In 2020, this is what to expect in the world of consumer tech: the best stuff is going to get more powerful and more premium. At The Verge, we don’t like calling stuff “premium” because it’s such an overused word. But this year, it’s going to get used even more, and, well, it fits. It tells you that the best stuff is going to get better and — more importantly — more expensive.
The changes are also premium because a lot of the improvements at the high end are going to be things that most people won’t need: 5G phones are going to be everywhere — maybe even coming from Apple — but the networks for them are still nascent. TVs are going to get new features like high refresh rates that will matter to gamers but perhaps no one else. And the latest PC chips could be the biggest leap for laptops we’ve seen in years, but we won’t know until they start getting released at scale.
A lot of gadgets will fold in half, too — which is going to be neat — but we don’t know if it will be necessary.
Other innovations will be a little more practical. Those scooters you see everywhere? They’re not going away, but they should be getting a little more robust and a little less disposable. And as the year winds on, we’ll see the console wars heat up again as Sony and Microsoft get their new consoles ready for battle.
There’s one more big trend to talk about that’s more software than hardware: streaming TV. The streaming wars are in full tilt and we’ll get even more services launching in 2020. How many will most people be willing to subscribe to and how much will all these competitors spend on making new shows? Answers, respectively: more than they want to and way more than you’d expect.
All of these trends are set to kick off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Verge will be there, with coverage starting in earnest on Sunday, January 5th. CES won’t have every major gadget that will matter this year, but it is a place to see where the electronics industry is going. Walk into any big box store and you’ll see TVs for a couple hundred dollars with features that were multithousand-dollar curiosities just a few years ago. Phones with in-screen fingerprint sensors debuted at CES only to become ubiquitous a couple of years later.
Since the biggest tech companies usually save their best products for their own announcements, you can also expect CES to be a place where smaller players have a better shot at their time in the spotlight.
Trickle-down economics isn’t a viable economic theory anymore, but it still applies to gadgets. The stuff at the top eventually gets commoditized, with prices coming down and fancy features hitting the mainstream. In 2020, that’ll keep happening — and the premium gadgets will mostly be about making existing categories better instead of creating new ones.
One more thing: we’re launching a newsletter that will cover the biggest stories in consumer tech every day — it’s called Processor and it’s written by Dieter Bohn. If you want the best way to keep up with the onslaught of announcements at CES, Processor is the best way to get the most important news every morning. And after CES is over, Dieter will continue it delivering it to your inbox daily. Read more about it here and subscribe!
Here’s what to expect in 2020 and at CES in the world of consumer electronics.
Phones: 5G is coming — whether we’re ready or not
This is the year that 5G phones go from strange experiments that only work on a few street corners to regularly scheduled nationwide launches in the US — or at least that’s the idea. Some carriers in the US have already launched their 5G networks, but whether they actually bring enough speed to change people’s day-to-day experience is still an open question.
It’s a question that carriers and phone makers should work hard to answer as quickly as possible because new 5G phones may come with significant trade-offs. The first Android phones with 5G are gigantic, and 2020’s offerings could be more of the same. Plus, there are worries that Qualcomm’s newest chips may not be as power-efficient as they could be since the highest-end ones require a separate modem, which can draw more power.
And who knows whether Apple will go with 5G this year? It historically waits a little longer to adopt new cellular technologies. It has fought with Qualcomm quite a bit over the past year, and it’s unlikely that Apple’s newly acquired Intel modem division will be up to the challenge that quickly.
So 5G will be a lot of question marks in 2020, but they’ll be question marks affixed to phones that companies are going to start selling in big numbers. Hopefully the answers are good.
At CES: CES isn’t traditionally a phone show, but there are always a few — usually to demo new technologies like in-screen fingerprint sensors, and some companies might discuss their plans for 5G phones. Samsung and Apple stay away from CES, so it’s a place where smaller players can get a chance to grab some attention.
Bonus prediction: Foldable phones will become normal this year. That doesn’t necessarily mean mainstream, but it does mean you’ll see a bunch of them, and only one or two will be any good. The first real test will be the Moto Razr.
Televisions: all flash and some substance, too
At the beginning of each year, ambitious and wildly expensive TVs at CES always steal the spotlight. Last year, LG showed off an OLED TV that rolled down into a compact box when not in use, while Samsung had a revamped version of its stunning modular TV it calls “The Wall,” which uses MicroLED display technology to create an image that rivals OLED with almost none of the downsides.
