by Steve Wildstrom

Post Updated: 1/20/2010

CES got some of its old mojo back this year. The economy may still be far from healthy, the aisles of the Las Vegas Convention Center were jammed, the cab lines stretched to Hoover Dam, and there was energy and optimism behind the flood of product announcements.

Unlike the past couple of years, when the talk was all about content, CES 2010 focused firmly on products. Three categories seemed to dominate the buzz:

Netbooks and slates, oh my!

As has been the case for at least three years, The Company That Wasn’t There managed to loom over the proceedings. Apple still has made no public announcement, but it is widely expected to reveal its endlessly speculated about unnamed tablet before the end of January. Based on the rumblings from the industry, Apple seems to have spent as much time working on content partnerships for the tablet as it has on the hardware.

Lots of folks, from Dell and Hewlett-Packard to little-known Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers, showed off tablets for which no real use case has yet been made. They generally run Android or some other flavor of Linux, though HP partnered with Microsoft to show a Windows 7 concept. But no one seems to have much of an idea of what these little tweener devices might be used for. They remind me of the Mobile Internet Devices promoted by Intel with much fanfare and almost no success.

Netbooks, on the other hand, are very real. The big news here is Intel’s new Pine Trail version of the Atom processor platform. Early indications are that Pine Trail doesn’t do all that much for performance, but does deliver significantly better battery life. This should improve the tradeoff if Pine Trail is paired with an enhanced graphics unit, such as NVIDIA’s Ion 2 (or whatever it will be called; I am not privy to NVIDIA secrets.)

Traditional notebooks were not neglected, however. Intel introduced its Calpella family of Core processors, which bring its 32 nm Nahalem microachitecture to mobile chips. Laptop makers are refreshing their products lines with Calpella, especially at the high end, and these chips are expected to bring a welcome combination of higher performance and improved battery life.


TV in depth

The television sets in your house are probably only a couple years old and you probably don’t think you need a new one. The TV industry hopes to persuade you with the next big thing, 3D television. Every major manufacturer demonstrated 3D sets at CES, and studios are readying a lot of 3D content, both in the form of 3D Blu-ray Disc movies and cable and satellite content.

Yes, you will have to use a pair of those geeky glasses to watch 3D. TV—displays that generate 3D without requiring glasses are in the lab, but are a long ways from being ready for the market. And the quality of the 3D images is variable. The best images, generally found in movies, approach a realistic three-dimensional picture. But all too often, you’ll see an image that seems to be arranged into several planes at different depths behind the front of the screen. This will probably improve as studios get better at 3D encoding—and the success of Avatar gurantees a flood of content later this year.


Readers, readers, readers

The success of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader and the maturing of the E Ink technology it uses has produced a glut of imitators of all shapes, sizes, and design from giants like Samsung down to companies you have never heard of. I suspect, however, that there is little or no point to most of these products. Kindle, with an indifferent hardware design, has sold much better than the arguably better Sony Reader because Amazon has surrounded Kindle with a brilliant infrastructure that makes it dead simple to shop for and acquire books. Barnes & Noble’s new Nook is similarly endowed. But I don’t think readers without this back end have much of a chance.

But two readers stood out, one a product that will ship in the spring, the other more of a concept. Plastic Logic’s Que, available starting at $649 in April, is aimed squarely at the business market. It has a huge screen, nearly 11 in.—but thanks to a new process that allows transistor to be printed directly on a plastic substrate, it is extremely thin and light. You will be able to buy books from Barnes & Noble and subscribe to newspapers and magazines, which will look far more like their print versions than on existing readers, from a number of publishers. There are also a variety of ways to load your own business documents, including the wireless dispatch of attachments from a BlackBerry.

The Skiff Reader, whose development was backed by Hearst Corp., is intended as a platform for digital newspapers and magazines. It too uses a new type of e-paper display, one developed by LG using metal foil. But at this point, the Skiff is just a preview, with no details yet on pricing or availability.

Former BusinessWeek columnist Steve Wildstrom is serving as a guest blogger at CES for NVIDIA, for which he is receiving compensation. The opinions expressed in his posts are his own, and not necessarily shared by NVIDIA.