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Eight things I'm looking forward to seeing at CES

The annual Las Vegas tech extravaganza is nearly upon us. These products and services could help make it a winner.

Some of my colleagues in the tech journalism business actively despise the Consumer Electronics Show.

If they make the trek to Vegas in January, they complain about the experience from start to end, obsessing over all the little things they dislike about it. If they can figure out a way to avoid the show altogether, they do so, and gloat.

Samsung's busy booth at CES 2010.
Samsung's busy booth at CES 2011. CES

I have never understood these people. Yes, CES is crowded, crazy, and exhausting. Sure, the fact that the insanity is happening on and near the Las Vegas Strip makes it that much more surreal--I always come home with slot machines still ringing in the back of my brain.

I'm also aware that the industry has a long track record of getting all excited over new products, trends, and technologies that debut at CES and then never end up amounting to anything. (One example that springs to mind: SED TV.)

CES may be imperfect, but it remains by far the best single place on the planet to take the pulse of the consumer-electronics business. To mangle what Samuel Johnson said about London and life, if you're tired of CES, you're tired of technology. Not me. I'm looking forward to attending the 2012 edition week after next.

Here are some of the specific things I hope to see, including both items that will definitely be there and ones that are less of a sure thing.

Ultrabooks galore. As I've been talking to PC makers about their plans for CES, it's been clear that Intel is pouring all of the considerable resources at its disposal into Ultrabooks, the Windows PC industry's answer to Apple's MacBook Air. Dozens of new models  are set to debut at the show. I'll be looking for the coolest ones, and trying to get a sense as to whether everybody agrees on just what an Ultrabook is. (Right now, the definition doesn't amount to much more than "An Intel-based laptop that's on the thin side.")

New Windows 8 news. Even if Microsoft gets Windows 8 out the door faster than most people expect it will, it's going to be well into 2012 before the new operating system goes on sale. Anything the company has to say about the upgrade at CES will likely amount more to a sneak peek than a final push--but I still hope that Steve Ballmer uses his final CES keynote to tell us something we don't yet know about one of the most important pieces of software in Microsoft history.

4K TV.saw a lot of these ultra-high-resolution sets at the CEATEC show in Tokyo last October. LG, at least, apparently plans to bring an 84-inch 4K TV to CES, and I'm guessing it won't be the only company using the technology to draw crowds to its booth. Experts keep telling me that 4K is too pricey to matter in the home, or even that the human eye can't detect the extra pixels except on a theater-sized screen. All I know is that my eyeballs like what they've seen so far, and I want to keep tabs on how things are progressing.

3D that isn't terrible. I'm skeptical about the whole concept of 3D screens, and I don't expect that to change at this CES--or, maybe, at any future CES. Still, I'd love to be startled. I already know that a company called MasterImage 3D plans to show off its surprisingly watchable glasses-free technology on 7-inch and 10-inch displays. I'll be looking for it, and for other evidence that 3D isn't doomed to be a blurry, gimmicky mess.

Ice Cream Sandwich tablets. We already know that Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich will make phones such as the Galaxy Nexus meaningfully better than their Gingerbread-based predecessors. But no major hardware maker has released an ICS tablet yet, so it's tough to judge how much it'll improve on Android 3.2, also known as Honeycomb. Given the fractured nature of Android, I suspect that some new CES tablets will still be running Honeycomb; I'll consider myself lucky if I get some hands-on time with one or two Ice Cream Sandwich models.

Digital cameras for the smartphone-camera era. For the first time, CES 2012 will be colocated with PMA, the photography industry's big trade show. That should make for more camera news than usual, and I hope that some of it involves models that rethink what a digital camera should be like in 2012 and beyond. With the iPhone 4S and other phones capturing snapshots that are remarkably close in quality to those of standalone cameras--and adding the benefits of Internet connectivity and apps--cameras that aren't phones are going to need to improve on both the image-quality and feature fronts to stay relevant.

Video content deals. CES is still a show about hardware, but the appeal of any particular piece of gear is increasingly defined by the services it works with. In the case of devices that can stream video, that content consists of movies and TV shows. Hollywood is still figuring out just how comfortable it is with living-room boxes, tablets, and other gadgets that compete with cable TV and DVDs: It's experimenting both with services such as Netflix and with its own Netflix rivals such as HBO GO. I'm happy to pay for this stuff--I'd just like to see more of it available in unified services that I can get regardless of what I subscribe to on cable.

At least one major surprise. The best items at CES aren't the ones you can write about in a pre-show story like this. They're the products and trends you don't know about until you hit the show floor and visit the hotel suites where some products are demoed for the first time. (One of my favorites from the 2011 edition was the Motorola Atrix, the phone/laptop hybrid which I wrote about in this post.)

That sense of discovery is one of the things that keeps me excited about CES. On January 10, as I elbow my way into the Las Vegas Convention Center once again, I'll enter the building a happy man. I look forward to telling you about some of the things I find there.