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Thinner laptops at CES 2012, but what about Ivy Bridge and Thunderbolt?

Our CES 2012 preview for laptop and desktop computers highlights thin ultrabooks,

Sarah Tew

Laptop and desktop computers aren't always the most high-profile of products shown at CES, but with an influx of new, thin, ultrabook laptops expected, as well as an updated CPU platform from Intel, you're sure to get a detailed view of what PCs will be on shopping lists for the rest of 2012.

Laptops get thinner
We've seen a good handful of ultrabooks already, but the rumor mill says that nearly every computer manufacturer will get in on the act with at least one 13- or 14-inch entry. Remember that an ultrabook (according to Intel's official definition) can include laptops in the 15-inch range, so we may see some of those as well.

There will also be laptops that will try to split the difference, with thin bodies but a hybrid combination of SSDs and platter-based hard drives, or optical drives. Finally, expect a lot of hard-to-quantify talk about fitting a 14-inch laptop into a 13-inch chassis (or a 13-inch into a 12-inch, and so on).

Nothing close to last year's evolutionary Sandy Bridge leap
Intel introduced its six-core Sandy Bridge-E series desktop CPUs at the end of 2011. We expect more chips in that lineup throughout the spring, but the industry is really waiting for Intel's next-generation CPU architecture, code-named Ivy Bridge, due out in mid 2012. Many vendors we've spoken with have said they will not demonstrate Ivy Bridge-equipped PCs at CES, which suggests a tame show in terms of core PC technology announcements.

Windows 8
With the public beta of Windows 8 coming in February 2012 (after CES), it will be interesting to see how far out front of the new operating system PC makers get. The optional Metro interface has already inspired companies such as Samsung to create similar custom UI packages for current Windows 7 systems, and there's a possibility that we could see ARM-based laptops taking over some of the low end of the market previously owned by Intel's Atom CPU line. Of course, the Steve Ballmer keynote at CES 2012 is sure to include some Windows 8 hype, so expect it to be a hot topic at the show.

Will tablets feature full operating systems like Windows 8? Will tabletlike OS environments such as WebOS travel over to laptops? Perhaps we'll see a few laptops that boldly try to be tablets as well, like the never-realized Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid. Companies like Asus have already taken the plunge with devices such as the Transformer Prime. In the ultraportable space, expect other fanciful products to emerge--some with Android operating systems, others with Windows.

Consumer and business laptops cross streams
There will be less distinction between business and personal tools, and you'll see consumer PC models made available to business customers and vice versa. Of course, you've always been able to buy, for example, laptops from a PC maker's business line for personal use, and occasionally we've recommended that for specific systems. The difference now is that some major PC makers will strongly encourage the practice by making the same systems available in both consumer and business storefronts.

Thunderbolt's coming-out party
If Ivy Bridge isn't going to receive a big push at CES, we also have to wonder about Thunderbolt, the fast new connection standard Intel introduced on Apple's 2011 Macs. A few PC products already have Thunderbolt ports, but Ivy Bridge will popularize the standard by supporting Thunderbolt at the chipset level. Once that happens, we anticipate an influx of Thunderbolt-equipped peripherals like fast external storage hubs and external graphics cards. We'd be surprised if Thunderbolt devices were a complete no-show at this year's CES, but without a large Ivy Bridge presence, anything we see will likely be either prototype hardware or aimed at Mac users.