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CES 2012 Preview: Top 7 Trends to Watch

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is like the Super Bowl of tech, and this year it will attract 140,000 attendees looking for the next big thing. What makes the show fun for us, though, is that there isn't just one next big thing. There are several trends we're keeping an eye on, from Microsoft's next OS and Ultrabooks to Android Ice Cream Sandwich and the next generation of car tech.

LAPTOP's team of editors and writers will be on the ground starting January 7th all the way through the 13th, bringing you the very latest mobile news live from the show floor. You'll see hands-on product videos, keynote coverage, and insightful analysis right from the show floor (and beyond).

So what's in store for CES 2012? Here are our top 7 trends to watch.

Windows 8: Hurry Up and Wait

Given that Steve Ballmer will once again kick off CES with an opening keynote, it shouldn't be any surprise that he will trumpet the benefits of Windows 8 and the progress being made on the platform. We've already test-driven the sleek software using the Developer Preview on both a tablet and a laptop. And most recently, Microsoft showed off the new Windows Store, where Windows 8 users will be able to download apps.

So what's left? Ballmer will hopefully provide more details about the launch of the public beta of the OS—planned for late February—as well as show off some exciting hardware. The challenge: keeping the excitement going all the way to the end of the year—and convincing us that the software makes just as much sense for notebooks as it does slates. This will also be Microsoft's last hurrah at CES, as the company announced plans to pull out of the show starting in 2013.

Ultrabooks Get Bigger… and Cheaper

Rumors are swirling that Apple is readying a 15-inch MacBook Air, so you can bet that Windows notebook makers will make a pre-emptive strike at CES. We expect to see ultra-thin laptops that meet Intel's definition of Ultrabook—less than 0.8 inches thick, fast boot and resume times—but that also stretch screen sizes beyond 13 inches. At the same time, vendors will look to undercut Apple by making their wares more affordable.

By back-to-school time, starting prices will likely sink to $699. The Ultrabook trend isn't just for consumers, either. We expect to see at least one model tailored for the business crowd, joining the HP Folio. Also look for Intel to provide more info on its Ivy Bridge processors, which should supercharge Ultrabooks later in the year.

Ice Cream Sandwich Tablets Galore

Now that smartphone shoppers have gotten a taste of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, it's time for tablets to get in on the action. The software certainly looks more polished and should make multitasking easier, but it's not clear to us yet what advantages the new OS will have for larger-screen devices. Thus far, the only hot-selling Android tablet is the Kindle Fire, which runs an older flavor of Google's software and uses a completely different interface, so Google and its partners certainly have their work cut out.

In fact, Google's chairman Eric Schmidt recently told an Italian newspaper, “In the next six months we plan to market a tablet of the highest quality.” So what does that make the stuff coming out at CES? Crap?

Nokia + Windows Phone = Relevance?

With market share at a measly 2 percent (according to NPD), Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.5 platform isn't exactly setting the world on fire. But Nokia hopes to turn things around with a big push in the U.S starting in 2012. The company has scheduled a press conference for January 9th, at which many expect Nokia to unveil a variant of the Lumia 800 with 4G LTE capability. AT&T is expected to be the carrier, but it's certainly possible that Verizon could be in the mix.

We generally liked the latest OS in our Windows Phone 7.5 review, and Microsoft's marketplace stocks plenty of quality apps. But the hardware hasn't really excited us. For Nokia and Microsoft, it's put up or shut up time.

Wearable Tech Gets Smarter

According to reports, Apple is working on a bendable iPod and other wearable devices that would communicate with an iPhone. And Google has a pair of smart glasses in the pipeline that would display information on a built-in screen.In the meantime, plenty of companies are hoping to make wearable tech sexy, including the Italy-based i'm Watch. The device looks awfully similar to the iPod nano but runs Android and comes with a watchband.

WIMM is yet another company marking an Android-powered timepiece. The WIMM One has a less-sexy design, but lets you read RSS feeds on your wrist and comes with "micro apps." The wearable tech trend also extends to fitness gadgets such as the MotoActv and Jawbone Up, so we fully anticipate similar devices to debut at CES.

Car Apps Take Over

You know it's going to be a big show for car tech when the head of Mercedes Benz and the president of Ford are both giving keynotes at CES 2012. After all, shoppers are more psyched about apps inside their vehicles than the number of cup holders. Dr. Dieter Zetsche of Mercedez Benz will outline his "vision on the interplay between automotive innovation and the digital realm." The brand will look to catch up in the app race and is expected to show off integration with Google's Street View in its new vehicles, among other services.

Ford pioneered in-car tech with its Sync system, and the company's AppLink technology lets users leverage select smartphone apps. We can't wait to see what comes next. In fact, we'll have two people from LAPTOP dedicated to this category alone at CES.

Smartphones Jump to Quad Core

First came the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime tablet, but the next frontier for Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 3 chip is smartphones. Nvidia is hosting a press conference on January 9th, where we expect the company to show off what its chip can do inside handsets. Some expect HTC to be among the first to put Tegra 3 inside a handset, but we just don't know yet who will be among the first partners.

So what's the big deal about quad core? Mostly graphics performance, but Nvidia says its CPU is more efficient and uses less power. We didn't observe any battery life gains on ASUS' new tablet, but we have higher hopes for the first batch of superphones. And Nvidia is not alone. We'll be meeting with Qualcomm to see a demo of its new Snapdragon S4 chip.