CES 2010 preview: Six trends to watch for at this year's show

CES 2010: In an attempt to make sense of the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, here are six trends we'll be watching for at this year's show.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

The 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show is just days away -- it unofficially begins on Tue., Jan. 5 and officially on Thurs. Jan. 7 in Las Vegas, Nev. -- and this year is expected to popularize several technologies that have been under development for some time.

(ZDNet will be live in Las Vegas covering next week's show, starting Jan. 5. Don't miss it!)

In an attempt to make sense of it all before the landslide of news begins to overwhelm, here are six trends we'll be watching for at this year's show:

1.) Small laptops experience fragmentation

With the announcement of Intel's new Atom N450 processor, the netbook is taking steps toward becoming less than a poor-performing, undersized laptop.

At the same time, expect all the major notebook manufacturers to introduce laptops with ULV -- that's ultra-low-voltage -- processors in them, which offer more performance than the Atom, great efficiency (and thus battery life), and a small footprint, allowing systems to be quite thin in form factor.

Complicating the situation is the introduction of the smartbook, which by nature of its name, fits between the netbook and the smartphone. Smartbooks are extra small and portable, offer comparable battery life and eschew x86 processors (goodbye, Intel!) for mobile processors (hello, Qualcomm!), just like e-book readers. They're expected to be priced more affordable than the netbook (we're talking $150 to $250).

Two years ago, we had laptops of all shapes and sizes. One year ago, we had notebooks and netbooks. Now, we'll have full-powered notebooks, ULV laptops, netbooks and smartbooks. (Not to mention the occasional rumored slate tablet device by a certain company in Cupertino, among others.)

Will there be another netbook boom? I doubt it -- the market has changed, and there are now different players. But expect to see solid sales in this market as college students and others catch on to the utility of smaller, thinner portable computers.

2.) Home theater goes 3D

By now you've surely heard all the ruckus about James Cameron's Avatar, a film so expensive that by design it's supposed to usher in a new era of big-screen entertainment: 3D. Visual entertainment in three dimensions is by no means new, but the latest renaissance of the technology is coming on strong, with most major film houses (pricier tickets!), television manufacturers (bigger televisions!), home theater component sellers (renewed interest!) and content providers (3D channels! TV sitcoms! Football games! Star Wars!) all having a hand in the pot.

Jeffrey Katzenberg would be pleased, indeed.

Since CES places such prominence on the home theater segment of consumer electronics, expect to see a number of big-name TV manufacturers placing renewed emphasis on 3D tech for the home. What that means: bigger sets, sales of sophisticated 3D glasses, 3D boxes and a whole lot of (likely overpriced) HDMI cables. Now that the technology has been available for awhile, prices are pushing down -- meaning you can soon buy an 82-inch 3D HDTV for less than $2,999.

High-end home theater has been out of vogue for the younger market. Expect 3D to make a play for those consumers' attention.

3.) Brighter, crisper, more flexible displays

Now that we've got all these big, interactive screens in our lives -- televisions, laptops, smartphones, and so forth -- how can we improve on them?

That's where OLED, or "organic light-emitting diode," displays come in. Like 3D home theater tech, OLED is nothing new, but it's plenty expensive. At CES in previous years, Sony and Samsung have outgunned each other in terms of the thinnest and largest OLED displays. Until now, the price has proven too high for all but the wealthiest of early adopters, and durability has always been a concern.

This year, expect OLED (and thin, durable cousin AMOLED, or "active-matrix OLED") to work its way into many more portable gadgets. The world may not yet be ready for an 82-inch OLED display (though I know a few folks who will make themselves ready), but the three-inch screen on your smartphone? That can certainly be done -- meaning brighter, crisper displays are already coming to your favorite electronics.

You've heard us gadget reviewers rave about the vibrancy of these screens. Soon, they'll be available on far more than the Zune HD or Samsung Omnia II.

Oh, and the flexible thing? For several years, manufacturers have been working on ways to offer flexible and/or transparent OLED displays. They're getting better at it, and the technology has proven itself inexpensive to manufacture. Don't expect to see any products with the technology at CES, but you might see a prototype (e-book reader, perhaps?) of things to come.

4.) Car tech gets smarter

Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally is scheduled to give a keynote speech at CES this year, and there's a reason: car tech is back in a big way.

For years, car tech meant making automobiles less hostile to portable technology (remember the 2001 Mazda Protégé MP3?). Now, car makers are realizing that the best way to please folks is to actually make cars smarter and incorporate one's personal tech life into the vehicle by fully integrating with other decidedly non-car devices.

For Ford, that means plenty of promotion of SYNC, the company's in-car communications and entertainment system, which was developed in partnership with -- you guessed it -- Microsoft. Sync incorporates essential services (911 emergency, turn-by-turn GPS directions, weather and traffic info) with hands-free, voice-activated manipulation of phone calls, music, text messaging -- even turning your vehicle into a Wi-Fi hotspot.

In other words: your car is now playing nicer with your digital life.

The system was announced in 2007, but the company's placing renewed focus on the tech, rolling it out into less expensive vehicles and using it as a competitive differentiator. The clock's ticking, however: Kia will be announcing a competing system named UVO at CES, also based off Microsoft's now non-exclusive technology. And I'm sure General Motors has something in the lab, perhaps based on its OnStar system.

Bad for Ford, good for consumers.

5.) Smartphones get aggressive, tablets get impressive

CES was never really a mobile phone show, but Palm's success drawing eyeballs for the launch of its Pre smartphone and webOS platform last year told the world that it's not a half-bad idea to break the rules.

We've come a long way in a year's time. It was barely a year ago that the first Google Android phone (T-Mobile G1) was released, the first touchscreen BlackBerry (Storm) was introduced, and touchscreen smartphones were an expensive novelty.

The mobile market in 2010 will be a cage match. Palm's already scheduled another press conference -- maybe this year they'll save the company -- and with a bit of Apple-like flair, Google has announced a January 5 event that's expected to be for its Google Nexus One Android-based smartphone for T-Mobile.

Moreover, Dell is rumored to be announcing something mobile -- maybe an Android phone, maybe a tablet PC -- at CES. And have we mentioned Google Chrome OS yet? Something tells me HTC's got something in the works.

6.) Eco-friendly everything

All year, manufacturers have been touting their green credentials, from better power efficiency to reducing manufacturing costs to making more environmentally-friendly packaging for their new gadgets (see Dell's above). For them, it's not just good for the environment, it's good business, too.

This year's CES is making "green" official by scheduling green-specific conferences and green gadget show-and-tells. The show's governing body, the Consumer Electronics Association, has also promised to buy carbon offsets and donate $50,000 to the Las Vegas police department to invest in electric vehicles.

We'll be covering some of the new green gadgets here on ZDNet, but for the full green experience at CES, keep an eye on our sister site SmartPlanet.

Which tech trends do you anticipate the most? Leave your techie desires in TalkBack.

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