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Cars and Ultrabooks: a CES Preview

What to expect at the annual Consumer Electronics Show starting this weekend.
January 3, 2012

The annual Consumer Electronics Show begins in Las Vegas this weekend. It’s an annual festival of new gadgets, gaudy exhibition booths, PR spin, and long taxi lines that (supposedly) sets the pace for the coming year in consumer technology. I’ll be there for Technology Review, but can already take a guess at five things that I’ll find there.

Ford’s Evos concept car is as much computer as mode of transport. Credit: Ford

Tablets, tablets, tablets

On paper, CES 2011 should have been the launchpad for serious competitors to Apple’s iPad, coming eight months after that tablet launched. Tablets of all levels of polish and price duly appeared, yet none has made much of a mark. This year will bring more tablets, many running Google’s refreshed Android operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich. Some of them will apparently resemble this reference design from Intel, while Sony’s Tablet S has been awarded one of the CES 2012’s Innovation prizes. All that suggests that the new contenders will be more capable, and it would be difficult for this year’s crop of tablets to do worse than last year’s. However, Apple will likely launch a new and improved iPad within a few months.

Cars as gadgets

What’s under the hood is increasingly about computing power, not just engine power. Carmakers will have a larger presence than ever before at CES this year, and they’ll be talking about similar technology to those showing off tablets: machine vision, cloud computing, and wireless data. All those and more are being put to use for everything from security features to better in-car entertainment. Ford’s CEO Alan Mulally has given a CES keynote for the last three years, and this year so is Daimler chairman and Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche. As an example of how these companies are thinking like tech firms, last year Ford showed me a system that uses cloud computing to learn where you go and predict your future travels. At CES Ford will be showing off more novel ideas, many built into its Evos concept car, shown above. Mercedes has been slower than most of its competitors when it comes to features like smart phone app integration and Internet-connected navigation. Zetsche’s keynote could mark the announcement of new technology and ideas that might change that.

3-D TV (again)

Over the last few years, it’s becoming a running joke that 3-D TV is a major theme of CES but a technology met with indifference by gadget buyers. This year is likely to be no exception, and once again the problem won’t lie with the TV makers but with the TV industry. The 3-D TV sets that I tried at CES last year provided impressive viewing, but anyone taking one home will find there’s hardly anything out there to watch with an extra dimension. TV manufacturers are already previewing their latest 3-D-capable products for this year’s CES, with LG, for example, set to unveil a huge 84 inch 3-D TV. I’ll certainly try it if I see it on the exhibition hall floor, but expect that as usual I’ll hear little about 3-D TV until CES rolls around again next year.

Microsoft bows outwith a bang?

It’s traditional that Microsoft provides one of the biggest keynote speeches of CES, but this year will be the company’s last. All the same, this year’s CES will be a big one for Microsoft. One reason is that the event will be crucial in establishing Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 software as a legitimate competitor to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. Struggling Nokia threw in its lot with Microsoft last year and will be in Vegas, likely show off the Windows 7 phones that are the Finnish company’s only hope. Even more crucial to Microsoft’s future, the next major version of Windows—Windows 8—will also likely appear at CES. Despite the company promising a low-key final keynote, Windows 8 will surely get a mention on stage. Tablets running Windows 8 made by HP are rumored to be appearing on the exhibition floor, too. Microsoft won’t be leaving quietly.

Ultrabooks everywhere

Ultrabook is a term trademarked by Intel and is best understood as meaning “MacBook Air clone”; they’re very light laptops thinner than the width of a quarter. A few computer makers—including HP and Asus—have already launched their first ultrabooks, but CES 2012 will see a flood of them. Ultrabooks may sound like (and actually be) a gimmick to make laptops sound exciting, but they’re interesting because they will likely combine features from smart phones and tablets with those of traditional PCs. The ability to remain in standby for long periods and wake up instantly is one example. Future models—maybe those shown at CES—are set to have features like the ability to sync e-mails and other updates while in standby and touch-sensitive screens for tablet-style interaction.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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