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Tom's Hardware's CES 2015 Top Picks

Viva Las Vegas!

CES is largely a show for mass market consumer tech, and your Tom’s Hardware editors spend their time here in Las Vegas each year searching high and low for technology that will appeal to enthusiasts. Those products can be difficult to find amongst the soul-shattering abundance of Bluetooth speakers and smartphone cases. We found a few worthy of your attention, but we also found some plain-old fun stuff, too.

This isn’t the exhibition for new motherboards or graphics cards necessarily, but we did see our share of cases and gaming systems and peripherals. We saw some storage products, even new SSDs from Crucial and Samsung, and while they were good, they didn’t show the kind of innovation we look for in these awards.

Some of the more promising work is coming from the virtual reality space. Several of us saw the Oculus Crescent Bay with VR sound — the folks at Oculus told us that the hardware aspect of the product is pretty well locked in, and it truly feels like it. But we also saw some fascinating innovation from the likes of 3DRudder and a company called Sixense. For better or worse, what follows is a quick peek at some of the more intriguing things we saw, price be damned.

Best Audio Device

Creative Sound Blaster X7

We weren't expecting to see any PC audio equipment that would cause us to do a double-take, but that's what Creative delivered with its Sound Blaster X7. A relatively small device, the X7 packs a surprisingly big punch thanks to a built-in 100 Watt amplifier. There are no speakers included, though - that amplifier is built to drive whatever the user decides to attach to it. Plug in your favorite choice, from Klipsch, B&W, Polk, Bose or whatever suits your fancy. All of it is driven by Creative's top-of-the-line Sound Blaster Axx-1 audio processor with a 24-bit/192kHz high resolution 127db USB DAC. Of course, it's well featured with NFC Bluetooth support for wireless sound sources, digital optical TOSLINK and RCA line-in inputs and outputs, a speaker impedance selection between 8 and 4 ohm, and the list goes on and on. It's a nifty bridge product between traditional PC speaker systems and high-end audio equipment, and we like what it offers.

Best Automotive Technology

Parrot RNB6

There were plenty of promising automotive developments at CES this year, notably Nvidia’s big push with its Drive CX, but we think it’s hard to beat the Parrot RNB6 for practical innovation. The RNB6 is a double-DIN, after-market in-dash head unit with a 7-inch HD screen. It runs Android 5.0 (Lollipop), but it can use Android Auto or Apple CarPlay to make use of your phone, instead. The RNB6 includes navigation, dashcam, OBDII without an expensive adapter, and integrates HVAC controls, and it includes WiFi, Ethernet, two USB ports and HDMI. There are some attractive touch capabilities for audio control, including the ability to precision-tune the equalizer and speakers. It’s also shallow enough that it will be easier to install in cars with limited space. Well done Parrot!

Best Case

SilverStone Raven RVZ02

SilverStone launched its Raven RVZ01 enclosure about a year ago, and it has since received a lot of community feedback. Among the top comments was that the issue that the case styling seemed too last-gen, and it was difficult to build in the cramped interior space, yet it was still somehow too big.

At CES 2015, SilverStone showcased its Raven RVZ02, which follows in the footsteps of the original Raven, but lives parallel to the RVZ01 in the company's product stack. It is a much smaller case,  and it's easier to build in and features a much more contemporary in design. On the inside, you’ve still got room for a Mini-ITX motherboard, full-size dual-slot graphics card, slim CPU cooler, SFX power supply, two 2.5-inch drives and a slim optical drive — more than enough for most user’s desktops.

Because SilverStone appears to have hit all nails on the head, we’re giving the prototype an award. The company listened to its customers, and we believe the Raven RVZ02 will be a fine product when it launches, sometime around Computex later this year.

Best Displays

HP Z34c, Envy 34c And Zvr Virtual Reality Display

We know what you’re thinking: It’s cheating to give three monitors a "Best "Display” award, but there were loads of excellent displays peppering CES this year. Specifically, there were a number of curved displays that all seemed to be about on par with one another. HP’s two curved displays stood out a bit because of their fancy speakers. Screen-wise, it's something of a wash between all the curved models, and that bit of differentiation gives HP a bump.

Meanwhile, the HP Zvr display (pictured) was truly impressive. In a hands-on demo, we found the 3D  experience to be engaging, crisp, intuitive and completely nausea-free.

Taken together, HP deserves recognition for its spate of innovative displays at this year’s CES. We wouldn’t deign to select just one.

Best Gaming Accessory

SteelSeries Sentry Eye Tracker

When SteelSeries announced its Sentry eye-tracking system (built in partnership with Tobii), we weren’t exactly sure what to make of the technology. At the time, it appeared to be solely geared toward professional gamers who need to know how their eyes behave in order to figure out how many distractions they had, where they tracked, and so on.

