Lessons learned at my first CES

Like a particularly hectic tornado, the International Consumer Electronics Show has come and gone, leaving a trail of prototypes, press kits, and tired bloggers in its wake—including yours truly. Yes, despite impossible odds, both staff editor Alexandra Chang and I managed to leave Las Vegas with (most of) our wits about us. And while I won’t regale you about the magic of yet another iPhone accessory, it felt only appropriate to drum up some thoughts about my virgin tour of the trade show.

Whatever you imagine, it will probably be bigger and more absurd than you think it is

Semi-sentient iOS robots? Sure, why not.

This year was my first covering CES, and though many colleagues chimed in with warnings, provisos, and suggestions, there is really nothing quite like experiencing the madness of the 1.861 million square feet of show floor for yourself. And though I managed to walk down pretty much every aisle of North, Central, and South Hall during my three days there, I missed out on the outdoor pavilions, random hotel meeting rooms, and several floors of the Venetian Hotel, which featured even more CES exhibtors.

Without question, CES is incomprehensibly immense. We were lucky in that we were mainly looking for Apple-related accessories and gadgets: We navigated the show floor somewhat like a Florida retiree, scanning for gold—one hall a day, one row at a time, keeping an eye out for anything interesting. (Our colleagues from PCWorld, who cover most every type of gadget the show purports to show off, were less fortunate.) I’m very thankful, in any case, to have stuck to one hall a day: The travel time from hall to hall alone is much like attempting to go on foot from one end of a city to another.

Parties are nice, but a full night’s rest is essential

Sure, a business trip to Las Vegas may sound swank, but after a full day wandering the show floor—and hurriedly writing up interesting gizmos—there’s really no shame in room service and an early bedtime. (Well, unless you mention it on Twitter.) You may miss spotting Snookie at a party, but at least you won’t yawn embarrassingly when vendors attempt to explain the intricacies of their patented technology.

You don’t need nearly as many gadgets on the floor as you think you do (but battery packs—and Verizon hotspots—are life-savers)

External battery packs are my new friends.

When Alexandra and I got in on Monday, we trekked around the press events and Tuesday’s show floor excursion with laptops, iPhones, and DSLRs. Not only did this both make us feel like pack mules and destroy our shoulders, but we weren’t using 90 percent of what we’d brought. On Wednesday, I ditched everything but my iPhone and two tiny battery extenders, and managed to file stories, snap hands-on photos, and edit video all day—no shoulder pain required.

Yes, I still love my DSLR and my MacBook Air—but on a trade show floor, the iPhone 4S isn’t too shabby.

You will have no room in your bag to accept anything but thumb drives

If I wanted information that was only on paper, I usually just took a snapshot of it.

After Macworld Expo last year, I made a rule for myself: No paper press kits or review samples. This year—with the exception of a few styluses and iPhone cases—I managed to limit myself to business cards, websites, and thumb drives. This was largely thanks to savvy vendors and product representatives who understand that their products are a lot easier to write about when that information is readily accessible.

As for the three exhibitors who attempted to give me a CD for my 11-inch MacBook Air: You know who you are.

Meet with the vendors you know, but venture off the beaten path to find the diamonds in the rough

There’s plenty of pomp and circumstance at CES. In Central Hall alone, I found myself so dazzled by the gigantically colorful HDTVs and plush poppy field-like carpeting that it was hard not to want to curl up in a corner of the booth and stay there all day. But rewards await those who power through, and in my travels, I managed to find and meet with dozens of fascinating vendors with booths one tenth the size of the larger exhibitors.

Part of this was the willingness to walk through sections of the show floor I expected would have nothing to do with Apple. We had a pre-show list of 200 or so vendors we planned to visit, but we still walked the length and breadth of of the floor, and in doing so, met a whole slew of up-and-coming entrepreneurs with products to pay attention to. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have discovered the inductive iPad charger in the middle of the home automation exhibit, or new stylus makers next to robotics.

Look into the abyss of televisions, and the abyss will stare back at you.

And, you know what? That was actually the best part of CES. Through all the over-hyped excitement, lavish parties, and giveaways, my best interactions were with vendors I’d never heard of—companies we now know to keep an eye on. Sure, CES may be bloated and overwrought; the rows and rows of off-brand Chinese tablets can sometimes make you worry about the future of humanity; and attending feels a little bit like running a tech marathon. But those little interactions are worth it. For as wonderful as technology is, some interactions with it are better in person.

Though next time, maybe I’ll avoid the hall of giant headache-inducing 3D televisions.

[Serenity Caldwell is a staff editor for Macworld. She's now going to go sleep for an entire weekend.]

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