CES 2009 Preview: 5 Trends to Look For

ces-iIf there was ever time the tech world needed serious buzz, it’s now. Especially after the Consumer Electronics Association announced in early December that it was downgrading its fourth quarter revenue forecast from 3.5 percent to a measly 0.1 percent. The challenge for notebook and gadget makers is to innovate while still delivering an outstanding value. People simply won’t pay for gee-whiz features if they don’t need them. (For proof look no further than the demise of the Internet-connected Dash Express GPS navigator.) Based on what we’re hearing, it seems as though many of the heaviest hitters are getting the message. Indeed, cheap is the new cool, a trend that started with netbooks and YouTube camcorders last year—and one that will only accelerate at this year’s CES. But that’s not the only trend we’re keeping our eyes on. LAPTOP’s staff will be out in full force in Vegas scouring the show floor for the coolest notebooks, cell phones, GPS, Wi-Fi, digital cameras, portable media players, and emerging technologies that will rock your mobile world. We’ll even narrow down the crop to our top choices and announce our winners on January 10 and allow you, our readers, to cast your vote on your favorite CES product with our new Reader’s Choice award. In the meantime we present the 5 hottest trends we expect to see at CES. More Feature-Rich Netbooks…And Cheaper Netbook Alternatives One of the few bright spots for the notebook industry in recent months has been low-cost netbooks, which are designed primarily for quick Web access on the go (the market did grow by 160 percent in one quarter alone). Although they’ve been marketed as secondary devices, the long battery life many netbooks offer, coupled with their larger 10-inch displays (up from 7 inches) has made them a tempting buy for anyone looking for a cheap but capable take-anywhere machine. Sure, we expect to see even more netbooks at this year’s show with more features (think WiMax, better graphics, and GPS), but we expect an even bigger splash to be made by low-cost ultraportable notebooks that offer better performance than netbooks for not much more money. The $699 MSI VR220 is only the first of what we expect to be several more lightweight systems to be introduced in this growing category. And Intel isn’t the only game in town when it comes to efficient CPUs, either. Touch Goes (Nearly) Mainstream On the touch front, HP has already introduced its TouchSmart tx2, the first convertible tablet for consumers with a capacitive multi-touch display. But I can guarantee that we’ll see at least a few more touch-enabled notebooks or netbooks at CES.  Touch sounds cool, and it can make surfing the Web and interacting with media more fun. However, I’m just not sure touch is all that sexy right now given the dearth of touch-optimized software—and given that Windows 7 is still pretty far out. Where will the killer apps come from without a proper backbone? We can at least say that the Convertible Classmate from Intel (which will be officially unveiled at the show) is a step in the right direction. Intel Finally Gets Some Competition Intel’s Atom has basically become synonymous with the netbook movement. But we haven’t given up on VIA’s Nano platform, which recently won an award for its greenness. Then again, publicity doesn’t necessarily translate into big-name partners. And the news that HP was ditching VIA for Intel in its latest netbook was a huge blow from which the company might not recover. So who is going to pick up the slack? AMD has pretty much sworn off the netbook market, instead choosing to focus its upcoming Congo and Yukon on other form factors. What will those be? We’ll likely find out at CES. Meanwhile, Nvidia has made major headway with Apple with its new 9400M integrated graphics solution and chipset. And we anticipate that more vendors will be jumping on the bandwagon. Nvidia also found a home inside the recent ASUS N10 netbook, which could be a precursor to bigger things to come in that space. Palm’s Big Comeback, Android Gaining Momentum It’s called Nova, and according to a somewhat vague story by BusinessWeek, Palm’s long-awaited platform is aiming at the sweet spot of the market between the iPhone’s media-centric personality and the business-focused BlackBerry line (although I would argue that both Apple and BlackBerry have a lot of cross-over appeal now). We’ll be at the press conference at CES on January 8 and will be blogging live from the event. Will this delayed OS and the first hardware that runs it be worth the wait? We hope so. On the other hand, now that we’ve entered the app era of smart phones, we’re skeptical that many developers will want to embrace/dedicate resources to yet another Linux-based platform when Android is making waves of its own. Speaking of Android, CES may be a bit too soon for newly announced partners like Sony Ercisson to show off any working devices, but we do hope that Motorola will step up to the plate. After all, the company has pretty much said that it’s pinning all of its hopes on Android, so it better have something to show for its efforts. Lord knows the world doesn’t need yet another Moto Q. We also hope LG and Samsung have something up their sleeves, but we’re not holding our breath. Mobile WiMax’ Last Stand? Now that the marriage of Sprint’s XOHM business and Clearwire has officially been cleared by the FCC, it’s time for the collective company to erase the bad memories of last year’s CES. Some Wi-Fi devices were masquerading as WiMax ones due to lack of coverage. Yes, Baltimore is up and running, and Portland will be next with a January 6 press conference scheduled. But Clearwire needs to put that $3.2 billion in investments from Comcast, Intel, Time Warner Cable, Google and Bright House Networks to good use, pronto. The goal is to cover between 120 and 140 million people with the Clear service by the end of 2010, but that might not be fast enough. Verizon just made it official that the carrier plans to begin rolling out its next-generation LTE technology (which promises to be even faster than Mobile WiMax) by the end of 2009. It all starts during the first week of January! Keep your browser tuned to www.laptopmag.com for all the CES coverage you need.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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