2011's Hottest Tech: CES and Beyond

Hybrid laptops! Smarter smartphones! Everything in 3D! From CES in January to next holiday season, 2011 promises some phenomenal new gear.

Here and Almost Here

Every new year seems to start with a burst of technological advances--an impression no doubt promoted by the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. A multitude of product manufacturers unveil their pet projects at CES--both finished items and conceptual works-in-progress. Here's a look at some of the things we can't wait to get our hands on (or otherwise experience) in the days and months ahead.

Check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2011.

Android 2.3 Gingerbread--and Later

The most recent current release of Google’s Android mobile operating system--code-named Gingerbread--may be looking to replace your credit card. Android 2.3 is the first iteration of the OS to support near-field communication (NFC) chips, meaning that you could use a smartphone running Gingerbread as a “swipable” payment device.

Among Gingerbread’s other intriguing new features are native support for Voice-over-IP calling, manual control over front-facing and back-facing cameras, simpler cut-and-paste controls, and improved power management.

The Samsung Nexus S (shown here) is the first cell phone to offer Gingerbread out of the box, but it most assuredly won’t be the last. Prepare for a wave of Android 2.3-loaded smartphones to reach stores by the middle of 2011 and perhaps earlier.

Also on the way is a tablet-specific version of the Android operating system--Android 3.0 (“Honeycomb”)--which Google recently demonstrated on an unannounced, iPad-like Motorola tablet at the D: Dive Into Mobile Conference in San Francisco. Will devices powered by Honeycomb make up ground on Apple’s runaway iPad market share? That outcome certainly seems possible, as long as the devices themselves are up to snuff.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2

The Micro Four-Thirds system of interchangeable-lens compact cameras continues to evolve, and the Panasonic Lumix GF2 represents an impressive combination of the camera line’s best features: It’s small, it boasts lightning-fast autofocus, it has both touchscreen and hardware controls for focusing and menu navigation, and it shoots 3D still images when paired with Panasonic’s separately sold H-FT012 3D lens. Throw in a pop-up flash and the ability to record 1920-by-1080 AVCHD video at 60 interlaced frames per second, and this portable powerhouse qualifies as a worthy rival to the similarly slim Sony Alpha NEX-5.

LTE Networks

The next generation of wireless networks is upon us. Sprint was the first major carrier to offer 4G (WiMax) service in the United States, but Long Term Evolution--the flavor of 4G that is most likely to dominate the market for high-speed wireless--has only recently begun to roll out. Verizon activated the service in 39 cities on December 5, and the carrier claims that the new network will pump out download speeds of between 5 megabits per second and 12 mbps--ten times as fast as 3G data service. Verizon LTE should be available in virtually all U.S. markets by the end of 2013.

Right now, consumers can access LTE service on their laptop using a 3G/4G USB stick from Verizon. Verizon says that the first LTE phones for its network will go on sale by mid-2011. Beyond that, LTE radios will begin showing up in all kinds of mobile devices, from tablets to video cameras.

LTE service will make existing mobile apps run much faster. The picture quality of streaming video will improve significantly. Videoconferencing will be smoother. Downloading files and loading Web pages will be far less tedious. Verizon and other service providers hope that many new apps capable of fully exploiting 4G speeds will emerge.

Intel Sandy Bridge

Intel’s next generation of Core i5 and i7 processors, code-named Sandy Bridge, represents a significant step forward. A new CPU core brings revised vector instructions and emphasizes energy efficiency, too. The new integrated GPU, built into the silicon along with the CPU, may be Sandy Bridge’s most important advance. The processor is dramatically faster and more capable than anything Intel has shipped before.

At CES 2011, Taiwanese manufacturer Micro-Star International was the first to display a batch of laptops that run the the new processors.

Eye-Fi Direct Mode

Eye-Fi’s next-generation wireless SD Card might help dedicated digital cameras recapture market share from camera-equipped cell phones--with a little smartphone help. Eye-Fi’s new Direct Mode creates a link between a camera and a cell phone, transferring photos in real time from the camera to the handset. And though the peer-to-peer connection is based on Wi-Fi, you don’t need a hotspot to make the camera-to-phone transfer.

Google Chrome OS

Designed for portability, speed, and security, Google Chrome OS will rely almost entirely on Web apps and cloud-based storage. For an app preview, check out the Chrome Web Store. Chrome OS won’t officially hit the market until mid-2011, but Google is running a pilot program where you can apply to get a CR-48, the first Chrome OS laptop. This 12.1-inch, 3G-equipped notebook comes with a Webcam, a solid-state drive, and a battery life of 8 hours; it’s likely to serve as a model for future Chrome OS-based machines.

AMD Brazos

The latest ultraportable platform from AMD, code-named Brazos, features two new chips (code-named Ontario and Zacate). They integrate single- and dual-core CPUs that should outperform Intel’s competing Atom, as well as an impressive DirectX 11–capable GPU, all on the same piece of silicon. Brazos should be a popular option for a flood of more-capable netbooks and inexpensive ultraportable laptops.

Dell Inspiron Duo

Dell’s new netbook/tablet hybrid pulls double duty with its nifty flip-around capacitive touchscreen. The Inspiron Duo runs Windows 7 Home Premium and boasts a dual-core 1.5GHz Intel Atom processor with 2GB of RAM. But its marquee feature is a swiveling 10.1-inch screen that instantly converts the device from a clamshell-style netbook into a touchscreen tablet. There’s even a docking audio station for transforming it into a digital jukebox or picture frame.

Nintendo 3DS

The Nintendo 3DS handheld won’t be as fast as a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360, and it won’t let you play older DS and DSi games in 3D. But it will do lots of cool stuff. The 3DS looks stunning, with a spectacular 800-by-240, 3D-capable widescreen and a second, 320-by-240 touchscreen, all housed in an 8.1-ounce package. It will let you take 3D pictures with dual cameras, play “augmented reality” games, and see new games and native software in 3D without special glasses. The handheld’s widescreen will allow you to manually adjust the depth of its 3D effect--and even knock the action down to regular 2D if you don’t need the extra dimension.

Acer Iconia

With its clamshell design and dual touchscreens, Acer’s Iconia makes a clear design statement: Touch is in. When closed, the Iconia looks like an ordinary laptop. But when open, it resembles no other notebook or slate. At the heart of the Iconia’s navigation is the Ring interface. You activate the Ring by putting five fingers on the bottom display, which Acer refers to as the “hand screen” or the “navigation screen.” Up pops up a wheel that you can scroll through to access apps optimized for finger navigation.

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook

Due out later this year, the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook tablet has a 7-inch screen to rival that of the Samsung Galaxy Tab. It packs a dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, front- and rear-facing cameras, 1080p video recording, a micro-USB port, and a micro-HDMI output into a 0.38-inch-thick package. It will link directly to BlackBerry Enterprise Server and support multitasking for users seeking a productivity tool. But an app ecosystem, multiple ports, Flash 10.1 support, and hardware-accelerated video indicate a new, non-CrackBerry target audience.

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