By Jon Chase
Updated January 13, 2012 at 02:50 PM EST
Credit: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

And that’s a wrap — the largest CES in history finishes up today, and we’d be lying if we didn’t say we were more than a little relieved. We’re disappointed at the lack of any one bona fide blockbuster that left everyone raving — but then last year that was Motorola’s Xoom tablets and slick Atrix phone with its lapdock and, in the end, neither sold gangbusters anyway. Still there was plenty to love, often smaller trinkets or clever simple solutions or simply stuff that points to where technology and entertainment is heading. In no particular order, here are items that intrigued, along with trends to watch out for in the future.

The wireless wave is still building, but quality gear sans tangle of cables has arrived, and not soon enough. The premiere wireless home-stereo system Sonos was on-hand, but had reserved announcements for “a few important products” for later this year. But alternatives abounded for smart, high-quality Bluetooth or wi-fi speakers that are easy to set up and sound great — we especially liked Altec-Lansing’s 5000 series, as well as Eton’s simple and slick Rukus (which also comes in a solar charging version). And several companies were finally putting out speakers that use Apple’s Airplay technology to stream music easily.

Robots in every form continue there merciless advance toward world domination, and at a mind-blowing pace. Beyond conceptual stuff, crappy toys, or impressive if domestic offerings from iRobot (maker of Roomba) among many others, one company, Parrot, has taken the early lead with its second-gen version of its AR Drone, a four-rotored helicopter craft with an HD camera built-in that you control using an app on an iPad — or amazingly it can fly autonomously to a certain extent. Guarantee you’ll be reading about paparazzi using these and similar products as spy drones within the year.

Home automation has been evolving for decades and is starting to hit a tipping point where our houses start to get a lot smarter. The pre-CES release of the NEST thermostat from one of the formative creators of the iPod is the pinnacle of this stuff, taking a seemingly humdrum appliance and making it both beautiful, smart, and simple. Belkin, known mostly for their iPad chargers, FM adapters, and similar peripherals, demoed a line of low-cost plug-and-play devices that should be released this year. One smart switch unit plugs into an outlet and then whatever is plugged into it can be controlled by an iPhone app — so you can turn on or off light switches or whatever from anywhere in the world.

Similarly, the ability to shoot high-quality HD video virtually anywhere you could possibly venture — in the extreme cold or heat, under water, or simply in your baby’s crib room — makes us wonder how far we are from a continuous live-video broadcast of our entire existence, à la Truman.

And though we already spoke about TVs in our first post from CES this week, we think that while 3-D will soon become just another regular feature of all TVs, the Smart TV revolution is quickly coming upon us (watch out networks and cablecos). There are so many solutions for connecting our TVs to the web and sorting video out intelligently, DVRing things, sharing it around via the cloud, and Google has said its TV software will be standard in a good chunk of TVs starting this year. Oh, and you won’t believe how insane crisp so-called 4K TVs are — they offer four times the amount of pixels that current 1080p high definition does. It almost feels like the difference between your old TV and current HD.

Lastly, in one of the more curious developments in our experience with the tech world, the long-time big, bad, bully of the block, Microsoft, has somehow stumbled and bumbled and failed enough to be transformed into the scrappy underdog. Sentiment here at Vegas among the pros was hopeful that the well-received but so far poorly performing Windows Phone would finally take off, and that Windows 8 later this year would allow the ‘Softies to perhaps catch up in the tablet realm as well. This from the same people who for the past decade couldn’t say a nice thing about the iconic company or its products. Perhaps it’s like the moment in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader is near death and his mask is pulled away to reveal he’s still human after all.

We can’t wait to see what the next year will bring.

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