But those big splashes didn’t really mean much for regular consumers. Samsung’s Wall is prohibitively expensive, and LG’s rollable TV has yet to ship in the United States. That’s often the way with CES’s splashiest TV announcements: they’re concepts masquerading as real consumer products.
CES is a TV show, though, and so the less-flashy announcements really do turn into real products that real people can buy later in the year. While Apple and Samsung and even Google save their big phone hardware announcements for their own events, TV technology still happens at CES.
Look at the weird rolling TVs for sure, but don’t let them distract you from the real technology that gets announced. For the TVs that most people are actually going to buy, some of the upgrades we expect to see in 2020 will future-proof your next TV for years and years to come.
At CES: The time has come for manufacturers to fully embrace HDMI 2.1 and, by extension, release 4K HDR televisions that are optimized for the next generation of game consoles from Microsoft and Sony. Features already seen in gaming monitors (like variable refresh rates) are coming to the biggest screen in your home, and 4K at 120Hz will usher in a new level of gameplay smoothness.
On the software side, the biggest TV announcements from CES 2019 were Apple-related. Several manufacturers announced support for AirPlay 2, and Samsung announced support for iTunes itself (which ultimately wound up being the Apple TV app). Expect more of the same in 2020, and with Disney+ now on the scene, it’s very likely we’ll see it as a built-in option on many sets. Plus, standards like ATSC 3.0 (which could allow for 4K reception via antenna) could also start to see more uptake from TV makers.
Bonus prediction: Another year of 8K hype with very little to show for it. Without huge gains in 8K content availability (and there are no signs of that happening), we think it will continue to be a niche technology throughout the course of 2020 — no matter how good AI upscaling gets.
Streaming wars: noise in the signal
Streaming gets complicated in 2020. HBO Max, Peacock, and Quibi all have plans to launch while Disney+ and Apple TV Plus beat the crowd slightly with launches at the end of 2019.
With these new services rolling out and their bidding for subscribers’ time and money, we’re going to hear more about gigantic content licensing deals, a la WarnerMedia paying $450 million for licensing rights to Friends, and Netflix reportedly spending $500 million to get Seinfeld on its service.
We’ll also keep learning about big names committing to specific platforms. Think: Martin Scorsese producing and directing his three-hour mobster drama The Irishman for Netflix. More movies will flood the streaming space as studios like Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal figure out a theatrical versus streaming strategy. Netflix will continue to try to get its biggest films in theaters, too.
Ultimately, the biggest storyline this year will be how the streaming services compete with each other in a bid to upend Netflix’s dominance, particularly since the Netflix team already has a years-long lead on creating original programming both for domestic audiences and abroad.
You can probably expect subscription fatigue to hit hard in 2020 after everything launches, which means all of those content deals will be more than just media industry trade news; they’ll be about what you’re actually going to pay for every month.
Meanwhile, podcasting is going to play a slightly smaller part in the streaming wars as Apple and Spotify duke it out for dominance. Spotify acquired multiple podcast networks in 2019, as well as podcast creation technology Anchor, in an effort to own the space and transition to an “audio” company as opposed to a music streaming one. Apple is supposedly working on its own original podcast content, presumably to stave off Spotify. Similarly to video content, we can expect to hear more about new podcasts in the works and big names signing onto the various services.
At CES: Noise. Much noise. Quibi is giving a keynote and NBCUniversal will be there, too. Presumably, both companies are going to preview their impending services and use CES as a press opportunity. They’ll probably announce new content deals or show off their apps, especially because this is CES and we all want to hear about the tech.
Bonus prediction: This is a great time to be a creator! Studios, streaming services, and tech companies need content and big names, which means we’ll see lots of new programming from some of the top talent. Prepare for more fragmentation, too. Exclusive deals with creators and studios mean keeping up with everything can quickly get expensive.
PCs / laptops: it’s what’s inside that counts
There’s one big wild card for 2020 Windows laptops: foldable and dual-screen devices. Lenovo showed off a fully foldable laptop last year, and Microsoft has already started teasing the Surface Duo for holiday 2020 — along with a bespoke Windows 10X operating system designed specifically for devices like this.
With the first wave of these devices set to arrive in 2020, we’ll finally start to see whether expanding screens are the future of computing or just the next flash-in-the-pan fad. We don’t know which it will be yet, but we do know that we’re due for the most substantial processor upgrade in years hitting the mainstream.
