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Electronics show preview: Hot gadgets for 2012

Ultrabooks, 4K TV, fitness devices expected to generate most buzz

By Wailin Wong | 01/02/2012

For the consumer electronics industry, the frenzy of holiday sales is just a prelude to its massive annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas in January, when nearly 150,000 people gather to ogle the newest generation of gadgets.

The Consumer Electronics Association is now calling its yearly show the International Consumer Electronics Show, rather than the Consumer Electronics Show, to reflect the convention's global audience, it says. Last year, more than 25,000 of the 149,000 attendees came from outside the U.S.

The association is expecting more than 140,000 people to attend this year's show, said Jason Oxman, senior vice president of industry affairs. And when measured by square footage, the 2012 show, which runs Jan. 10-13, is on track to be the second-largest in the association's history, coming close to the 1.85 million square feet booked in 2007. That's a lot of TVs, gaming systems, karaoke machines and robot butlers.

Here's a preview of the gadgets that are expected to generate buzz at this year's convention:

Ultrabooks

Apple Inc. turned heads four years ago with the MacBook Air, a laptop so thin it could slide into a Manila envelope. Now, chip-maker Intel Corp. is pushing a new line of Ultrabooks: lightweight laptops with full operating systems that are generally no more than an inch thick, wake instantly and have long battery lives. Several models from manufacturers such as Asus, Acer, Toshiba and Lenovo hit the market in late 2011, but many more are expected to go on sale in 2012 for under $1,000.

"The PC is a must-have device, but it's a boring, beige-and-black utility device," said Karen Regis, director of Ultrabook marketing strategy at Intel. In contrast, she said, Ultrabooks have a sleek design and functionality that are meant to appeal to consumers' emotions as much as their practical needs.

Oxman said the Consumer Electronics Association expects at least 30 or 40 Ultrabooks will be introduced at the show. The buzz around this category is similar to the excitement around tablets at the 2011 show, when more than 100 tablets debuted.

"The Ultrabook is the reinvention of the laptop in an era where the tablet is popular and lightweight (but) doesn't necessarily have all the processing capability and certainly not the physical keyboard capability that an Ultrabook would," Oxman said.

The Ultrabook is also expected to outshine netbooks, which have smaller screens and less processing power.

"I tried using a netbook once," said Jon Abt, co-president of Glenview retailer Abt Electronics, who has been using an Ultrabook from Asus. "An Ultrabook is a real computer. It does everything."

Ultrabooks are projected to represent 13 percent of notebook shipments in 2012, rising to 43 percent in 2015, according to research firm IHS iSuppli.

HDTVs

Despite an abundance of hype at previous Consumer Electronics Shows, 3-D TVs haven't caught on among mainstream consumers. Oxman noted that TV sales declined in 2011, partly because so many households bought new sets during the transition from analog to digital broadcasts in 2009.

Manufacturers are now trying a new tack: including 3-D as one of several features on a new generation of high-end 4K TV sets that boast four times the resolution of 1080p HD. Superior image quality, rather than the ability to watch 3-D, is expected to be the primary selling point.

"It's startling, especially on large-screen TVs where you can see individual hairs on a person's head," said Andrew Eisner, director of community and content at Retrevo, a consumer electronics shopping and review site.

Web connectivity continues to be a major theme among TV manufacturers and content providers. Technology companies such as Apple and Google Inc. are also trying to break into the living room, making the TV another screen that connects to the Internet and delivers Web-based applications.

Abt said his stores saw "massive sell-through" on Black Friday for discounted Sony sets with Google TV, but time will tell whether consumers will stay interested in the service without promotional pricing.

"What we've been pushing here at the retail level … is Internet applications on the television," Abt said. "I think you'll see more of that at the show, certainly better and more Web browsing directly on the TV."

And 3-D, while not quite the show darling it was for the last several years, will remain prominent. Oxman said ESPN 3D is building a boxing ring on the showroom floor and will tape "Friday Nights Fights" in 3-D at the convention.

Fitness devices

Overweight Americans and fitness buffs may have one thing in common: They love using gadgets.

"If you're overweight trying to get fit, or fit trying to get fitter or into peak performance condition, you can use a similar set of devices," said Jeff Hyman, chief executive of Chicago-based startup Retrofit, which offers customized weight-loss programs based on data gathered from wireless devices and videoconferencing sessions with experts.

Retrofit clients use two gadgets from third-party manufacturers. One is the Fitbit, a small digital sensor that tracks activity such as steps taken, calories burned and hours slept. The second is an intelligent Wi-Fi scale from Withings, a technology company that also makes smart blood-pressure and baby monitors. The Wi-Fi scale measures weight, body mass index and the ratio of lean mass to fat.

Large technology companies are also eyeing the fitness category. In October, Libertyville-based Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. introduced the MotoACTV, a lightweight device worn on the wrist that contains an MP3 player, GPS and biometric sensors for tracking heart rate and calories burned. The gadget, which runs on Google's Android operating system, automatically uploads data from workouts to a website when it's within Wi-Fi range of the owner's PC.

Hyman said he expects the coming year to bring new advances in digital heart rate, blood pressure and sleep monitors, as well as waterproof devices designed for swimmers.

"The holy grail, or one that will happen, is blood testing for diabetes or to test (and monitor) blood statistics," he said. "There's a lot of work that has to be done to make it as safe and painless as possible, but that's coming like a freight train."

Many fitness devices come with optional social networking features, enabling users to share their statistics with friends on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

"People in this society have become increasingly data driven," Hyman said. "That's a function of the Internet and your iPad and iPhone and all these devices that have led individuals to become much more interested in data about themselves, their work, their health. In the past, you had to hope and pray between doctor's appointments."

Notable absences

The Consumer Electronics Show can be as newsworthy for what's not on display as what is drawing the biggest crowds. This year, industry experts say, digital cameras and camcorders will be sidelined as picture-taking shifts to smartphones.

Last month, NPD Group released research showing that for U.S. consumers, the percent of photos taken with a smartphone jumped to 27 percent in 2011 from 17 percent in 2010. The share of photos taken on a camera fell from 52 percent to 44 percent.

"At $100, you're getting a camera that's just as good as what you have on your phone," Abt said. "On many of the (Android phones) and the iPhone, they've got product that's better than these (cameras). That's why it's disappearing. There's still a market for a higher-end point-and-shoot between $200 and $400."

The electronics show is not traditionally a major launching pad for new smartphones, as the mobile industry tends to save its big announcements for the more narrowly focused Mobile World Congress in February.

Microsoft, meanwhile, will be making its valedictory appearance this year. The company announced that the 2012 show will be its last, preferring to unveil product launches on its own schedule. This move puts Microsoft in the company of Apple, which does not exhibit at the show, although there is a dedicated space called the iLounge Pavilion for products related to the iPod, iPhone and iPad. In 2012, the pavilion will take up 75,000 square feet, triple its size when it debuted in 2010.

"You'd think there would be a limit to (the number of) suppliers of cases and speakers and add-ons for smartphones and tablets," Eisner said. "But because of the growing popularity of tablets, the iLounge and the tablet accessory market are going to get bigger and bigger."

 

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