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CES Preview: Mobile Technology Will Dominate Everything

Tablets

Tablets will be everywhere at CES. I expect to encounter a wide range of screen sizes, from the 5-inch displays of oversize phones/miniature tablets to screens with diagional measurements of 10.1 inches or more. And we'll probably see many different features in these tablets (stand-alone GPS! waterproof! 3D!).

Judging from Google's strategy to allow all comers to license Android 4.0, 2012 will be the year of the budget tablet. Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS-based tablets were limited to top-tier manufacturers, but lots of others are taking advantage of the opportunity to play in the Android 4.0 sandbox. This development should yield a deluge of Android 4.0 tablets; some, like those from Efun and the new Acer Iconia A200, have been announced in advance of the show, while others will be announced at the show. Asus says that during the show it will roll out an Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update to its Eee Pad Transformer Prime.

Android 4.0's blanketing approach will ultimately benefit consumers: It encourages competition and invites more options, as well as lower prices overall. It also means that you'll have to be smart about what you're purchasing, in order to avoid buying a clunker that touts its shiny new Android 4.0 OS, but may contain subpar components elsewhere that slow the tablet experience to a crawl.

For tablet makers, Android 4.0 isn't the only big selling point this year. The other is Windows 8. I've received word of several Windows 8 tablets that will be shown (though some may be behind closed doors only), and smaller vendors are already touting "Windows 8-ready" tablets, a designation that presumably means the tablet has the guts and screen resolution needed to run Windows 8. --Melissa J. Perenson

HDTVs

Most of the really interesting HDTV-related stuff that I expect to see at CES this year will involve experimental or otherwise not-ready-for-market TV tech demos. The actual 2012 lineup, meanwhile, will consist largely of unimpressive incremental updates to last year's sets. In other words, the theme for the show in the HDTV category will be "Bet You Can't Wait Until 2013!"

Last year's CES was a stellar one for HDTV enthusiasts: Internet-connected features took off, passive 3D TVs appeared on the scene for folks who weren't willing to endure the headache of active-shutter 3D TVs, and LED edge-lit sets flooded the market from entry level to high end. Aside from the occasional glasses-free 3D TV, however, there wasn't much in the way of promising prototype TV tech--just a solid batch of improvements in existing tech.

Consider LG's upcoming 55-inch OLED TV. Undoubtedly it will look beyond beautiful, and the new manufacturing process that the company used to achieve its extralarge size will (I hope) help reduce OLED manufacturing costs dramatically. But bear in mind that LG's 15-inch OLED TV from 2010 debuted at $2700--the same price as a top-of-the-line 55-inch LED TV.

Likewise, people have been working on glasses-free ("autostereoscopic") 3D TV for a long time, and we've seen prototype sets at CES for several years now. This year I expect some manufacturer to show off an almost-market-ready glasses-free 3D TV that is as watchable as a normal TV--and it will probably reappear at CES 2013, with a projected release date and a price tag.

I predict that the HDTV industry will focus this year on improving the TV-watching experience, not on hugely upgrading the TVs themselves. Though TV manufacturers won't have a lot of new ways to boost their HDTV specs, they may try to make their image-tweaking options more user-friendly (and include even more useful preset modes). They won't be able to add many new content channels to their streaming video catalog, but they will be working on touchscreen remotes and smartphone/tablet apps that make searching and navigating through your many options easier. All in all, you can expect to get more TV from your buck in 2012--but don't plan on seeing much shiny new tech this year. --Patrick Miller

Laptops

If 2010 and 2011 were years when portable computing was all about smartphones and tablets, 2012 may be the year that laptops make a comeback. Laptop makers are moving away from "cheap junk" laptops with bargain basement prices and striving for higher-quality systems, emphasizing thin-and-light designs, better materials, and enhanced usability.

The stars of the show, where laptops are concerned, will be Ultrabooks. Only a few Ultrabooks had reached market by the end of 2011, but we'll see dozens of models debuting throughout 2012. Many will be configured with CPUs from Intel's upcoming line code-named "Ivy Bridge," which resembles today's Sandy Bridge Core i5 and i7 processors, but with improved graphics capabilities and lower power use. The improvements should make Ivy Bridge perfect for thinner, lighter laptops. In addition to dozens of new laptops from current manufacturers, we may see one or two companies entering the field for the first time. Like Razer with its Blade gaming laptop, companies better known for other categories of tech products may sense an opportunity in the laptop PC market.

I hope to see at least one Ultrabook with discrete graphics. It doesn't have to be high-end--even a modest GPU from Nvidia or AMD would easily outclass the integrated graphics in Intel's chips, even with the improvements in Ivy Bridge. I'd much rather see discrete graphics than an optical drive, and I know companies will be building Ultrabooks with those. Laptops equipped with responsive touchscreens, in preparation for Windows 8, would be nice another treat at CES 2012. Whatever the laptop manufacturers have to announce, I hope it doesn't involve stuffing thick, heavy plastic machines with an array of parts to produce the cheapest laptop possible. Let's hope that the days of the crappy $500 laptop are behind us.

Windows 8 looms large over the whole PC industry, including laptops. Though it's unlikely to be released until the latter half of the year, the OS is probably going to very big--or at least heavily marketed. New Windows releases tend to possess a halo effect that lifts PC sales; and since Windows 8 is the most dramatic change to Windows in the last few years, the lift this time around could be larger than usual. With any luck, we'll see an updated version of Windows 8 at CES that will give us a hint about what's in store for us in February when the public beta appears. We may even get an early peek at laptops or convertible tablets designed with Windows 8 in mind. --Jason Cross

For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2012.

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