That’s because regular laptops are expected to get a big upgrade in 2020: Intel’s third-generation 10nm process chips — codenamed “Tiger Lake” — are set to arrive this year to succeed the Ice Lake models. And unlike Ice Lake, Tiger Lake is also bringing Intel’s 10nm improvements to higher-powered H-Series processors, which should be interesting to see. It might not happen at CES, however, unless Intel wants to surprise us.
AMD is also pushing its competition on Intel with its upcoming Ryzen 4000 processors, which are expected to bring the company’s newest Zen 2 architecture down to laptops. The big question is whether AMD can surpass Intel’s long-seated supremacy in the field.
There’s also a new and interesting player in the game: Qualcomm, which looks to be pushing ARM for Windows even more this year, with two new entry-level chips that will be joining the existing (although currently underutilized by manufacturers) Snapdragon 8cx chip.
That’s in addition to the usual improvements: expect to see past trends like smaller bezels, shrunken hardware, and more adoption of USB-C to continue to proliferate in the coming months.
At CES: On the specs side of things, last year’s CES saw gaming laptops as the stars of the show, thanks to Nvidia’s comprehensive launch of its new RTX GPUs for laptops. This year, though, all eyes are back on the processor side of things.
AMD could announce its new Ryzen 4000 processors for laptops, and Intel’s 10th Gen 10nm Ice Lake chips are finally available, meaning that we’ll likely see some big spec bumps in existing models, if not wholly new designs that take advantage of the improvements to power and battery life. While rumors aren’t pointing to Tiger Lake arriving at CES this year, it’s possible that Intel may have a surprise or two up its sleeves.
And of course, it’s possible that we’ll start to see some foldable or dual-screen devices — assuming any laptop makers are willing to show them off at CES and not a separate launch event.
Bonus prediction: Gaming laptops are in a bit of a holding pattern right now, with no new GPUs from Nvidia or chips from Intel to push them forward, which means 2020 is the perfect time for some wild new experimentation on form factor or design to push the most powerful laptops forward.
Gaming hardware: the calm before the next console war
Sony and Microsoft desperately want you to know the next PlayStation and Xbox are on the way — so much so that they’ve announced them practically a full year early, with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X set for an epic duel when they both release next holiday season. As usual, Nintendo is marching to the beat of its own drum, with few expecting the company to cannibalize the continued success of the Nintendo Switch.
That said, the evolution of gaming is no longer about pledging your allegiance to a particular box, but rather a platform that extends across multiple hardware generations and may not need to be tied to a console at all. When the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 embraced PC-esque x86 architecture, that allowed Microsoft and Sony to easily build successors in the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, which play the same library of games at higher resolution or frame rates. As a handy side effect, it became much easier to host games on cloud servers, so subscription services like PlayStation Now and xCloud can beam them to a PC or phone as well.
Will Sony and Microsoft give up that advantage to sell newer, even more proprietary consoles? It’s possible. But it feels more likely that the future of gaming is that you get what you pay for across a continuum of consoles: Xbox One for a baseline experience, Xbox One X for a little more graphical oomph, Xbox Series X for the best visuals and an expensive SSD that means less waiting around for game levels to load, and xCloud’s console in the cloud if you want to pick up and play those games on your phone if we take the Microsoft example.
With VR and AR gaming still in the trough of disillusionment (though holiday sales for the Valve Index and Oculus Quest seem promising), cloud gaming is once again the most promising advancement in games technology. Now that Google Stadia has launched, and the PS5 and Xbox Series X are inbound, there will be a lot of competition to convince gamers to buy into what the next generation of gaming has to offer.
At CES: Sony and Microsoft are both talking about their consoles powering games at up to 8K resolution, which suggests that we’ll probably see slightly more emphasis on 8K televisions this year (but see our TV predictions section above), and we wouldn’t be surprised if a cloud gaming company or three take this opportunity to tip their hands as well.
Bonus prediction: 2020 is the year we’ll momentarily stop talking about a three-way battle between Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft because new challengers will appear. Maybe it’ll be Amazon with its rumored cloud gaming service, or maybe Google’s Stadia will make a dent. Perhaps Apple will finally embrace big-screen gaming with a renewed Apple TV or iPad push on top of Apple Arcade, maybe even with its own game controller. That’d be the day.
Transportation: it’s electric
Electricity will continue to dominate all forms of transportation in the next decade. But that’s not to say we can kiss the dirty internal combustion engine (ICE) goodbye forever. The vast majority of the billion-plus personal vehicles on the road today have ICEs.
