2021, given the recently-announced HZ980 model hasn’t been available to review, and it may be Panasonic is testing the waters before plunging into this price band more firmly.

Philips at CES 2021

(Image credit: Philips)

CES 2020 surprised us by featuring one of Philips’ OLED TVs, the OLED 804. The Phillips name is owned by Funai in the US, meaning the Philips TVs we cover are largely restricted to the UK and Europe, but last year’s expo showed that some of these models were going to begin arriving on American shores. We’ll be keeping an eye out for more news here, and hope that CES 2021 has confirmation of more Philips TVs making the jump.

Phones

Phones at CES 2021

Royole Flexpai

(Image credit: Royole)

Companies rarely debut new phones at CES given the smartphone-focused Mobile World Congress (MWC), which starts a month later, has traditionally been the stage for teasing and debuting that year’s handsets.Which doesn’t mean we won’t see any phones at CES 2021 – in the past, some enterprising companies have used the dearth to introduce new handsets in a relative vacuum of phones announcements.

That was the case with the Flexpai Royole, which debuted at CES 2019 as the world’s first foldable a full month before Samsung showed off the original Galaxy Fold at MWC 2019. But we’ve also seen newcomers to the phones industry show their stuff, like TCL did when the company debuted its first-ever smartphones, the TCL 10 Pro, TCL 10L and TCL 10 5G at CES 2020. Bigger companies do occasionally unveil new phones, but they’re often more affordable models that are headed for limited markets, like the Samsung Galaxy A51 and Samsung Galaxy S10 Lite that also appeared at CES 2020.

Ergo, we’re not expecting big phones to debut at CES 2021 – but we could see some budget and mid-range handsets from companies that don’t want to be outshone at MWC 2021. Given how well those affordable models have performed this year, we wouldn’t be surprised if companies more boldly announced their cheaper handsets at the biggest tech show on the world – even if it’s just online.

Cameras

Cameras at CES 2021

(Image credit: Canon)

CES has been pretty low-key for camera announcements in the last few years, as the big guns tend to favor Japan’s CP+ Show in February or their own independent launches. Still, we were treated to a few teaser announcements at CES 2020, including the Canon EOS 1DX Mark III, and with the Photokina camera show (now held every May) postponed until 2022, we may see some interesting arrivals at CES 2021.

Another factor could be the knock-on effect of delays from the global pandemic, which could see announcements that were originally scheduled for late 2020 pushed back to January 2021. For example, the latest rumors suggest that we could see a Canon EOS M50 Mark II, Nikon Z9 and Sony A5 all arrive in late 2020. It’s feasible that one or more of these cameras will get delayed until the new year, which could pave the way for teaser announcements at CES 2021. 

Would the likes of Canon, Nikon and Sony risk a full launch getting lost in the noise of a big generalist tech show? That’s less likely, so there’s a bigger chance that some of the more fringe camera brands – think Insta360, DJI and GoPro – will again step in to fill the photographic gap with some new action cameras and drones. As is CES tradition, we’d also expect to see a crazy storage story like a 2TB microSD card from the likes of SanDisk.

Audio

Audio at CES 2021

ticpods

(Image credit: Mobvoi)

CES 2020 was a great year for audio, and we’re expecting to see more great headphones, earbuds, soundbars, and wireless speakers in 2021, too. 

Sony will likely be the brand to watch, having dominated the noise-cancelling headphones and true wireless earbuds market for the last year, with class-leading models like the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Sony WF-1000XM3 making waves in the audio world. The time is right for a new generation of the WF-1000XM3s, and we’re crossing our fingers that CES 2021 will be the place to see them. 

In fact, last year was dominated by true wireless earbuds, with audio brands experimenting with adding smart features to the diminutive form factor. Mobvoi, for example, brought us the TicPods 2 Pro, which can be controlled with a shake of the head, while Klipsch announced its (still yet to be released) T10 true wireless earbuds, which come with built-in artificial intelligence. 

While these features were certainly interesting, many weren’t fully realized; CES 2021 could see a refinement of features like AI and gesture-control, making them worth buying into. 

The over-ear headphones category felt somewhat sparse at CES 2020, so we could see more audiophile-focussed cans at this year’s event. It was the same story for smart speakers and wireless speakers, too – with such a focus on true wireless earbuds last year, we’d love to see more gadgets for at-home listeners at CES 2021.

TVs

TVs at CES 2021

(Image credit: TechRadar)

2021 will likely be a big year for many of the biggest TV brands. We’ve seen both Samsung and LG push hard into 8K TV technologies – and in both cases CES 2020 was the occasion they chose to announce it.

LG also confirmed quite big lineup changes at the event, ditching the E Series OLED in favor of the new Gallery Series, and Samsung raised eyebrows with its rotating Sero TV, so the most exciting news might come from elsewhere next time around.

Panasonic has had a relatively quiet year, with little changing in its TV lineup aside from a new mid-range OLED model, the HZ980. We’re yet to hear much of it and review units aren’t being sent out, so we predict it may be paving the way for a bigger refresh of the company’s TV range at the CES expo next year.

At CES 2020, it was clear that TV brands were thinking big, with many 75-inch-plus screens on display. But they were also thinking small, with confirmation of a new 48-inch OLED size, a 32-inch version of Samsung’s The Frame (2020) display, as well as TV models designed for use with smartphones rather than 4K Blu-ray players or AV receivers

We expect CES 2021 to dive deeper into these extremes, with more 48-inch OLEDs than the LG CX and Sony A9G we have currently, and more compact 32-inch / 43-inch sizes for premium sets.

How to register

CES 2021: how to register

Registration for CES 2021 is available now to the public now at the CES website. In terms of cost to the average public, the CTA plans to charge a $149 fee. The fee will apply to most attendees, including retailers, but like in past years, credentialed journalists and analysts will be exempt.