At CES 2012, the worlds of tablets and super-thin laptops will start to blur

January 4, 2012

Next week is a pretty significant time for journalists working in the technology sector. Why, you ask? Well, it’s the one week out of the year that we all get on planes, from every corner of the globe, and head to Las Vegas for CES.

That’s the Consumer Electronics Show, where just about every possible gadget or technology you can think of will be teased, announced or put out on a show floor to be manhandled by people. Lots of people. About 140,000, to be exact.

For the reporters who cover this stuff, it’s definitely not the kind of trip to Las Vegas that you would imagine.

While geriatric hard-luckers pump quarters into slots, drunk newlyweds celebrate their forthcoming annulments and regular folks enjoy the “Entertainment Capital of the World” by repeatedly losing hands of blackjack, we’re doing something decidedly different.

For us, it’s war.

The competition is fierce to be the first and fastest, and during our stay in the arid desert town, we sleep very little, pound caffeine products as if they’re going out of style and literally elbow one another out of the way to get scoops.

It’s a little like if the Running of the Bulls and Vietnam took place in Monte Carlo — at the same time.

But there’s a good reason we trudge through it all, because from Jan. 10 to Jan. 12 we’ll get the first glimpse at what just about every technology company in the world has been cooking up for the past 12 months. And sure, not everything is great. In fact, a lot of things are just warmed-over versions of last year’s models.

But sometimes — just sometimes — something is displayed that makes everyone gasp, scratch his or her head or get that Christmas-morning tingle of an unopened gift.

It might be fleeting, but it’s worth the trip.

So what’s in store this year for the show?

For starters, the two worlds of tablets and superthin laptops (ultrabooks, as we’ve taken to calling them in the industry) are getting dangerously close.

Products boasting all-day battery life, speedy processors and solid-state hard drives (SSDs) that are faster to boot and more stable are just about becoming the norm.

Although Apple — the company that kick-started both trends with the iPad and MacBook Air — won’t be at the show, the company’s presence will definitely be felt.

It’s likely we’ll see a slew of new products that aren’t just one or the other, but hybrid devices that aim to take on more than just lean-back experiences, such as movie watching or game playing, and do double duty as laptops.

Microsoft has already shown off its latest version of Windows (Windows 8), which has been adapted for both laptops and tablets. But what I think the company really wants to do is make one device that can do both things. While this will be the company’s final year of a big showing at CES (that news was just announced two weeks ago), there will be plenty of talk about Windows, the Xboxes and phones — especially since the company’s phone-making partner, Nokia, will be holding a news media event at CES, a rarity for the Finnish manufacturer.

Nokia is rumored to be introducing a new version of its Windows Phone handsets — probably a larger model targeted at North America.

We do like things big here.

And, yes, we’ll see plenty of new Android phones and tablets in just about every shape and size you can think of. There also will be an array of new HDTVs — a selection so vast that even seasoned reporters’ heads will spin.

Seriously, you don’t know what overexposure to a single product feels like until you’ve wandered the North, South and Central halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, surrounded by row after row of vaguely iterative — yet always staggeringly large — high-def televisions.

But expect to be surprised by the interesting new things being cooked up around home-automation and entertainment devices that actually play nice together. As our houses and gadgets get more and more connected, companies all over the globe are dreaming up ways to make everything talk to one another.

I expect 2012 will be the year that jump-starts the wired (or rather, wireless) home revolution.

As with the CES gatherings of the past, it’s not the things we see coming that are most exciting — it’s the stuff that we never dreamed of that makes the event memorable.

I usually leave Las Vegas tired, dazed and with the early signs of a sidelining flu in the works, but I’ve never left disappointed.

I don’t expect this year to be any different.

Related stories:

Will the new HP Envy Spectre ultrabook be the MacBook Air killer?

Microsoft pulling out of Consumer Electronics Show after 2012 event

Big technology trends and storylines of 2012

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site.

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