By Christian Blauvelt
Updated January 09, 2012 at 08:25 PM EST
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Ces 2011

Las Vegas is about to become gearhead Nirvana once again.

The annual International Consumer Electronics Show opens tomorrow for 140,000 tech enthusiasts hoping to get a first glimpse at the latest cutting-edge computers, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, TVs, and cameras. With 1.7 million square feet of Las Vegas Convention Center space to cover, you can expect that the only sins coming out of Sin City until CES wraps up on Friday will be the unrealistic expectations fostered by the 2,700 vendors setting up shop. It’s a testament to the size and enduring power of the 45-year-old trade show that Spike will be devoting four hours of its Tuesday lineup, starting at 1:00 p.m. ET, to updates from the floor with host Eliza Dushku. Other celebrities expected to attend CES this year include 50 Cent and Justin Bieber, in addition to TV workout guru Jillian Michaels, who represents a growing trend connecting the tech and fitness worlds.

The relevance of CES may be on the wane. Many smartphone manufacturers are holding on to their most anticipated gear until February’s Mobile World Congress. And as usual, Apple won’t be in attendance. Nor will Amazon, Google, or Facebook, which run their own events throughout the year. And Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who’ll be giving the keynote address tonight, has announced that this will be the last year his company will attend as well. CES, though, is still the event that introduced the VCR to the world in 1970, the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, the TiVo in 1999, and Blu-ray in 2003. So count it out at your own peril.

Here are five of the biggest trends we expect to see at this year’s show.

1. Behold, the Ultrabook—Netbooks have been a failure, and everyone knows it. They’re way underpowered and have keyboards so tiny they make everyone feel fat-fingered. So Intel has picked up the slack in the race to develop a legitimate competitor to the MacBook Air. Their solution? The Ultrabook, a thin and light laptop that boots up instantaneously like a tablet and can run all day. All the major PC manufacturers—HP, Toshiba, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, and ASUS—will be showing off new ultrabooks at CES, with up to fifty never-before-seen models on display. The specs for most of these haven’t been announced yet, and it’s feared that Intel’s new Core processor line that will be powering these Ultrabooks, a 22nm core known as Ivy Bridge, will push the cost sky high, even though the company was initially hoping for a sub-$1,000 price point.

Burning Question: Will Ultrabooks finally bridge the gap between Laptop PCs and tablets, or will their cost prove prohibitively high?

2. When it comes to TVs, 4K trumps 3-D—Last year at CES all anybody could talk about were 3-D televisions. But people quickly lost their Avatar-induced pixel high when they discovered that most of those TVs required brand-specific “active glasses” with price tags in the $300 range. Glasses you’d buy for one TV wouldn’t work on a 3-D set produced by another manufacturer. Toshiba heard your displeasure and is planning to unveil a new 3-D television that does not require glasses at all. It should be available in the U.S. some time in the first quarter of 2012. Other manufacturers are starting to make 3-D sets that require only “passive glasses,” interchangeable from brand to brand, that function just like the plastic frames you don at the movie theater.

The big news at CES this year revolves around televisions with 4K resolution. That is, four times the resolution of your typical HD. LG is introducing a monster entry to the 4K field: an 84-inch, 3840 X 2160 wall-coverer. However, their other big CES debut is just as impressive: a 55-inch OLED TV (organic light-emitting diode) that’s just 0.16-inch deep, for production in the second half of 2012. LG is calling this the “World’s Largest OLED.” It’s only 16.5 pounds and promises a 0.0001 millisecond response time.

Burning Question: Will improvements in (or elimination of) glasses increase the popularity of 3-D TVs, or will 4K reign supreme?

3. Connectivity is King—Hardware is all important, yes. But consumers aren’t geeking out over quicksilver processing speeds and vaultlike memory storage as much as they used to. Rather, buyers are looking more and more at interactivity (new ways to interface with their devices) and connectivity (getting their respective pieces of hardware to communicate to one another). Apple is rumored to be developing voice control for its Siri TV product, so it’ll be interesting to see if other voice-controlled TVs will be on display.

Google TV, having refreshed its software in October after complaints of clunky navigation, will be introducing their newest line of hardware partners that includes Samsung, Sony, Vizio, and LG. Using the Chrome browser, Google TV allows viewers to surf the internet and have access to 80,000 movie titles and TV episodes. By the summer it’s expected that over half of all TVs shipped to stores will be fully internet capable.

Even Motor City is getting in on the connectivity craze. Ford is descending on the Strip to make its biggest showing yet at CES, this time with a new line of “connected cars,” which can interface with the apps and content on your smartphone, then display them on your dashboard. Mercedes-Benz will also make its CES debut to show off its connectivity features.

Burning Question: Will Google TV make the most of its second chance to impress?

4. Microsoft’s swan song—When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gives his final keynote address at CES tonight, it’s likely he’ll just tout his company’s successes of the past year. Right now, it doesn’t seem like a beta of Windows 8 will be ready until February, which I suppose will spare Ballmer the risk of a Blue Screen of Death moment like Bill Gates suffered at the CES presentation in 2005. Ballmer may show how a Windows 8 tablet will work, though, even if it won’t be shelf-ready for many months.

More importantly, we’re likely to see a new Nokia Windows phone, rumored to be called the Nokia Ace. After a year of Windows getting routinely pummeled by iPhone and Android phones, the Ace, a follow-up to the Windows Phone-based Lumia 800, could be a savior with its larger display, an upgraded Windows Phone 7 OS that will accommodate LTE, 4G, and a front-facing camera. Another piece of good news? The HTC Radiant is expected for mid-2012 as another 4G smartphone to carry Windows Phone 7 alongside the Ace and Samsung Mendel. The fact that these still carry WP7, when Windows 8 is on the horizon, could inspire yawns, though.

Burning Question: Can anything inspire excitement about a Windows phone?

5. Hunger for an Ice Cream Sandwich—Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba, and ViewSonic all have tablets ready for Vegas, with Acer’s new 10-inch Iconia Tab A200 a particular draw with its dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor and reasonable price of $329 for when it goes on sale January 15. Hold off until February to buy it, however, because then the A200 will come pre-installed with the Android’s 4.0 OS, the Ice Cream Sandwich. Android 4.0 first launched a few weeks ago with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, leaving manufacturers scrambling to get it installed. Already, ASUS has announced that it will come pre-loaded on the Transformer Prime, possibly the most drool-worthy tablet at CES with its Nvidia quad-core Tegra 3 processor, allowing for more multitasking, faster processing, and more detailed gaming. Little else can compare, so left-behind competitors like AT&T’s Pantech Element Tablet with Android 3.2 Honeycomb have to tout gimmicks like waterproof capability.

Burning Question: Will Ice Cream Sandwich finally make Android tablets the equal of the iPad?

The (nonexistent) elephant in the room: Apple. Yes, the world’s most valuable company won’t be on hand, per usual. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there in spirit. There are going to be a whole host of vendors with apps, cases, and accessories for the iPhone and iPad. In fact, CES has even cordoned off an iLounge, with over 300 exhibitors offering up Apple-supporting products.

What do you guys think will be the biggest news coming out of CES? And what product(s) can’t you wait to get your hands on?

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