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A preview of cell phones and smartphones

As we prepare for CES 2011, the annual gadget trade show is expected to be a bigger event for cell phones than in previous years. CNET tells you what to expect.

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Bonnie Cha
Kent German
5 min read

Though they're the star attraction at CTIA and Mobile World Congress, cell phones and smartphones have to share the stage at CES. The 2009 show, where the Palm Pre won Best of CES, was an exception, but in the past few years our favorite gadgets have been overshadowed--sometimes even literally--by giant televisions, robots, and Earth-shattering speakers.

CES 2011, however, is shaping up to be a much different show for handsets. Perhaps the economy is getting better, or perhaps manufacturers are just tired of not getting enough attention, but cell phones and smartphones should play a big role in Las Vegas. Android should continue its relentless march, Windows Phone 7 may make an appearance, and 4G networks and devices should generate a lot of buzz. And outside of hardware, mobile apps will continue to flood in.

So color us excited for a lot of phone news. There's just one real wild card for now, and that is the long-rumored Verizon iPhone. If it does exist--and most signs point to yes--January is a likely time for it to make its debut. We don't think that will happen at CES--Apple is loathe to share the stage with anyone--but it will be top of mind for many attendees. But now as we prepare for the show to begin on January 6, here's what we expect.

Introduction of 4G handsets
With the "4G" wars heating up, we're facing some exciting and interesting battles for 2011. Sprint may have been first out of the gate with its WiMax network and the launch of the HTC Evo 4G and Samsung Epic 4G, but now Verizon and T-Mobile have crashed the party.

Verizon lit up its 4G network in 38 markets and in more than 60 airports on December 5 and plans to blanket the entire country over the next 18 months. Though Verizon didn't reveal any LTE handsets at the time--just two USB modems--the carrier did say that it would talk about "consumer-oriented smartphones" at CES 2011.

Indeed, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg is scheduled to give the opening keynote on January 6, and the carrier is planning a press conference for later that day. We're sure that we'll hear about new handsets at both events, though details are few at this point. Images of an LTE smartphone from LG have leaked onto the Web already, but we expect three or four additional devices from Big Red.

In addition to Verizon, T-Mobile also will be holding an event at CES, where it plans to talk more about its HSPA+ network and upcoming 4G products. Yes, there's debate (mostly in the tech world) about whether T-Mobile should even call its HSPA+ network 4G, since it's more of an evolution of its 3G network, but the carrier is running with it and has launched a not-so-subtle ad campaign and several accompanying products, including the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G and the T-Mobile G2.

Expect more Gingerbread Android phones.

Dual-core Android phones
Android really exploded in 2010. How much? Well, let's just say in 2009, we reviewed eight Android smartphones and in 2010, we reviewed more than 50. Now, Android 2.3 Gingerbread is out, and we expect other models to join the Nexus S. And even more than the new flavor of Android, the talk around the water cooler is when we'll see the first dual-core Android phones; and CES may just be the place. LG, Motorola, and Nvidia will be holding press conferences in Las Vegas.

Signs are pointing to an imminent release. We've already seen glimpses of the LG Star and the Motorola Olympus, both of which feature Nvidia's Tegra 2 chipset. This chipset features the first mobile 1080p HD video processor and promises 2x faster Web browsing and 5x faster gaming on your mobile device.

Some benchmark tests performed by Engadget Mobile on a prototype of the LG Star show that the smartphone was twice as fast as the Motorola Droid X and the HTC Evo 4G, so it looks we're on our way to the next level of smartphone performance.

AT&T's LG Quantum is the most recent Windows Phone 7 handset that CNET has reviewed, but it won't be the last.

What's next for WebOS and Windows Phone 7?
As we mentioned, it was at CES 2009 that Palm debuted the Palm Pre and WebOS and knocked our socks off. Since then the company has gone through some changes, most notably an acquisition by HP, and though the Palm Pre 2 and WebOS 2.0 have come out, they feel more like remnants of the old Palm. We're still waiting to see some new hardware from HP-Palm.

Recently at the D: Dive into Mobile conference, former Palm CEO and now Senior Vice President and General Manager of HP's Palm Global Business unit Jon Rubenstein said that the company plans to introduce several new products in 2011, including phones and tablets, so hopefully we'll get a glimpse of something at CES.

Another company trying to restake its claim on the mobile scene is Microsoft. Windows Phone 7 launched with mostly positive reviews, but the next year will be a crucial one, as the company needs to continue pumping out new features and devices.

The latest rumors say that the first update to the mobile operating system will be introduced at CES, with such features a copy-and-paste, but the big-ticket items--multitasking, in-app downloads, Silverlight--may not come till Mobile World Congress. There's also a chance we'll see new Windows Phone 7 devices for the CDMA carriers, Verizon and Sprint.

Other manufacturers
Less than a month out from CES, we also expect news from ZTE, HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, and Motorola. The latter two companies have scheduled press conferences for January 5. Any new handsets might fit into the above categories, but don't be surprised if Moto or Sammy also churn out messaging devices or even--gasp--a basic phone.

These days it seems like you can't have a smartphone without apps. Software publishers will be out in force in the desert for all operating systems including iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7. As the newest OS, we're eager for Microsoft's platform to receive a lot of attention, but we'll take efforts on all fronts. Separating the wheat from the chaff won't be easy, but we'll bring the hottest news as it comes.