While CES isn't always a hotbed of computer news and product announcements, there's always enough new stuff to keep our attention, especially as the competition between traditional laptops and tablets heats up. These are some of the trends and stories we expect you'll be hearing much more about in January.
New laptop and desktop CPUs
Unfortunately, some of the products we were most excited about from CES 2010 never actually saw the light of day, leading us to be a bit more skeptical about laptops that look too good to be true (we're looking at you, Lenovo U1). That said, the buzz we're hearing from PC and component companies for CES 2011 is largely based on more bedrock products that, though not as visually exciting, at least have a clearer path to market.
It's no secret that both Intel and AMD will be updating their CPU lines at CES, with Intel's next generation of chips (code name: Sandy Bridge) reportedly keeping the same Core i3/i5/i7 names as the current versions. Expect improved performance, better integrated graphics, and new security features.
AMD's Fusion APU (that's "accelerated processing unit," which combines a CPU and dedicated graphics) is also expected, and laptops and desktops with both the new Intel and AMD parts should be available very early in 2011.
Tablets and touch screens
It seems like only yesterday that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer held up a prototype HP Windows tablet on stage and declared it the future of mobile computing--but it's actually been an entire year. Since then, Apple's iPad was announced, released, and became a huge hit. That HP tablet, after several false starts, finally came out as the business-only HP Slate 500--a reasonable product from our limited hands-on time with it, but not a big iPad-level consumer hit.
Rumor has it that Microsoft will be back again this year with another batch of Windows tablets (perhaps even with a prototype version of Windows 8), although at this point, the stakes and expectations are even higher than last year.
You can expect that with the new AMD and Intel CPU announcements we'll also see new systems featuring those chips. Most of the desktop vendors we've spoken to prior to the show have promised a quiet CES in terms of desktop announcements, but we are interested to see how Intel's new CPUs and their accompanying chipsets affect all-in-one PCs.
Intel has reportedly emphasized a new integrated graphics chip with the new chipset that can finally play 1080p video content smoothly. If all-in-one vendors don't need to spend extra on memory or graphics for reliable HD playback, we'll be interested to see what happens with all-in-one PC prices. We saw a 23-inch all-in-one from Dell break the $600 starting price barrier this year. Will any other vendors follow suit? Can anyone go lower? Hopefully we'll find out.
Rise of the 11.6-incher; death of the Netbook?
A trend we've already seen playing out in 2010 has been an increase in 11.6-inch ultraportables with processing power significantly greater than Atom-powered Netbooks, ranging from the Alienware M11x to Apple's new MacBook Air. With the expected launch of AMD's new lower-voltage Fusion processors, many more 11.6-inch ultraportables could be on their way in 2011.
We also wonder if this could be the beginning of the death knell for Netbooks. Tablets, though often more expensive, have quickly offered a sexy alternative to the stalwart Atom Netbook, and 2010 hasn't really offered any great strides in terms of performance or price in the Netbook category. More powerful and slightly more expensive 11.6-inchers could be the alternative for many laptop makers, especially as many companies shift focus to tablets and ever-more-capable smartphones. We won't count out cheap Atom Netbooks completely, but they may never be as popular again.
New touch pads and keyboards
It's about time someone started to seriously rethink the traditional touch pad/keyboard combo. Sure, it's worked fine for the past 15 years, but that's no reason not to try out some new ideas.
We've just demoed a prototype future touch pad from Synaptics, called the ClickPad 3.0, which takes the large no-button touch pads found on laptops from Apple, HP, and others, and lets the entire pad click down, rather than just the bottom half (as on current models). Finger detection is also vastly improved, and new pads will be able to support 10-finger inputs--although you'd need a pretty big pad, or pretty small fingers, for that.
Taking a different direction is Acer's Iconia laptop, recently unveiled in New York. That system replaces the keyboard with a second full-size touch screen, which can display a keyboard, touch pad, or other kinds of controls. If that sounds familiar, it's a bigger version of what we saw in Toshiba's limited-edition Libretto W105.
Finally, you may have seen a few rumors about slate-style computers with hidden pull-out keyboards. We're not sure it qualifies as a trend yet, but we've seen more than one prototype in the run-up to CES.