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PCs take the lead at CES 2012: Laptops, desktops, and hardware

With high expectations for new Intel chips, Windows 8, Thunderbolt, and slim ultrabook laptops, personal computers were in many ways the star of the show at CES 2012.

LAS VEGAS--It's a rare CES for which most of the digital ink spilled is about computers and hardware, rather than giant televisions. But 2012 was just such a year, thanks to the never-ending drumbeat of Intel's ultrabook platform.

Yes, ultrabooks again
It seems like you couldn't walk more than a hundred steps across the velvety carpet of the CES show floor without running into a giant ULTRABOOK or WINDOWS 8 sign. The first official ultrabook-designated laptops (it's an Intel marketing term) arrived during the 2011 holiday season, but CES 2012 was a coming-out party for a host of new designs from nearly all manufacturers.

Mooly Eden, the head of Intel's PC unit, shows off a concept ultrabook that has both a touch screen and keyboard at a press conference at CES. James Martin/CNET

The laptops ranged from the diminutive (the Acer Aspire S5) to the large and bold (the HP Envy 14 Spectre), and to the copycat (the MacBook-Air-alike Dell XPS 13). And 14- and 15-inch models, some with optical drives, dedicated graphics, and hybrid solid-state/hard drives, have begun to blur a category only in its nascency, leading us to ask if the category will suffer from unnecessary mission creep.

Will that mean that consumers will have a hard time identifying what an ultrabook is, or even feel the category has become overhyped and overexposed by the end of this year? Ultrabooks may be the industry's next great hope, judging by Intel's ultrabook-obsessed keynote presentation, but that doesn't mean consumers are never going to want anything different.

But not just ultrabooks
Only a handful of other, non-ultrabook laptops really stood out.

Asus kept the Netbook market alive (if only barely) with a new $299 Eee PC called the Flare, and Origin went the other way, dressing up its custom-made overclocked gaming laptops with some new outer shells.

Further blurring the line were are-they-or-aren't-they systems such as the second-generation Samsung Series 9, which looked and felt like ultrabooks, but didn't technically meet Intel's internal standards for that category. It's probably a good bet that we'll see a lot more almost-ultrabooks (fauxtrabooks?) in the near future. Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga, which folds over into a tablet, was another hard-to-categorize product--so much so that we nominated it for an award in our tablets category.

Largely missing from the show were the workhorse systems that most price-conscious shoppers end up with. Lenovo with the ThinkPad Edge S430 and Samsung with the Series 5, for example, at least showed up with something other than razor-thin laptops.

Fortunately, we also got to see a handful of interesting new desktop PCs. Samsung impressed us most with its Series 9 all-in-one. After a couple of years of nonstop iMac knockoffs, it's refreshing to see PC makers take a divergent approach to design. On top of that, this system is indicative that the 27-inch screen is quickly becoming the new norm.

Waiting for Ivy Bridge
By the end of the show, despite a handful (a big handful, but still a handful) of interesting-looking new products, everyone in Las Vegas knew that CES 2012 was a bit of a tease. Windows 8 and Intel's next-gen CPUs (code-named Ivy Bridge) won't be commercially available until later in the year, bringing with them everything from a touch-friendly PC interface to native Thunderbolt support.

We saw a handful of Windows 8 systems floating around (many behind closed doors), and heard a lot of hushed talk about Ivy Bridge, but all that makes us think next year's CES will be the real game-changer.