It will take an excruciatingly long time to completely transition to EVs, but that shift has begun and will continue over the next ten years. Expect to see more governments proposing ICE bans, following in the footsteps of the UK, France, and Norway. The US is weighing a “cash-for-clunkers” style plan to ensure that every vehicle on the road is zero-emission by 2040.
Electric flight will really take off in the next decade, mostly in the form of small, drone-helicopter hybrids capable of short-hop taxi trips in cities. They will only be accessible and affordable to the rich at first, and there’s plenty of skepticism that these so-called “flying cars” can overcome safety and regulatory hurdles to scale up enough so more people can use them. There will need to be big advances in battery technology before we get pure-electric commercial airplanes that can fly between cities.
Cities will continue to be suckered in by the false promise of the hyperloop. But they would be better off investing in expanding their bus fleets, especially electric ones. It’s not as sexy as the hyperloop, but the real solution to traffic-choked cities is the humble bus.
At CES: In past years, CES has been a car show disguised as a tech conference. This year, automakers seem to be reining in their more outlandish impulses. There aren’t any major reveals expected, with most companies having already unveiled their flagship 2020 EVs at solo events. There will be a handful of autonomous vehicle demonstrations, but those won’t be as exciting as years past. After all, there are real driverless cars on public roads today.
That’s not to say CES will be completely devoid of bonkers automobile concepts. Honda will be unveiling an “augmented driving” concept with a “reinvented” steering wheel. Nissan will have a new electric vehicle, and Hyundai plans on showing off a flying car.
Bonus prediction: Elon Musk will continue to do outlandish things on Twitter, but he will narrowly avoid kicking off lawsuits from the SEC or private citizens — very narrowly.
Rideables: harder, better, faster, stronger
Electric bikes and scooters (and even skateboards to a certain extent) have rapidly become a popular alternative mode of transportation in major cities. Sure, there’s still plenty of debate over whether they’re replacing car trips or just saving people from walking. But their presence nonetheless increased in 2019, and that trend is only likely to continue as we move into 2020 and beyond — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent decision to keep them illegal in the state be damned.
What will change, though, is we’re bound to start seeing these light electric vehicles / rideables / whatever you want to call them evolve into higher forms that are better suited for all this usage. Most importantly that means they’ll get sturdier, especially the e-scooters.
Pretty much all of the scooter-sharing companies are working on developing their own vehicles that are purpose-built for lots of wear and tear, and if they’re not, they’re diversifying away from the commodity scooters that stocked their fleets in the early going. Electric scooters and bikes are also likely to get a little bit smarter and more practical, with better locking systems, kickstands, and wider rollouts of features like dynamic speed limiting.
At CES: Expect a lot of weird stuff, as usual. CES is where we got our first look at things like the ZBoard, a remote-less electric skateboard with pressure-sensitive pads on the deck, or the Inboard, which had a hot-swappable battery. The ideas that make it to the show floor in this space don’t tend to stick around for too long, but they help tease out what could be possible. We’ll also see some things that are much closer to production, like Segway-Ninebot’s entry into the electric motor scooter and moped space.
Bonus prediction: In a bid to differentiate, some of the not-so-top-tier players will try to roll out headline-grabbing technologies, like self-balancing and self-driving features. It’s an idea that’s been talked about for a while in the space, and even toyed with a bit in the real world, so 2020 seems like the moment where some company will try (and likely fail) to make it happen. Besides, startups that want to make a name for themselves are suckers for trying to solve the flashy problems instead of the mundane, but important ones.
2020 is also when we’ll see more wide experimentation with form factor, like seated scooters and three-wheelers. While it won’t be some magical year where cities decide to ban cars in favor of pedestrian pathways and light electric vehicles, maybe the continued rise in popularity will force the hand of one or two cities and make them consider making their streets safer for everyone.
Cameras: DSLR isn’t dead yet
It should be easy to predict where cameras are going in 2020. Common sense says they should be following the same trajectory they have for the past half-decade, where smartphones have largely replaced low-end point-and-shoots and mirrorless cameras have taken the slot where DSLRs used to reign supreme.
But while it’s safe to say the inexpensive point-and-shoot camera is likely never coming back, it seems like the DSLR is the dinosaur that just refuses to die, thanks to the massive inertia of Nikon and Canon. You can expect both companies to continue to invest in their DSLR businesses and product lines, from the entry-level all the way to the pro models, even while they are (finally) hedging their bets with competent mirrorless offerings.
