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Looking back at CES 2012, and forward on the year it will define

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When 150,000 people gather in the middle of the desert to gawk at technology, a sense of perspective becomes even harder to find than an unoccupied bathroom. Among all the shiny metal and glass, silicon and plastic, megahertz and gigabytes heaped into one room, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Or see the future from the gadgets that will herald its arrival, as the case may be.

Fortunately, that’s why all things Vegas must come to an end. Now sober, rested, and safely cloistered back in Portland, we’ve seen a lot of the major trends from CES congeal in front of us. And for the most part, we like what we see. Here’s what CES 2012 showed us about the year to come.

Ultrabooks are the new netbooks.

Check out our Acer Aspire S5 review.

Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook, 13-inchWhether because they’re terrified of Apple’s MacBook Air or genuinely believe in Intel’s sales pitch, all major manufacturers are spooling up an avalanche of Ultrabooks in 2012, not unlike the monsoon of netbooks we saw back in 2007. Of course, we knew this before CES, but the most interesting relevation of the show might be the colorful variety we’re seeing. Lenovo unleashed a durable ThinkPad Ultrabook, Samsung showed one that can handle optical drives and discrete graphics, and Acer’s S5 is so slim it needs to open a mechanical trunk in the back to even connect an HDMI cable. Though Intel demands that notebooks comply with a tight set of standards to use the Ultrabook name, we’re glad to see so much variety in a category we were initially tempted to pass off as merely MacBook Air clones.

Windows 8 will open some interesting doors.

Kupa Windows 8 tabletWe’ve already had a chance to toy with the developer preview of Windows 8, but it’s the hardware that will launch alongside it that has us grinning. Now that Windows will sport both a viable tablet interface and run on ARM processors, the possibilities for what types of devices can run Windows are about to get a lot broader. While most companies have stayed mum on the bizarro hybrids they’re cooking up skunkworks labs, the hardware we were able to see behind closed doors (and sorry, not talk about) gives us hope. If Microsoft can make Windows 8 what it should be, plenty of companies are willing to step up and build some pretty sick hardware to accompany.

Nobody knows what size a tablet should be yet.

Toshiba Concept Tablets - CES 2012 - 13.3-inch tablet - FrontToshiba’s booth featured a tablet display that looked like a row of Russian Matryoshka dolls, with 13.3-inch, 10-inch 7.7-inch and 5.1-inch tablets all lined up neatly. The last even had a 21:9 aspect ratio to throw another kink into things. The same theme repeated itself over and over at different booths, where new sizes of tablets seem to vastly outnumber any real innovative new features. While we don’t expect one master size to eventually rule the tablet market, the extremely wide variance between sizes seems to reflect consumer uncertainty over just what it is a tablet should do, and where you should use it. Hopefully, a trend toward higher resolution screens this year should shake out some of the odd sizes as consumers realize they can carry around the same amount of detail in a smaller physical package.

4K makes 1080p look like blurry.

Speaking of higher resolution, it looks like the 4K standard is finally more than a buzzword around prototypes for 2012. With four times the resolution as a standard 1080p display, 4K offers the same amount of detail as the 70-foot cinema display at the local theater, but in a size you can finally take home. Sony made inroads to 4K at CEDIA this year with a 4K projector built for the home, but Sharp plans to bring the same quality to conventional LCDs with a 4K flat-panel display later this year. Of course, just don’t ask where 4K content will come from unless you want to hear a story about storks, because nobody knows at this point. As with 3D, upconversion will definitely play a role in the early days, though we know videophiles will (rightly) sneer at the idea of magically summoning more detail from less detail.

You will want an OLED TV… but probably can’t afford one.

Samsung-OLEDYes, you will finally be able to buy an OLED TV for your living room this year. Both Samsung and LG have plans to ship 55-inch OLED models in 2012, and both look stunningly brilliant and almost miraculously thin. Has the Achilles’ heel of short-lived blue phosphers that could doom OLED TVs to an early death finally been addressed? Only time will tell, but if you have the money, you can now cut a check for $8,000 and find out.

3D is going into hibernation until the glasses go away.

3DTVNo, we’re not going to see 3D TVs pulled from shelves in 2012, but the advertising blitz and fanfare that accompanied their arrival has finally cooled down. Few companies made a point of specifically mentioning 3D in their press conferences this year — it’s been deflated to another bullet point on the feature list beside motion interpolation and contrast ratios. Only Panasonic seems to still be proudly flying 3D flags, and even those have been relegated to announcements like the first Olympic games televised in 3D and a new 3D camcorder. Good riddance. Fortunately, Toshiba and a number of other companies are still showcasing glasses-free solutions that seem to be moving closer to something we could live with at home.

Go 4G or go home.

LG Spectrum 4G LTE phone for Verizon - CES 2012OK, so you didn’t need CES 2012 to see this one coming, but we can’t resist shooting fish in a barrel. This year didn’t yield any revolutionary mobile phones, but the stars of the show all had one thing in common: 4G. If you’re getting a phone in 2012, it will have 4G. If it doesn’t, it will be old. Oh, and our preference for Verizon’s rock-solid, almost supernaturally fast 4G network was only further cemented by the performance of two MiFi hotspots we used to cover the show, both of which seemed almost unshakable.

Cameras get connected. 

lensEvery major manufacturer has added the “smart” moniker to at least a handful of its lineup. Connectivity and communicating devices have been flooding CES for years, but cameras have been something of a hold out. This year, companies either stepped up to the geo-tagging plate, or launched totally connected cameras–with notable mentions going out to Samsung, Kodak, and Polaroid. Some of this wireless experimentation has been timid, and others have taken big, risky steps. Either way, it’s promising: accessories that can immediately port your pictures have been available for awhile, but camera makers haven’t totally embraced the idea of Wi-Fi enabled cameras. This is just a glimpse in that direction, and we think it means that next year we can expect to see cameras of all makes and models breaking into this market. 

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