CES 2011: There will be tablets

January 4, 2011: 11:45 AM ET

Dozens of tablets! Dual-core processors in your phone! LED backlighting for everyone! Live in 3D, with the inevitable pounding headache! Here's our preview of what's coming out of Vegas this week.

Take your typical Best Buy (BBY) store and multiply it by 100,000. Next, throw in quarter-mile long lines for everything food-related. Add the unmistakable arrival of the adult entertainment industry. Combine all that, and you pretty much have a feeling for the annual gadget-fest known as the Consumer Electronics Show, (CES to the propeller-head crowd) held this week in Las Vegas.

If CES is a preview of what we can expect in the coming year, not just in the latest flat-screens, smart phones and computing devices, but also in terms of economic outlook worldwide, things are looking better already. Based on the unscientific measure of lavish parties being staged and sold-out hotel rooms, the almost $700 billion global consumer electronics industry is feeling good about its chances for growth in 2011, predicted to be north of 4%.

While attendance to the show, expected to be in the neighborhood of 120,000, won't eclipse the 150,00-plus that thronged the show in 2006, the final number will undoubtedly be an improvement over the past two years when the recession put a unsurprising damper on things. This year's CES will feature around 2,500 companies, launching 20,000 new products, and displaying them across 1.6 million square feet of space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, an increase of more than 10% compared to last year's CES.

So what will the likes of Asus, Hewlett Packard (HPQ), LG, Microsoft (MSFT), Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba Рbasically everyone in the consumer electronics world but Apple, which doesn't feel the need to grace CES with its products  Рbe selling?  For starters, tablets.

Already there have been announcements from heavy hitters like Acer, Asus, Motorola (MOT), Toshiba and others that they will unveil their hopeful iPad contenders at the show. It would be nice to see some noise from Microsoft on the tablet front, and especially from HP, which paid $1.2 billion for Palm and has nothing to show for it yet. A webOS tablet from the Palm team? Let's hope so.

Powering some of these new tablets will be a next generation so-called system-on-a-chip (SOC) from Nvidia, that features dual processing cores in a power-sipping package. Better video, more multi-tasking, and longer battery life are the upshot. Will these mostly, Android-flavored machines finally give Apple (AAPL) some iPad competition? If the new, tablet-tuned, "Honeycomb" Android OS from the gang at Google works well, they could. What has held most everyone's tablet efforts up is an operating system that can scale up to a tablet, and compete with Apple's iOs. Whether it is from HP, Microsoft or Google, odds are we get a contender this week.

The same dual-core Nvidia chip technology, called Tegra 2, is also scheduled to appear in a new high-end phone from LG. You can expect dual-core processors in phones will be a big theme at Mobile World Congress, where most of the mobile phone news happens in Barcelona in February.

Other chip news will come from Intel (INTC), which will be showing off the graphics and video chops of its latest "Sandy Bridge" chip. Expect this blazing-fast processor to appear in all sorts of interesting places you wouldn't normally expect a computer chip to go, as well as more announcements of connected devices powered by Intel's Atom line of chips.

Inveterate also-ran to Intel, AMD, is showing up to CES with its "Fusion" line of chips. Fusion is going after the lower-end of computing. What that means is for about $400 you are going to be able get a netbook/smartbook/notebook, pick your name that does most of what a higher-end machine can. We'll see if they are worth a hard look, and whether the netbook category really is doomed by the arrival of tablets or not.

Expect the television world to be dominated by two things: various permutations of LED backlighting, and connections to the Web - via Wi-Fi, built-in Ethernet and a slew of external devices ranging from Blu-ray players to purpose-built boxes. At this point the hold-up to so-called "smart TV" hasn't been the hardware, it's the software. It had better be much improved, or we are due for the same connected TV drubbing this year that the Google TV received. Yes, there will be more 3D TV being trumpeted, but honestly, without enough movies and TV to back it up yet, who cares?

Finally, not everything is about tablets, chips and light-emitting diodes. How about a pair of earbuds that actually stays in your ears? That is what headphone maker Skullcandy is promising to debut with its "Fix" line. If they can pull that off, without your ears being torn off or somehow mangled, the whole smart TV revolution can wait for next year and 2011 will still be a success as far as consumer tech is concerned.

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About This Author
Michael Copeland
Michael Copeland

Michael V. Copeland joined FORTUNE as a senior writer in September 2007. Copeland has covered everything from electric cars to e-readers. He is a creator of Tech Mate, an irreverent video series in which he debates (and skewers) digital issues of the day. Before joining FORTUNE, Copeland was a senior writer at Business 2.0. Copeland graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

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