What’s new from CES 2012

Today marks the opening of the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an enormous four-day gathering of over 2,700 exhibitors and 120,000 attendees. The exhibits take up over 1.7 million square feet spread across the entire Las Vegas Convention Center and two Las Vegas hotels, and feature everything from automotive electronics to digital photography to smartphones and other wireless devices.

This year’s event marks a bit of a watershed for CES, as long-time supporter Microsoft announced prior to the show that this would be their last appearance as both an exhibitor and as host of the opening keynote address. While CES has been hugely successful without a number of the tech industry’s biggest names – most notably Apple, which has never had a booth at the Las Vegas event – it does suggest that the show may have lost some of its influence.

The reason Microsoft gave for its decision to pull out of the show was one of timing. The event’s traditional January dates don’t align with Microsoft’s product announcements, which usually take place later in the year. The timing of the show has always been an issue, coming right on the heels of the all-important holiday buying season, but CES argues that timing has become less important, as competition and speed of innovation have moved the industry towards a near-constant news cycle.

Despite Microsoft grabbing the pre-show headlines, CES is still a hugely important event for the technology industry, illustrated by the more than 7,000 press, industry analysts, and bloggers who make the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas. Over 20 percent of the total attendance comes from overseas, making it one of the most important technology events in the world, not just the U.S.

And even if the timing isn’t right for Microsoft, it seems perfectly OK for many others. This year’s event is expected to see the launch of over 20,000 new products. While last year’s show was dominated by tablet computers, this year’s show is unlikely to be ruled by any one category. Here are some of the early headlines that are emerging:

Notebooks fight back

Despite last year’s tablet frenzy and declarations that it was only a matter of time before the PC took its place alongside the 8-track cassette player and the black and white TV, the trusty desktop and its portable sidekick, the notebook, have continued to flourish. Even the biggest iPad fans acknowledge its shortcomings as a business tool, and the proprietary OS and the lack of ports and peripherals only add to its limitations.

But one thing Apple has taught the industry is style and portability. Expect CES to showcase a series of “ultrabooks,” ultra-thin laptops encased in brushed aluminum or a similar chic finish. New ultrabooks are expected from HP, Dell, Acer, Asus, Toshiba and Lenovo, and most are expected to retail for under $1,000, offering a cheaper alternative to Apple’s Macbook Air.

4G roll-out continues

One prediction from last year’s event that has become a reality is the continuing roll-out of high-speed 4G networks. While Verizon got a clear jump on the competition, the other carriers are fighting back, with both AT&T and Sprint highlighting their improved services.

AT&T used an off-site presentation to introduce a full range of 4G LTE handheld devices from Sony, Samsung, HTC and Pantech, including the waterproof Pantech Element tablet.

On the subject of handheld devices, Motorola unveiled a new version of its highly-acclaimed Droid Razr smartphone, which comes with enhanced battery life. The Droid Razr Maxx addresses what has long been the Achilles heel of Android smartphones, and promises a one-charge talk time of up to 21 hours, almost double the longevity of the original Razr.

The year of the OLED TV?

CES wouldn’t be CES without some eye-popping TVs. For years, bigger was always better until manufacturers finally realized that anything more than a 60-inch TV has no place in the average family home. Of course, if you can’t go bigger, then go thinner, which means this could be the year of the OLED TV.

OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs work without a backlight, which means they can display deep black levels and can be thinner and lighter that LCD and LED displays. Samsung and LG are both introducing 55-inch OLED TVs this year, with LG’s expected to be only 4mm (0.157-inch) in depth. That’s just like hanging a single pane of glass on your wall.

One drawback with OLED TVs is price. Both the Samsung and LG displays are expected to retail for around $8,000, making them very much a rich man’s toy – for now.

Kinect coming to Windows

It may have been Microsoft’s last opening keynote but CEO Steve Ballmer made sure they went out with a flourish. After unveiling some staggeringly successful numbers for its Xbox 360 gaming console (66 million users) and its Xbox LIVE online entertainment hub (40 million subscribers), he then announced that Microsoft was bringing its motion and voice-recognition Kinect technology to Windows beginning next month.

Microsoft has sold over 18 million Kinect units since it was introduced just over a year ago, and although no details were given on how Windows with Kinect might work, there will be considerable excitement at the possibility of using voice activation in connection with PCs. Ballmer also announced a new partnership with News Corp. that would bring Fox television channels and The Wall Street Journal to Xbox later this year.

The Online Mom will be reporting from CES all this week. We welcome your comments and questions!

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