CES 2021: CNET's best of show

Flashy three-story booths and auditoriums full of tech nerds were replaced with highly-produced livestreams and virtual pitches from executives dialing in from their home offices and kitchen tables. But in the end, it was still CES.

We got our first look at what are likely to become some of the most popular TVs and laptops of 2021. We saw ambitious ideas and concepts for products that may never come to market but could inspire future product designers to keep dreaming. And, of course, we were entertained by the usual robots, flights of fancy and head-scratching oddities.

One thing that will forever distinguish CES 2021 was how many companies showed us their efforts to address the global pandemic, in ways large and small. Cynics would say that some of it was pure marketing. But there was no doubt that some of the best minds in the tech industry have been putting braincycles into solving society's problems and doing service to humanity.

Of all the products we saw, from the most ambitious to the most helpful, these were the ones that stood out:

High-tech N95 mask from Razer

Gaming company Razer showed off a concept (called "Project Hazel") for a high-tech face mask with active ventilation, a clear shield to see people speaking and a case that recharges the ventilators and does UV sanitization of the mask as it's charging. It also has LED lights on it and looks like it's straight out of the pages of sci-fi.

HP Dragonfly Max, with a 5MP webcam

Among the powerful laptops at CES 2021, we noted the HP Dragonfly Max for its built-in Tile tracker, attractive blue design and the fact it is one of the only new laptops to include an upgraded 5 megapixel webcam with four wide-range microphones. In the age of Zoom, a lot of people will welcome those upgrades.

LG Rollable

In one of the first press conferences of CES 2021, we got a peak at a smartphone display that rolls upward to expand the viewing area of the screen. Like foldable phones, it looks amazingly futuristic, but doesn't have a ton of obvious benefits. However, CNET's Roger Cheng has confirmed that this wasn't just a concept but is a product LG plans to bring to market in 2021.

Cadillac eVTOL Air Taxi

GM used CES to announce that it's transforming itself into an EV company. And, by far, the most interesting EV announced was the Cadillac eVTOL air taxi. It's more of a giant drone than a flying car, but this is the kind of stuff that the CES audience loves.

Samsung Solar-Powered Remote

The 800-pound gorilla of CES, Samsung, showed off plenty of new TVs, but the thing that really caught our attention was something much simpler -- its new solar-powered TV remote. No more replacing and throwing away alkaline batteries. Instead, you can flip the remote over and let it charge from the mini solar panel on the back (or plug it into a USB-C port).

LG Transparent OLED Display Concept

Speaking of TVs, LG had one of the flashiest demos of CES 2021 with its transparent OLED TVs, as expected. While this is a still concept, LG showed off some impressive real world scenarios of this tech in action on train windows, restaurant partitions and one that hid away in the footboard of a bed.

TCL TVs expand to 85-inches and 8K

In terms of TVs people will actually buy soon, TCL announced new 85-inch and 8K TVs. The popular TV maker is likely to be competitive on cost and make both 85 inches and 8K more affordable for a lot more people in 2021. The timing is obviously great since the vast majority of people are getting 100% of their entertainment at home right now.

Nobi fall-sensing ceiling lamp

Senior citizens have been one of the at-risk groups during the pandemic and a product meant to help them is what may be the smartest ceiling lamp we've ever seen, called Nobi. It uses sensors and AI for active monitoring and can detect falls and other risks and then send alerts. It even has a built-in smoke detector, air quality sensor and a 4G SIM card in case Wi-Fi goes down.

Alarm.com Touchless Video Doorbell

Instead of pushing a button, this new doorbell from Alarm.com uses a doormat and AI to detect when someone has arrived at your doorstep, and lets you talk to them through an app with the built-in camera and microphone. It's a touchless system for the age of corona.

Samsung Robot Butler (Bot Handy)

Surprisingly, the Samsung keynote at this year's CES had a lot more robots than TVs or gadgets. The most intriguing one was the Bot Handy robot butler, which can help with tasks around the house and bring you something to drink. The demo video showed it taking dishes out of the sink and loading them into a dishwasher. We haven't seen this kind of a stir from CES attendees since the laundry folding robot teased us a few years ago.

Acer Chromebook Spin 514

With Chromebooks becoming the center of education for so many elementary and middle school students right now, a CES 2021 product that many parents will appreciate is the Acer Chromebook Spin 514. It has the looks of a jet and the body of a tank. With a Gorilla Glass screen and MIL-STD 810H1 compliance, it's got an indestructible vibe.

Kohler Touchless Toilet

Potty humor arrived at CES the last few years with more and more smart bathroom tech, and 2021 didn't disappoint with a Kohler toilet that features a magic handle. Simply wave your hand in front of the handle and it will flush automatically. Like the touchless doorbell we mentioned earlier, this is aimed at cutting down on the spread of germs from common surfaces.

Samsung JetBot 90 AI

Another Samsung robot was its AI-powered vacuum cleaner that is loaded with lidar and cameras to make it smarter and more automated than traditional robot vacuums. The JetBot 90 AI also doubles as a roving security camera to keep an eye on your pets and your house when you're away -- for when that day comes that we all eventually leave our homes again.

Infinity Game Table

One of the most fun things at CES this year was the Infinity Game Table, which digitizes some of the world's most popular board games onto a touchscreen table. You can play digital Monopoly against a family member or roommate and no one has to be the banker. You can even play against other friends and family members online, if they have their own table.