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CES Review: Tablets, smartphones, and networks

As expected, tablets and smartphones took center stage at the huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which opened on Thursday and runs through Sunday. Motorola, Samsung, Sony and LG were just a few of the companies showcasing dozens of powerful handheld devices that are expected to hit the stores later this year.

Despite Apple’s nine-month head start with the iPad, tablet manufacturers are racing to catch up. Along with Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, Motorola’s new Android-based Xoom looks best-placed to take on the market leader. With front- and rear-facing cameras, video conferencing, a high-resolution screen, and support for Flash video, the Xoom boasts many of the features that the iPad currently lacks.

Other promising tablets were on display from Lenovo (Windows 7 IdeaPad Slate), Dell (Streak 7), RIM (BlackBerry Playbook), Vizio (VIA Tablet), and Acer (Iconis A500). The one big name missing from the CES tablet frenzy was Microsoft. It’s hard to see the Windows mobile platform being able to stand up to iOS and the onslaught of Android devices unless there is a credible hardware offering from Microsoft. However, the problems they have experienced with hardware in other areas (think Kin phones, Zune music players) also seem to have them back on their heels when it comes to tablets

With Verizon holding an opening day keynote slot, the largest wireless carrier in the U.S. was able to grab most of the headlines when it came to smartphones. Although there was no word on when we can expect to see a Verizon iPhone, there are plenty of new Android-based smartphones set to join their line-up, including the Droid Bionic from Motorola, the LG Revolution, and the HTC Thunderbolt.

However, for the first time at CES there was perhaps just as much focus on the networks that will support all these tablets and smartphones than on the devices themselves. And with good reason: what’s the point of all those video- and Internet-enabled devices if the networks can’t improve data transfer speeds?

Verizon made much of its new 4G LTE broadband infrastructure. LTE stands for “long term evolution”, which is shaping up to be the technology standard for the next phase of wireless expansion. How big an upgrade is 4G LTE? A full-length high-definition movie that might have taken 4½ hours to download on 3G, will take less than 4½ minutes on 4G.

Meanwhile, AT&T is not standing idly by. Preparing for the inevitable day when they will no longer enjoy iPhone exclusivity, AT&T plans to introduce 20 new smartphones in the coming year, with at least a dozen of them utilizing the Android operating system.

As usual, Apple was nowhere to be seen at CES, content to watch from the sidelines as everyone else plays catch-up. However, it’s now no longer a case of will the competition catch-up but when. While no obvious iPhone or iPad killer has yet to emerge, it’s clear that the smartphone and tablet wars are only just beginning.

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