Annual tech industry beacon the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicked off yesterday with its usual bombast, showcasing the year’s best new gadgets and technology trends through the funhouse mirror of blaring loudspeakers and shimmering, wall-sized 3D displays. Over 140,000 attendees are expected over the three-day event, and they will vie to ogle the next generation of smartphones, tablets and Internet-ready TVs plus catch celebrity cameos by such stars as Justin Bieber, 50 Cent, and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi.
Major themes this year include the rise of Intel’s ultrabooks: laptops that offer slate computers' anorexic design without sacrificing standard-issue notebook PC perks like power, performance and a full-size keyboard. Available from virtually every major manufacturer from Acer to Dell to Sony, and expected to add touchscreens and wireless near-field communication payment capabilities in coming years, shoppers will pay around $1000-1400 for them. From the HP Envy 14 Spectre’s built-in Beats Audio features to the Asus Zenbook’s signature acoustic technology, co-developed with audio equipment maker Bang & Olufsen, music listening and playback features prominently in these designs. Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am even popped in for a special appearance to shill models of these 21st century ghetto blasters and laud systems’ alleged potential to empower artists and music creators.
Connected – or "smart" – TVs, or television sets that connect to the Internet to allow for streaming and on-demand playback or app downloading, are also a major high-tech meme in 2012. Oversized 55-inch OLED sets by Samsung and LG, which deliver striking color contrast and brightness (the former coming in 2012’s second half, the latter painfully thin, and both estimated to cost over $5000) have generated considerable headlines. But across the board, as evidenced by Yahoo! and Google TV’s growing from of partners including Vizio, Toshiba and Sony, plus Internet-ready sets from virtually every major player including Sharp and Panasonic, online access is the dominant new direction. While streaming music services like Pandora have been token inclusions in earlier efforts, expect more Internet-based solutions such as Spotify, MOG and Rdio to vie for a piece of connected sets’ growing audience numbers going forward.
Cloud services will play a role in their evolution as companies vie to make streaming media – and the practice of beaming it between mobile handsets, tablets, PCs and certain TVs – commonplace. Already Acer plans to roll out iCloud rival AcerCloud, a proprietary custom service that will let you share music, movies, photos, documents and data between PCs and mobile devices. Also keen to keep listeners and viewers glued to its full range of electronic gizmos, Lenovo will launch a "personal cloud" concept in coming months, which it sees as offering a seamless entertainment experience that spans smartphones, TVs and laptops. Regardless, rival manufacturers such as D-Link are banking that the future lies instead in affordable cloud-enabled hardware that lets you easily share or access multimedia content on mobile or stationary devices from distant home networks.
Tablets and smartphones are also clearly becoming more supercharged. Examples like Asus’s 7-inch Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0)-powered EeePad Memo, backed by NVIDIA’s quad-core Tegra 3 mobile processor, should be capable of juggling advanced software and apps that more visibly approach desktop quality. Expected to ship in the first half of 2012 for $249, the units look to join select mobile handsets such as Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx, which offers over 20 hours of talk time, in underscoring the year's most underrated trend: providing practical convenience. Microsoft, which is presently ending its lengthy tenure as a tentacle CES exhibitor, may have taken the opportunity to demonstrate the Lumia 900, its beefy new flagship high-speed 4G LTE, Windows Phone-powered handset created in conjunction with Nokia. But it's clear that, following a year of underwhelming sales for 3D TV and many premium-priced electronics, tech makers are looking to better align features and retail costs with the average American household's everyday needs.
However, don't expect this newer, more practical mindset to kill CES's signature flair for excess, a draw that lures thousands of curious enthusiasts and thrill-seekers annually to the Las Vegas Convention Center. As is evident onsite, there's still a full cadre of absurdities from app-enabled cars to giant inflatable rats and dancing robots to satisfy the casual onlooker. Besides, courtesy of Mitsubishi or LG, there’s always time to pick up 92- and 84-inch 3DTVs, respectively, with that Wall Street bonus.
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