At CES 2015, however, Tobii showcased the SteelSeries Sentry with another purpose: separating the action point in games from the camera direction.

The demonstration showed a typical third-person game, where the mouse is used to point your character in any given direction. But with the Sentry enabled, if you simply look anywhere on the screen (with your eyes) and right-click, you would activate the object that your eyes focused on (rather than the position of the mouse cursor).

The learning curve wasn’t steep at all, and it definitely added a nifty level of immersion, making the Sentry among the more impressive tech demos we saw at the show.

Best Gaming Peripheral

Razer Turrret

Razer intends to change the living room gaming experience with its Forge TV and Cortex Stream software. With the Turret gaming lapboard and mouse, Razer hopes to attract PC gamers to the living room by presenting them an accessory that puts a familiar face on a new product.

The lapboard's foldable design makes it easy to store for travel in its small dock, and it has a rubberized bottom to prevent slippage when placed on your lap. The chiclet-style keyboard feels great, requiring a very light touch. The ambidextrous magnetic mouse and mousepad, which remove the issue of the mouse slipping off your lap, are by far the Turret's greatest features.

Razer identified the biggest issues of having a keyboard and mouse on your lap, then created a solution that is both comfortable and compact. The Turret is an intriguing gaming peripheral from Razor as well as a great foundation for future lapboards from other manufacturers.

Best Gaming System

Digital Storm Aventum 3

After a week at CES spent in part visiting various system builders, deciding on a gaming system winner wasn’t hard: Digital Storm took the cake for its Aventum 3. This system is still in the prototyping phase, but looks like a finished product, and it's loaded with traffic-stopping features.

We’d like to point out that chances are you cannot build this system yourself. Sure, you can get the CPU and the graphics card and slap those into a case for much less dough, but Digital Storm designed its own custom case, which is engineered especially for water cooling. The water cooling tubes run behind the motherboard tray, and the bottom of the case acts as a radiator area. It's all so neatly wired that even the side panel behind the motherboard tray necessitates a window (pictured). Digital Storm even bent its own hard tubes. Looking at the Aventum 3 and speaking with the company's builders, it’s clear that a lot of passion went into this machine.

A starting price of $3000, with the showcased model estimated to come in at about $6000, is no easy price tag to swallow. But who cares? This thing is a spaceship.

Best Laptop

Lenovo X1 Carbon

When Lenovo revealed the last generation of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, many of us were excited over some of the new design choices. When it came out, however, we were quite disappointed in the touch-based function keys, and the new trackpad with its integrated TrackPoint buttons didn’t raise too many cheekbones either. Indeed, Lenovo was frank and told us that customers didn't like it.

The new ThinkPads have taken a step back to the past and returned to the individual trackpad buttons, which is something that we're sincerely pleased to see. Additionally, Lenovo also brought back the normal F-keys, with real scissor switches. (Thanks for listening, Lenovo!)

The new X1 Carbon will come with an Intel U-series Broadwell processor, which will also deliver even more battery life. Altogether, it seems that the Lenovo X1 Carbon is one of the better Ultrabooks that money can buy — that is, when it hits the market.

Best Manufacturing Concept

CapTherm Systems

CapTherm Systems encountered a unique engineering problem while designing the MP1120 multiphase CPU cooler. It needed to weld three dissimilar metals - copper for the baseplate, 304L stainless steel for the water block (to allow the glass window to be fusion-welded into place), and aluminum for the heatsink. The system needed to be hermetically sealed, and standard bonding methods like laser and electron beam welding wouldn’t work.

Undaunted, CapTherm Systems took the next logical step by using high explosives and diesel fuel to create an explosion-welded alloy. Sheets of the three raw materials are stacked on top of each other and then surrounded by the volatile mixture. The concussive force of the ensuing explosion then fuses the metal layers together. Can you think of a more awesome way to create a PC component than by explosion?

Best Mobile Gaming Peripheral

Mad Catz L.Y.N.X. 9 Mobile Controller

Mad Catz' take on a mobile gaming controller feels like the evolutionary step that mobile gaming needed. Placing games on a mobile clip is nothing new, but the L.Y.N.X. 9 can also separate into three parts to fit on the top and sides of a tablet for a comfortable gaming experience. A tiny mousepad and attachable keyboard allow the controller to be used for casual browsing on the device.

While it's primarily used for mobile games, it can also be used for PC games or as a media player. With such a wide variety of uses and its unique design, the L.Y.N.X. 9 is unlike any mobile controller we’ve seen at CES, and it has the potential to attract mobile gamers with a controller that not only feels great in their hands, but also fits well with any mobile device or tablet.