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Early Macworld bets: Notebooks, Blu-ray, and iPhones?

Momentum is building around Apple's reputed plans to launch its thinnest and lightest notebook ever at Macworld later this month.

After a holiday spent freezing in the wilds of Connecticut and pondering the mysteries of the chip industry, I felt it was time to take stock of the latest Macworld Expo rumors.

The craziness is just 12 days away and undisturbed this year by that big gathering in the desert taking place the prior week. The predictions are starting to come in, and the early bets have mobility in mind.

For months, the betting odds have favored the introduction of new MacBooks at Macworld. It's been awhile since Apple tweaked the basic hardware design of the MacBook, and with new mobile processors expected from Intel this quarter, it seems like a natural fit. But what kind of notebook are we talking about?

The most persistent rumor is that Apple will release an ultraportable notebook, or a sub-notebook, or whatever you want to call it. Think small and thin, a 12-inch or smaller screen and a weight of less than 3 pounds. This is a small segment of the overall notebook market, but it's one of prestige, and it's not hard at all to imagine Apple wanting to put its stamp on the thinnest and lightest category of notebook computing.

The latest item to point in that direction? A patent filing for a docking station that would incorporate such a device surfaced this week, lending some credibility, if not confirmation, to the ultraportable rumor.

If you want to watch high-definition movies on your notebook, American Technology Research's Shaw Wu thinks you'll have a better idea of Apple's HD video plans following Macworld. Wu put out a research note Thursday predicting that Apple will confirm its support for Blu-ray drives, and could use the occasion to announce plans to ship notebooks with new optical drives. Apple is already a member of the Blu-Ray Disc Association, so this isn't much of a stretch, although it has held off releasing Blu-ray-equipped products to this point.

There's also some sentiment that Apple could use the Macworld stage to announce its take on the Tablet PC, revealing some sort of slate-like MacBook based entirely on flash memory, and perhaps incorporating many of the touch-screen features found on the iPhone. We've also heard this discussion center on a Apple-ish UMPC, which would ostensibly use Intel's upcoming Silverthorne chip.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is unlikely to miss a chance to talk about the iPhone as well, as we approach the first anniversary of its first public unveiling. The software development kit for the iPhone is due in February, and some analysts think that Jobs will use the occasion to unveil a 3G iPhone.

The biggest news to emerge from Jobs' January 15 keynote might just be an iTunes movie rental service, as was reported over the holiday break. But I'd advise holding off for a few weeks if you were thinking about buying a notebook from Apple.