Two years ago, 3D TV commanded center stage at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Last year, it was tablets. This year, while both of those product groups will still be shown in force, it looks like the PC is ready to make a comeback.
Over 2,700 companies are displaying products at the Las Vegas Convention Center, covering 1.7 million square feet. To accommodate its growth, CES added a fourth day and was moved back to the second week in January.
Also, for the first time in a long time, CES won't have to compete with the porn industry for showgoers' attentions. The annual Adult Entertainment Expo was moved to Jan. 18-21, and so will not coincide with the tech show this year.
Predicting exactly what will be on display at CES is a fool's mission, since major electronics companies like Sony and Panasonic tend to keep their new products well-hidden. But all signs point to a big year for PCs.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is once again kicking off the show with a keynote address in which he's expected to give an update and more details on Windows 8. Though the operating system may not be ready for widespread release, onlookers are hopeful that an open beta will be announced.
It will be something of a bittersweet show for Microsoft. The company announced in late December that this CES will be the last in which it delivers a keynote and hosts a booth.
"We’ll continue to participate in CES as a great place to connect with partners and customers across the PC, phone and entertainment industries, but we won’t have a keynote or booth after this year because our product news milestones generally don’t align with the show’s January timing," said Frank Shaw, Microsoft's corporate vice president of corporate communications.
Amidst Microsoft's departure, PC manufacturers will look to regain some of the market share taken away by tablets, with the introduction of a variety of "Ultrabook" laptops. These devices, which measure only 3mm at their narrowest points, are expected to spark consumer excitement about the PC market once again — and cost dramatically less than Apple's Macbook Air.
Finally, Intel should showcase its next generation processor chip, with CEO Paul Otellini scheduled to give a keynote speech.
The company is working on a technology code-named "Ivy Bridge," which is expected to go on sale later in the year. The chip should extend the battery life of laptops, while delivering a 20 percent increase in processing performance and a 30 percent bump in graphics processing.
Intel is also expected to announce details for a new chip designed to power smartphones.
It’s worth inserting a caveat: Before you pull out your wallet and pre-order anything you hear about at CES, it’s wise to wait until it has a solid launch date. In many ways, the exhibition is like the Detroit Auto Show. Sometimes, the coolest stuff on display never moves past the concept phase.
Last year, for instance, Polaroid introduced the GL20 camera sunglasses designed by Lady Gaga. They got plenty of media attention, but there hasn't been a whisper of them since. And the Razer Switchblade, winner of CNET's "People's Voice" award (a user-selected "gadget of the show"), is also M.I.A.
In addition, several tablets shown last year turned to vapor, but that won't stop companies from rolling out dozens more this year. Rather than the smaller 5- and 7-inch screens, though, the Consumer Electronics Association predicts there will be more 9- and 10-inch screens, making them about the same size as the iPad.
And expect the vast majority of the TV sets on display to be at least 3D capable. While the technology has yet to take off, manufacturers aren't about to give up on it. An influx of 3D cameras and camcorders will be on display as well, as the technology continues to expand.
The overriding theme of the show will be a nod to the increasingly mobile nature of the consumer technology world, though. Smartphones will boast larger screens, and the line between phones and tablets will blur a little more. Apps, too, will continue to be huge, on phones as well as connected TV sets, which were strongly pushed at the 2011 CES.
Once again, though, the biggest name in consumer electronics will skip the show — but will cast a shadow over the entire affair. Apple bypasses CES every year, but several of the companies that attend find themselves in the precarious position of having to anticipate the company's new products — then having to react when those products are announced and inevitably contain a feature no one anticipated.