The most important trends which are defining CES 2014

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is turning out to be a blockbuster – and with good reason. Last year's attendance topped a record 150,000, and every indication is that this year will match or exceed that number. And you would think that with Mobile World Congress looming in February, we'd see little action in the mobile space, but that's not the case.

So what's hot on the CES floor this year? It's positively littered with tablets, convertible laptops, phones, fitness gadgets, cameras, HDTVs, and cars – you name it, and you'll find a ton of it here.

CES is not only a good indicator of what's hot, but it's also indicative of what's dead. For example, Vizio made a big splash with its 2014 HDTV line-up, which lacks 3D support – a far cry from what you would have seen just a year ago. Consumers largely hated it, so now it's either buried in a submenu or gone altogether.

Manufacturers aren't giving up on smartwatches yet; it was pretty clear 2013 was a trial run, and better designs are definitely in store for 2014. And while hybrid tablet and laptop designs are all the rage this year, conventional laptops and desktops are few and far between.

Even as vendors show off their latest hardware, it's still clear that software leads in terms of overall importance. There's an increased emphasis on apps and services, and which devices are compatible with the ones that mean the most to you. A product could have a killer design or stand-out feature, but if it doesn't work with the apps and services you use, it's a non-starter.

It turns out there's still plenty of room for innovation. Basically, if you think we've already seen everything, hold onto your seat – and perhaps your credit card. From car tech to wearables, in this article we’re going to give you the full rundown on the hottest trends at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. Most of this stuff isn't available at this moment, but it's going to be soon, so get ready.

Connected cars

One of the biggest stories at the show this year is the connected car – nine automakers have shown up to showcase their latest tech, which is a record for CES. Considering that the North American International Auto Show takes place the very next week in Detroit, it signals an increasing emphasis on in-car technologies.

The offerings are all over the map, with laser headlights on the Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight concept (pictured above), 4G LTE-equipped cars, performance action cameras, and pumped-up infotainment systems being just some of the trends we've seen. There was plenty of talk about in-car smartphone integration, particularly from Google, but now we're seeing more capabilities being built directly into the cars themselves. Another running theme: Over-the-air or otherwise modular updates that let you upgrade your infotainment capabilities during the entire time you own the car, and as new apps and services hit the market.

Wearable tech

Wearables were huge at CES this year. It's a huge category – dominated by fitness gadgets, but also containing smartwatches, sports gear, augmented reality glasses, and other hard-to-categorise items with wildly varied feature sets and purposes. Pebble may have the first truly desirable smartwatch with the classy-looking Steel, while Garmin and LG are challenging FitBit and Withings with new fitness bands (the Garmin Vivofit is pictured above). Epson has both a fitness band and a pair of smart glasses, and even Intel is getting in the game with its own smartwatch. Wearable tech dovetails with digital health, and is ideal for monitoring your personal wellness and achieving fitness goals – and judging by the popularity of the gadgets already on the market, look for this category to explode even further as 2014 rolls on (for more, see our in-depth look at how wearable technology will develop in 2014).

4K falls to Earth, gets (almost) real

The move to Ultra HD video is in full swing, with many more 4K UHD TVs at far more reasonable prices than last year's five-digit early adopter sets. That said, for most consumers, they're still not cheap enough. We're also seeing a few prosumer-level 4K camcorders.

So why say "almost" real? There's still a giant missing piece of the 4K puzzle, namely content. It's not like 3D, where there was virtually no good content to watch; there are in fact many movies already shot in 4K. But given bandwidth limitations, getting that content into your home and watching it is another story, and whether it's by disc, by streaming Netflix, watching YouTube, or another method, it's still too early to tell just how that's going to play out.

Toy robot revolution

Robot toys are suddenly big, now that the technology is there and prices are coming down. Products like the Orbotix Sphero 2B (pictured above), the Ozobot, and Anki Drive let you control and play with robotic gadgets wirelessly and control them from your smartphone or tablet. Enterprising developers can even program unique apps that work with the robots in new and exciting ways. Several of them are promising support for multiplayer gaming, assuming you can afford to buy several ‘bots. Put it this way: We've come a long way from the 1980s-era cassette-based Omnibot.

Steam Machines

Valve's SteamOS is finally a thing – and it turns out that it's actually a lot of things, as Alienware and numerous other vendors showed off a variety of Steam Machine prototypes, which will be capable of playing the latest 3D games on an HDTV without the need for discs. Each of the machines here at CES will run SteamOS and will work with the company's upcoming Steam Controller. The designs are pretty varied, and range from the size of a small set-top box to a gargantuan tower PC. Expected prices are all over the map as well, ranging from $499 (£300) to a whopping $6,000 (£3,600) depending on the configuration. We never thought we'd say this a year ago, but it's possible that SteamOS, rather than the Wii U, will be the big "third" competitor in the living room next to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Curved displays

The 6in LG G Flex is a real curved smartphone, and it actually works – you come to appreciate the display as you hold it against your face for calls. On the other end of the size scale, mammoth curved OLED HDTV screens from LG and Samsung (pictured above) grabbed a lot of eyeballs on the show floor, including ours. What will they look like in a living room with people sat around them? It's too early to say if consumers will take to these, but even if not, OLED technology itself will lead the charge to ever thinner and brighter displays.

Hybrid computers

Windows 8.1 may have improved the troubled operating system’s usability, but the focus is still on touch. That leaves us with a question: Do you want a tablet or a laptop? How about both in one device? That seemingly simple idea is actually quite complicated, as there are dozens of ways to design a combination of the two. And it seems like all the major PC vendors are trying every possible one, with the Asus Transformer Book Duet (pictured above) being just one of many examples. Basically, people love tablets, but sometimes still need to type on a hardware keyboard; the question is whether a single device can handle that. In the face of steadily declining desktop and laptop PC sales, it's an important question to ask.

Bigger everything

By the looks of it, the continuous miniaturisation of consumer electronics is history. Now it's about screen size and use cases. Toshiba unveiled the first 13in Chromebook, Samsung showed off the 12.2in Galaxy NotePRO (pictured above), and 6in phones are appearing in increasing numbers. Many Apple phone fans are now clamouring for larger iPhones, even as the company strove to make the handset smaller and thinner. HDTVs in 60in and 65in sizes are in high demand, and we're seeing sets all the way up to 120in now. Bigger is better at CES 2014, it would seem.