Thinner laptops, 3D TV look set to headline show

The annual consumer electronics blow-out starts on Thursday in Las Vegas

Thinner laptops, 3D television and e-book readers are expected to be among the highlights of this year's International Consumer Electronics Show that begins in Las Vegas on Thursday.

The event, which serves as an annual kick-off for the world's electronics industry, is expected to attract around 110,000 people, on par with last year. The show will be noticeably smaller than 2009 occupying only the Las Vegas Convention Center complex and not, for the first time in five years, the nearby Sands Expo. Organizers are painting the move as in response to attendee feedback but the poor economic conditions are likely also to blame.

Visitors to the show will get to see 80 new laptops, desktops and netbooks based on redesigned Intel chips that integrate the graphics processor alongside the CPU on a single piece of silicon. That makes the new chips more compact and power efficient than predecessors and should translate into sleeker netbooks with longer battery life.

Laptops and desktops based on 17 new Intel dual-core chips will also be on display. The chips, which are considered a significant upgrade over Intel's existing Core 2 processors, should draw less power while improving graphics and system performance. They also support native 1080p high-definition video so users can play Blu-ray video without the need for a separate graphics card.

The flood of new chips isn't giving Intel total dominance at CES.

So-called "smartbooks," which are low-cost Internet-centric laptops that run on competing Arm-based processors, will also be launched. Smartbooks are challenging to become an alternative to Intel-based netbooks but their reliance on the Linux operating system puts them at a disadvantage to Windows-based netbooks.

Away from the computing sector, some are already calling this year's show the "3D CES," as makers of TVs, Blu-ray players and other equipment prepare to show off new 3D-compatible equipment that could appear on store shelves by the end of 2010.

Electronics vendors will promote 3D as a more dramatic leap forward than the recent move to HD. They hope it will compel consumers to go out and buy expensive new TVs, though it's far from clear whether that will be the case, given that many people have only just spent thousands of dollars on large flat-screen televisions.

Many in the industry hope the James Cameron 3D film, "Avatar," will excite mainstream interest in 3D movies. "Many of us expect 'Avatar' to be the tipping point," said Pat Griffiths, senior director of technology for Dolby Laboratories, at the recent Digital Living Room conference in Silicon Valley. The film opened over the holidays and has already grossed more than US$1 billion worldwide.

3D in the home may take longer to catch on, however. While 3D glasses have improved since the days of green and red lenses, the fact that consumers have to wear them at all could restrict 3D's popularity. That won't stop vendors showing off new products and services, some of which are leaking out already. DirectTV plans to announce the U.S.'s first 3D HDTV service, which will go live early next year, according to a report at the enthusiast Web site HD Guru.

The growing popularity of Amazon's Kindle is expected to make electronic books a talking point. Sony is pushing it's e-book reader and recent entrants such as Barnes and Noble's Nook highlight interest in the sector from consumer electronics companies and retailers.

While the show opens its doors on Thursday many of the highest-profile products will be launched on Wednesday when most major vendors have scheduled news conferences.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will also take to the CES stage for the software maker's regular eve-of-CES keynote late Wednesday. With Windows 7 successfully launched, it's unclear what Ballmer will talk about this year, although Office 2010 is likely to make an appearance. Microsoft watchers are also expecting him to talk about the Bing search engine, possibly preview Windows Mobile 7, which is facing increased competition from other mobile devices and platforms such as Google's Android, and discuss the upcoming Project Natal motion gaming system for the Xbox 360.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates around 20,000 new products will be launched at CES making the show a dizzying prospect for even the most gadget-obsessed visitors. Those "thinnest," "fastest" and "lightest" products aren't likely to be the only thing on the lips of attendees.

Google is widely expected to launch under its own name a cell phone running its Android OS at an event in California on Tuesday. That could influence last-minute plans of some major cell-phone vendors. And a little further ahead is a rumored Apple event in late January at which the company is expected to launch an Internet tablet.

The International Consumer Electronics Show runs from Jan. 7 to 10 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

(Agam Shah and James Niccolai in San Francisco contributed to this report.)

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