First look at shiny new gadgets

Tuesday, January 3rd 2012. | Internet News

Every January, while millions of people are still trying to figure out how to use gadgets they just received for Christmas, the electronics industry begins touting newer, better stuff it will sell in the coming year.

The turning point is the mammoth Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, an event that annually resets expectations and turns the industry’s clock forward.

First look at shiny new gadgetsThis year’s highlights will include wafer-thin TVs, lightweight computers and new gadgets to control home lighting, energy and other systems via the Internet. Plus tablets, tablets and more tablets, so you’ll never be without a window to the Web.

You’d think the industry elves would let their soldering guns rest sometime, but consumers have an unlimited appetite for new toys.

Americans were expecting to spend an average of $246 apiece on electronic gifts this past holiday season.

That’s up 6 percent from the previous year, despite the economy, according to surveys by the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade group that hosts CES. It will provide a yearly tally at the show.

Here’s a look at what I’m expecting to see in Vegas next week, and the things that may convince people to spend more than $250 on gadgets in 2012.

Next-gen TVs

The third generation of connected TVs will arrive with better software, additional apps and more-powerful processors inside the set.

Newer TVs and set-top boxes will take greater advantage of networks and devices in the home, so you can use smartphones and tablets as remote controls or auxiliary displays.

But the most striking advance may be the arrival of big-screen OLED TV sets, with ultrasharp displays no thicker than a pencil. TV makers have shown prototypes at CES for years, and in 2008 Sony began a brief run of 11-inch OLED sets listed for $2,500.

It’s still unclear when they’ll go mainstream, but the prototypes are getting bigger. LG said it’s bringing a 55-inch OLED set — which it calls the “world’s largest” — along with closer-to-reality sets such as an 84-inch 3D “Ultra Definition” set with four times the resolution of current high-def sets.

The show is also likely to reveal more glasses-free 3D sets, and entertainment systems using voice and gesture for control, similar to Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect sensor.

Apple is expected to begin selling connected TVs in 2012, but it doesn’t participate in CES. The big question is price: Will Apple try competing with the array of Web-connected TVs available for $1,200 or less, or will it offer an elite, niche product?

Smart home 2.0

There’s always a hodgepodge of home-automation gear at CES, but this could be a breakout year for the category.

One reason is continued emphasis on energy management in the home, using gadgets such as thermostats that can be controlled remotely via browsers and smartphones.

The category is also getting a nudge from broadband companies selling home-automation bundles. Verizon in October began offering a Motorola system for remotely monitoring energy and cameras in the home — it previewed the system at the last CES — and other broadband companies are likely to follow.

“This will be the first year that consumers finally see it packaged in a way that’s mass market, affordable and useful — so it doesn’t mean thousands of dollars and a custom install,” said Nate Williams, a director at Motorola Mobility.

In addition to Web-connected thermostats, there will be online fitness products and health-care systems, and doorknobs that you unlock with a smartphone.

Williams said “connected home” products will finally take off because the software is more reliable, the big semiconductor companies are engaged, and it’s become relatively simple to set the gear up.

A range of these products will be showcased at CES in a model home — the “NextGen Energy Miser Home” — created by Bellevue marketing company iShowMedia.

Thin computing

Dozens of new “Ultrabook” PCs are expected to be shown by computer makers following Intel’s guidance and building new laptops that are about a half-inch thick and have nearly all-day battery life.

Some of the new PCs shown will have 3D displays and touchscreens, plus new connection systems such as optical inputs for ultrafast file transfers.

Computer makers also will show new tablets running Google’s Android operating system, Microsoft’s Windows 7 and preview versions of Windows 8.

This new hardware could sharpen the distinction between mobile computers and Web tablets designed mostly for media consumption. But pundits will still simply compare it all to the iPad.

Microsoft’s finale

Microsoft last month said it’s going to stop using CES for big announcements and will no longer provide keynote speeches and a massive booth after this year’s event. It’s being more like Apple, which stages its own events and product launches.

Microsoft explained that it’s being more efficient and the show’s timing doesn’t sync with its product schedule.

Its interest probably waned in part because its traditional curtain-opening keynote lost prominence in recent years as other companies and CES itself began holding major press events beforehand.

Chief Executive Steve Ballmer also doesn’t seem to share Bill Gates’ enthusiasm for CES.

Ballmer has lately saved his fire-and-brimstone industry rallying cries for Microsoft events and used CES keynotes more as a sales pitch.

Gates used the CES podium to evangelize and predict broad industry trends, then personally toured the show floor to look for cool new products.

Still, Microsoft is likely to provide some of the bigger stories out of CES this year.

The company is expected to announce details of new Windows Phones, including the new Nokia handsets and models that work with 4G LTE networks.

Microsoft is also going to be showing Windows 8 running on Ultrabooks, traditional PCs and new tablets based on the tiny processors used in smartphones.

The company is likely to say when it will release the next test version of the operating system, which is expected to be complete and on sale by fall.

Microsoft may also use CES to finally reveal entertainment features added to Windows 8.

And CES is a likely venue for Microsoft to talk about how it will integrate Skype into its software and other consumer products.

The next version of the Xbox is in the works and reportedly will surface in 2013, but Microsoft is more likely to reveal the new system at the E3 game conference in June. However, Ballmer will surely provide an update on Xbox and Kinect sales through the holidays and talk about expanded use of Kinect and its application beyond game consoles.

Sony will be using CES to tout the U.S. launch in February of its PlayStation Vita handheld gaming device, and Nintendo will be showing its upcoming Wii U console in a hotel suite during the conference.

Microsoft is not likely to announce anything similar, but it will no doubt talk up the new TV services available on the Xbox and new gaming and entertainment features on Windows Phones.

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