The six things we'll be following most closely at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
Just like snowflakes, every Consumer Electronics Show is special.
Or at the very least, every CES comes with its own special buzz technology. "It" technologies in recent years have included tablets (a big hit) and 3D televisions (not a big hit). This year's buzz tech is undoubtedly the ultrabook, a super-thin laptop that has killer specs and is priced at under $1,000. But that's not the only thing going on at CES this year, as we'll also get our first look at Nokia's initial Windows Phone smartphones, Android 4.0 ("Ice Cream Sandwich")-based tablets and much, much more (including celebrity appearances by Justin Bieber, Dennis Rodman, 50 Cent and Snooki). Here, then, are the six story lines we'll be following most closely at this year's big shindig in Vegas.
SLIDESHOW: CES 2012 Video Sneak Peak
1: Ultrabooks: So awesome or so what?
We'll admit that we're feeling skeptical about all the hype surrounding ultrabooks (of course, how could you not)? For the uninitiated, ultrabooks typically are less than an inch thick, weigh less than 4 pounds and cost less than $1,000. So yes, they're basically cheaper versions of the MacBook Air.
What can we expect out of ultrabooks at CES? Well, based on the offerings that vendors such as LG, Samsung and Lenovo have been flaunting before the show, it seem your typical ultrabook will come equipped with an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, display screens of 13.3 inches or larger and internal storage in the 500GB range. All of which is nifty and terrific, but will these devices become the next must-haves for consumers or will they just be seen as a new generation of laptops? One thing that could spice things up a bit would be if Asus debuted its long-rumored hybrid, thus giving ultrabooks a defined feature beyond just being very light and thin laptops.
2: More glimpses of Windows 8
Although Windows 8 isn't due to be released until later this year, we expect that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will give us some more glimpses of the operating system during his keynote Monday night at CES. Windows 8 looks to be the next big step in the operating system's evolution as it will be the first version of Windows designed with both PCs and tablets in mind and will thus have a radically different look from the Windows we've come to know over the years.
Like Microsoft's Windows Phone smartphone operating system, Windows 8 will feature a start page that will have application tiles to give users quick access to their favorite apps. Microsoft will also encourage app development for both Windows PCs and tablets through its Windows Store feature that will give developers an outlet to sell their apps along the lines of Apple's App Store and Google's Android Market. Additionally, Windows 8 will apparently support near-field communications (NFC), meaning users will be able to use their Windows 8 tablets for mobile payments if they wish. All in all, it looks like Windows 8 will be one of the biggest tech stories of the year and we doubt we'll be able to escape it during Microsoft's last formal appearance at CES.
3: Nokia's first Windows Phones
Speaking of Windows, we're going to be very interested in checking out Nokia's first U.S. Windows Phones at this year's show as well. Nokia took a big gamble when it ditched its Symbian operating system for Windows Phone and this year will go a long way toward seeing whether that risk will pay off. Nokia's Lumia 710, which will be available for T-Mobile on Jan. 11, is the company's debut offering for Windows Phone 7.5 Mango and it could provide some big hints about how Windows 8 will look and operate on tablets and PCs in the future.
4: Ice Cream Sandwich on tablets
Velocity Micro may not be a marquee manufacturer, but it will be showing off a tablet this year that runs on Android 4.0 ("Ice Cream Sandwich"). So far we've only seen Ice Cream Sandwich on smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and an Ice Cream Sandwich tablet will complete Android's shift from being a pure smartphone OS into an OS that works the same on both smartphones and tablets. Google released Ice Cream Sandwich this past fall with the hopes it could eliminate the platform fragmentation that has long been a problem for Android application developers who have complained that they have no way of knowing whether the apps they design will work effectively across multiple platforms.
In addition to providing the same experience for users on tablets and smartphones, the operating system came with several new features including a lock screen that can unlock using facial recognition software; Android Beam, technology that lets users send contact information, directions, Web pages and more via NFC by tapping their phones together; and integration with the Google+ social network that lets users host online video chats among their circles of friends. Although the Velocity Micro tablet may not be the Ice Cream Sandwich tablet that Google envisioned showing off at CES, we'll definitely check it out to see how well facial recognition works on a tablet.
5: Gigabit-speed Wi-Fi
Anyone who has streamed Netflix over Xbox over their home Wi-Fi connection knows that it's not exactly the smoothest experience. All that could change fairly soon, as Broadcom will be bringing its gigabit-speed 802.11ac chips that will deliver fifth-generation Wi-Fi capabilities. For those of you who like fast Internet, consider that the chips can transfer data at theoretical maximum speeds of 1.3Gbps. Don't expect these chips to hit the market this year, however, as the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard isn't slated to be finalized until the end of 2012. All the same, this is definitely something to watch.
6: Gorilla Glass 2
No, this isn't the sequel to a cheesy horror movie. Rather, Gorilla Glass 2 is the second generation of Corning's remarkable hardened glass that is equal parts light and sturdy and that has become a staple of smartphones and tablets around the world. Although no details on the new glass have been released yet, we imagine it will make the next generation of mobile devices lighter, tougher and harder to scratch. And what could be wrong with that?