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2010 desktops and laptops preview

What will the future of computers bring? CES 2010 is less than a month away--until then, let's take a peek at what to expect.

The biggest consumer electronics event of the year is around the corner, and by that we of course mean CES 2010. We'll all be there in Vegas scouting out the best of what's new, but you may find yourself asking: after Windows 7 and the launch of Core i7 laptops, what else is there to look forward to? Plenty, by our measure. Here are the trends we're expecting to see.

New Atom processors, new Netbooks
The star of the show will likely be Intel's new line of Atom processors for Netbooks. Previously codenamed Pine Trail, these new CPUs will give the Netbooks platform a performance push, we hope, making these popular laptops even more ubiquitous. Currently, Netbooks are great for some tasks, but can be frustrating to use if you need them for all-around computing. Look for added graphics and HD video performance in particular.

On a related note, hardware manufacturers will continue to try to "upscale" Netbooks, by adding features such as discrete graphics, touch screens, and HD displays--all in an effort to move prices past the low-margin $299 mark. We'll see increased stratification in Netbooks--a category previously notable for its commodity nature.


Here come the Smartbooks
If you don't know the term already, get ready to know it, as this will be one of the hot product trends of 2010. Consider them even cheaper and smaller Netbooks toting smartphone-level processors and a pared-down OS. Small CPUs such as the Nvidia Tegra and the Qualcomm Snapdragon are what will power this next generation of devices, and almost none of them will have an operating system that will be Windows or Mac.

Expect to see most of these hybrid devices with 3G antennas, sold in cellphone stores, and subsidized by mobile phone providers, much like some Netbooks already are. Economic realities have pushed computer makers to favor value over flash in designing new systems, and at CES 2010, we're likely to see a bigger focus on Netbooks and other low-cost PCs over the extravagant showstoppers of previous years. Smartbooks could help define a new low-end pricing zone, but it remains to be seen whether they'll offer enough computing power.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Seeing in 3D
Among the few high-end themes, look for greater integration of 3D technology. Asus already has a laptop with Nvidia's 3D Vision technology built in, and other PC brands are sure to follow, even if these expensive machines remain more proof-of-concept than actual products consumers are likely to buy. While it's likely only a matter of time before many high-end gaming laptops with Nvidia GPUs have 3D capabilities built right in, will it be a feature you'll want to use? That all depends on the content that becomes available, and how well the mandatory 3D glasses fit on your face.

Google Chrome and other OS concepts
Windows 7's launch has come and gone, but Google's Chrome OS still looms on the horizon. While a browser-based OS seems like an awkward fit for more full-powered notebooks, it could be ideal for the growing smartbook and tablet world. Which brings us to...


Rise of the tablets
As if Apple's long-rumored Kindle-killer and the Microsoft Courier project weren't already harbingers, we've seen the emergence of the JooJoo (formerly CrunchPad), the Vega tablet, and many rumors of other devices including a Dell tablet/MID, all of which suggest a very tablet-focused CES. In fact, tablets could be the other side of smartbooks--keyboard-free devices with tiny processors that aim to do what smartphones like the iPhone already do, but on a larger scale. As an added bonus, tablets might be able to replicate or even subsume the widespread e-reader market.

USB 3.0
The successor to the ubiquitous USB 2.0 format has data speeds that eclipse most other formats, making it a tempting all-in-one port solution in PCs of the future. That depends on manufacturers and peripherals coming to agreement, of course. USB 3.0 devices, such as external hard drives, are already hitting the market, and we can expect PCs to start throwing in 3.0 ports at CES.

SSD growth
So far, SSDs haven't taken over the hard drive market like they once were expected to, hampered mostly by price. This year could be the start of the shift, with affordable SSD conversion kits and external drives becoming more widely available.

Expanding the Core i7 family
Intel's Core i7 CPUs came to laptops earlier this year, and Intel added a midrange Core i5 variation for desktops. Intel is slated to add even more members of its Core i7 family for both laptops and desktops in Q1 2010. As it has in the past, we expect Intel will share information on its new CPUs at the show.