As is often the case, the expectations of what will be the big story at the Consumer Electronics Show are different from what actually becomes the big story.
This year, the big story was supposed to be about ultrabooks, the super-light personal computers poised to take over the space previously filled by notebooks. But as the show progressed, several other big stories came to the fore, including positive buzz for Nokia's first Windows Phone, LG and Sony's attempts to reboot the Google TV interface, and hints of future PC-tablet hybrid computers. In no particular order, then, here are the biggest takeaways from CES 2012.
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* Windows is back. OK, so Windows never really went away. But for the first time in years, it seems that Microsoft is trying something really new with its operating system by giving it a common look and feel across personal computers, tablets and smartphones. You could see this during a demonstration of the upcoming Windows 8 operating system that jettisoned Microsoft's standard Start menu for a screen full of application tiles akin to what the company currently uses as its main display for its Windows Phone mobile operating system.
Instead of clicking on the start button on your PC and getting the standard straight lists of programs and folders, you'll now get a bright and colorful display of tiles that cover the whole screen and can be arranged in whatever way you choose. While this approach seems natural for tablets and smartphones, it's nicely done with PCs as well as users can scroll through their apps by swiping across the screen with their mouse just like they were swiping with their fingers.
The show also saw the debut of Microsoft and Nokia's first Windows Phone collaborations, dubbed the Nokia Lumia 710 and Lumia 900. Both devices acted as fine showcases for the latest version of the Windows Phone operating system and including cool features such as the "People Hub" application that lets you keep tabs on your friends through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Windows Live and other big-name social networking services. And like Windows 8, the newest Windows Phone software lets you easily glide through application tiles to arrange and access your favorite apps.
While it's too early to say whether Microsoft's efforts to make Windows more mobile-friendly will be a smashing success, it's certainly the most interesting twist on Windows that Microsoft has implemented in years.
* Ultrabooks are cool, but not essential. Ultrabooks were hyped pretty big before the show, although some of us wondered if they were just Windows-based versions of the MacBook Air. After playing around with several ultrabooks on the CES floor this week, I concluded that yes, ultrabooks are Windows-based versions of the MacBook Air. But there's not anything wrong with that.
Your typical ultrabook weighs in at less than 4 pounds and comes equipped with an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, display screens of 13.3 inches or larger and internal storage in the 500GB range. Ultrabooks are also fairly inexpensive, priced at under $1,000. Among the many ultrabooks on display at CES this year were the Lenovo ThinkPad T430u, the Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook and the HP Folio 13.
More than anything, ultrabooks are the next generation of laptops that will be loved by business users who do a lot of traveling and want a powerful PC that is easy to bring wherever they go. In particular, you can bet that many a long-suffering tech journalist used to lugging a Lenovo ThinkPad T61 around convention floors will lobby their bosses to invest in ultrabooks.
* LTE is now a must for smartphones. Most of the big smartphones to make a splash at CES, including the Nokia Lumia 910, the Motorola Droid 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S, were LTE-ready. And not to put too fine a point on it, Verizon this week said that device manufacturers shouldn't bother to create tablets or smartphones for Verizon if they don't come embedded with LTE chipsets. (We'll wait and see if Verizon maintains this take-it-or-leave-it attitude if the next iPhone still doesn't have LTE capability.)
The bottom line here is that LTE is now a must-have feature for any self-respecting smartphone, especially with Sprint's announcement that it will have LTE up and running in at least four markets in the first half of 2012. Not bad for a technology that was only available on one carrier and that covered just over one-third of the U.S. population just a year ago.
* Google TV gets a reboot. Give Google credit: Although its Google TV platform has flopped so far, the company isn't giving up on it. In fact, Google scored a big win at CES when both Sony and LG announced that they had developed brand-new solutions for Google's television platform. Sony's upcoming Network Media Player set-top box, powered by the latest version of Google TV, made some nice strides in simplifying the experience of navigating the Google TV menu by ditching its previous 70-button monster remote for a controller that featured a touchpad on one side and a full qwerty keyboard on the other. LG, meanwhile, wasn't content to release just a set-top box and instead released an HDTV with the Google TV platform fully integrated. LG also gave its own take on how to make an efficient Google TV remote control by showing off its Magic Remote that lets users navigate around the screen simply by waving the remote around using Magic Motion technology. Like the Sony remote, LG's controller also has a full qwerty keyboard on the bottom.
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While these two products by themselves aren't enough to make Google TV ubiquitous anytime soon, it does show that there is still strong developer interest in the platform and that even more enticing versions of the platform could drop in the near future.
* Tablet-PC hybrids appear on the horizon. One of the cooler gadgets on display this year was the Samsung Galaxy Note, a cross between a smartphone and a tablet that utilized an electronic "S Pen" that allowed users to write digitally on documents downloaded onto the device. The goal of this, said Samsung, was to create a device that combined the portability of tablets with some of the work functionality of personal computers.
We saw a similar concept on display with the Asus Transformer Prime TF700T, a tablet that runs on Android 4.0 ("Ice Cream Sandwich") and also plugs into a laptop dock, giving users the mobility of tablet with the functionality of a full qwerty keyboard.
And Sony displayed a prototype of its own tablet-PC hybrid device behind a glass case in its exhibit area.
Call me crazy, but having tablets that can double as PCs seems like a pretty swell idea whose time will come at some point in the near future. CES 2013, perhaps? We'll have to see.