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Why you won't want to buy the laptops of CES 2012

Ivy Bridge processors and Windows 8 might mean that the best laptops of 2012 haven't arrived yet. My advice: wait for the future.

Laptops are about to change...later this year: Intel at CES.
James Martin/CNET

LAS VEGAS--The message of CES 2012 for laptops thus far: wait.

I'd love to tell you that one of the laptops of this year's Consumer Electronics Show is absolutely wonderful, a must-buy. However, I can't. I have a strong feeling that whatever we see at this show is only a half-step forward. Worse, there's a very good chance that it'll all be out of date by midyear.

The reasons are utterly simple, and made even clearer by this morning's Intel keynote presentation.

James Martin/CNET

Ivy Bridge: Intel's next-gen processors for laptops aren't going to hit till later this year, probably April or May. There will be several strong advantages to Ivy Bridge: faster performance, obviously, but also native support for the high-speed and versatile Thunderbolt port, and better integrated graphics

You may not care about any of this. You might only want an affordable, good-looking, good-feeling laptop. Alas, it still very much makes sense to wait. Laptop manufacturers like to tie their products to processors (see last year's wave of Sandy Bridge laptops, or the previous year's Core i3/i5/i7 offerings). New designs for Ivy Bridge are likely. And, once new top-end laptops hit the market, the cost and value of today's must-have laptop is bound to drop. You'll get more for less. Some of the laptops at CES 2012 will likely feature Ivy Bridge, but others may not. It's more than a little unclear at the moment.

Windows 8: Microsoft's next operating system has a notably different design and a more touch-friendly appeal. Again, many people might be happy with Windows 7, but Windows 8 will take advantage of features on next-gen machines, and will come preinstalled on laptops later this year. Waiting for a Windows 8 laptop will save money on buying a new version of Windows.

James Martin/CNET

Ultrabooks, wave 2: ultrabooks have already become the buzzword of the whole laptop industry, but it's early days yet for these sleeker, faster machines. We've already seen prices drop on Windows ultrabooks in only six months, from over $1,000 to as low as $699. Standard hard drives and hybrid hard drives are being offered in addition to solid-state drives (SSDs). Larger 14-inch ultrabooks are pushing the design mandate outward to what are starting to just look like thinner, more stylish laptops rather than ultraportables: optical drives, dedicated graphics, and multiple hard-drive bays are just the beginning. Equipped with Thunderbolt, Ivy Bridge, and Windows 8, ultrabooks later this year are going to be far more polished, and probably even more affordable.

James Martin/CNET

The next design wave: Intel made it perfectly clear that the initiative for the next generation of laptops will focus on features like Nuance voice control, gestures, touch screens, NFC (near-field communication), and other possibly novel design ideas. Now, concept laptops such as the Nikiski concept ultrabook (see the photos above) and real-world products are two very different beasts, but you can read between the lines and bet that laptops coming later this year featuring Windows 8 and Ivy Bridge will bend over backward to wow with new design elements. The redesigning of what's currently a pretty boring landscape of laptops may start soon enough.

Now, some laptops we've been seeing at CES 2012 are part of that next generation. Manufacturers have been coy, but any laptops featuring Thunderbolt are bound to be Ivy Bridge-based. However, it's a mixed bag, and a transitional period for laptops.

Yes, that takes the air out of CES 2012 as far as laptops are concerned, but it's the fault of timing. Ivy Bridge and Windows 8 just aren't ready yet, and until they are, anything we see at this show is just a refinement of 2011. Some laptops that we've seen, like the Acer Aspire S5, look to be next-generation laptops with Ivy Bridge. When those start to emerge, we can really consider the "true" laptops of 2012 to have begun arriving. If I were considering buying a laptop right now, I'd strongly consider waiting for both Windows 8 and Ivy Bridge, just to see what products emerge to be timed for both.

Until then--and until manufacturers come forward with whatever secret projects they're no doubt working on--this may not be a year to go out laptop shopping, unless you don't mind being outdated before 2013.