Still, the most interesting things will continue to happen in the mirrorless space, whether it’s Sony pushing the limits of what a 35mm sensor and modern autofocus system can do, Fujifilm keeping one foot in the past while making digital medium format cameras that photographers can actually afford, or Leica continuing to make extravagantly priced pieces of art that are surprisingly competent photographic tools.
Over on the video side, it seems that 360 cameras are weirdly coming back in vogue, though they aren’t designed to create VR content anymore, but rather provide an endless number of angles to choose from while editing. It’ll be really interesting to see if the established companies step into this space to provide a challenge to the DJIs and Insta360s that are currently producing 360 cameras.
At CES: CES isn’t usually a place for major camera news, though it’s likely we’ll see smaller announcements from the likes of Canon and Nikon. It’s possible we’ll also see new products from startups like Insta360.
Bonus prediction: The best video camera most people will have access to will remain the iPhone, and Android phones will still play second fiddle to Apple on video quality and features.
Smart home: the security reckoning is here
If there’s anything that 2019 taught us about the smart home, it’s that security is the most important feature. Not cost, not platform compatibility, not voice commands. And yet it’s the hardest thing for a regular consumer to judge.
There were countless stories about home security cameras from the likes of Nest and Ring getting “hacked,” or at least accessed by someone other than the owner of the camera, with obviously unsettling and scary results.
Going into 2020, it’s clear that the first thing smart home device makers and platform owners should be talking about is how they are making sure their devices and customer accounts are as secure as possible.
Part of that is certainly up to the customer. It’s imperative to use unique passwords for smart home device accounts and set up extra levels of security such as two-factor authentication. But as we’ve seen from Motherboard’s excellent analysis of Ring’s security, the device makers have a lot to do on their end, as well.
Despite being around for nearly a decade, the modern, do-it-yourself smart home is still nascent, with countless issues around usability, setup, interoperability, reliability, and longevity. There are some recent efforts to correct some of those issues, but it will take time for them to develop and it’s still up in the air whether they will fix any of the problems at all.
But none of that matters if people aren’t going to buy into the smart home because they are (rightfully) concerned about security issues.
At CES: You can expect to see a lot of new smart home gadgets announced at CES, such as lightbulbs, switches, smart plugs, and the other various bolt-on accessories that have made up the smart home market over the past few years. Some will be more important than others in the long term, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see any real game-changing smart home tech this year.
Bonus prediction: The backlash against Ring’s products, primarily video doorbells and indoor and outdoor security cameras, will not have a meaningful effect on the popularity and use of them. Though there has been a wealth of reporting around Ring’s close partnerships with local police departments, the prevalence of issues with Ring’s Neighbors app, and the fact that crime rates are at the lowest they’ve been in decades, Amazon (which owns Ring) will continue to aggressively promote the devices and will sell many more units in 2020.
Headphones: cancel this noise
So many headphones now come equipped with voice assistants, Bluetooth connectivity, and even USB-C that it’s hard to imagine where they could go next. Sure, premium features will inevitably trickle down to midrange headphones, but what’s the new frontier at the premium end?
One area where wireless headphones still have some work to do is with the pairing process. With its W1 and H1 chips, Apple has shown that it’s possible to make pairing a set of wireless headphones as easy as plugging in a 3.5mm audio jack, and you have to imagine that other audio companies are hard at work on their own solutions.
Yes, Apple has a degree of control over its headphones (not to mention the phones that they pair with) that most other headphone companies can only dream of, but with most Android phones and many wireless headphones sporting Qualcomm chipsets, it’s not unreasonable to think that a competitor is possible.
At CES: In the shorter term, near the top of our wish list is support for Qualcomm’s new AptX Adaptive standard, which it announced just over a year ago. It’s not the most exciting of technologies, but by doing things like compressing your audio’s bit rate when you’re in an area with a lot of audio interference, it has the potential to make wireless audio that much more reliable. Bowers and Wilkins’ PX7 headphones were the first consumer headphones to come with support for the standard earlier this year, and we hope to see more companies join it at CES.
Bonus prediction: A wave of noise-canceling true wireless headphones is all but inevitable now that Apple has added the technology to the latest version of its AirPods. Sure, Apple wasn’t the first to embrace the feature (I mean, when is it ever first to anything?), but the company inspires imitators like no one else.