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CES 2009 preview: Computers and hardware

CNET editors preview the the laptop, desktop, and computer hardware trends to expect during the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show.

The annual consumer electronics show isn't always a hotbed of new laptops, desktops, and accessories. After all, Apple likes to hold its own shows on its own schedule, and most big PC makers target their new products for the back-to-school and holiday seasons.

That being said, there are several big trends in the computer industry that will be prevalent on the show floor.

Netbooks: Almost every major manufacturer of laptops has tried to blow off the Netbook trend as a flash in the pan. Why? These small, low-cost systems have lower margins than the $1,000-plus laptops people have been buying for years. But sales trends can only be ignored for so long, so the last half of 2008 saw virtually every major player in the game--Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, etc.--jump on board with sub-$500 Netbooks. At CES, look for the next generation of systems, as PC makers try to both jack up prices with higher-end models with unique features, or lower prices on the average usable configuration from $499 to $399 or less.

Computer as lifestyle appliance: Sure, companies have tried to merge the idea of a computer and a home or lifestyle appliance for years (and honestly, the iPhone has done it better than anyone else), but we expect to see more attempts to make an otherwise standard PC stand out as either a household appliance or a portable do-it-all media device. Will it work? Only if they learn from the guys who spent millions developing high-end UMPCs and low-end dumb e-mail terminals, neither of which took off with the public.

Airport-friendly laptop cases: Talk about an unexpected hit. Starting in September, laptop bag makers introduced split-open butterfly style cases, designed to let you run a laptop through the airport X-ray machine without taking it out. Not only have we seen a ton of these already, but reports indicate that TSA agents actually know the drill on how to use them. Look for more entries in this category in 2009.

Gaming? Not so much: Sure we'll see the latest revisions of the major graphics cards, and even some notable improvements in the graphics capabilities of laptops, but very few major gaming rigs-- and some major players, like Alienware--will be making only a cameo appearance at the show.

Next-gen CPUs: Look for some new chips to power everything from Netbooks to high-end desktops. Will AMD and Intel swap positions as industry leader again? Or, does it even matter, since the popularity of Netbooks and other low-end computers hints that the public may have finally figured out they've been paying for more performance than they need for years?

Windows 7: Vista, we hardly knew ye. Expect the next phase of the gradual public introduction to the next Microsoft operating system to kick off during CES.

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