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CES 2011: What to expect

It's the time of the year when the world's tech press descends on Las Vegas, but for a reason other than gambling: we're now just days away from the Consumer Electronics Show, and it's time to take a gander at what 2011's biggest exposition of shiny gadgets is likely to offer.

By far the biggest, and least surprising, news is that manufacturers from across the globe are hitting CES hard this year with a raft of tablets, all attempting to latch on to the stellar success Apple has enjoyed with its iPad. While some companies have already announced their CES launch plans - such as Toshiba, which has a 10.1-inch device based around Google's Android platform featuring an HDMI output and support for 1080p video playback waiting in the wings - others are keeping us guessing.

The majority of tablet launches have one thing in common, however: they're relying on the launch of Google's Android 3.0 'Honeycomb' upgrade, thought to bring a whole range of improvements to the mobile platform designed to make it a more suitable choice for larger-format tablet devices. Again, details are thin on the ground - but with Google expected to keep Honeycomb back until at least April, you're unlikely to be able to get your hands on many of the Android tablets showcased at CES until June at the earliest.

It's not just hardware manufacturers who will be looking to cash in on the tablet craze, however - so you can expect to be seeing plenty of tablet-centric software packages being trumpeted at the show, including a new web browser from Opera that chief development officer Christen Krogh claims is "creating waves" ahead of its official launch.

A surprising announcement from industry unknown Peep Wireless Technology hints at another big theme for this year's CES: peer-to-peer technologies. Peep, as an example, has confirmed that it will be launching a software package for Apple's iPhone that allows the device to become a node in a mesh network - one capable of carrying traffic from any device featuring a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth radio. Stating that the technology offers advantages to both the consumer - who will "never need to pay a phone bill again and all their email, internet and media access would be free forever" - and the mobile network provider - with Peep claiming that its software "saves them billions of dollars and years of build-out time and doubles their capacity almost overnight" - Peep's attempt at a mobile mesh is hardly the first, but the software-based approach on a popular pre-existing platform could mean success where others have failed.

CPU makers will also be heavily represented at this year's CES, and while plenty of focus will be given to Intel's Sandy Bridge platform and AMD's innovative Fusion APU range, there's likely to be a significantly bigger turnout from ARM licencees than in previous years. With ARM itself concentrating on attacking the server market with many-core chip designs featuring hardware virtualisation technology and support for vast quantities of memory, expect to see the British company's logo on a far wider range of products on display than ever before - and for a company that powers the vast majority of smartphones and tablets ever released, that's no small feat.

Gaming, as with previous years, will be a big part of CES, and with Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer taking the stage for a keynote speech at the start of the show you can expect a renewed focus on the company's Kinect motion-sensing controller-free accessory for the Xbox 360 - even as companies work to replicate the technology for use on the PC and other platforms, including a planned product from Asus for living room media PCs.

Gaming isn't the only thing that Ballmer is likely to be talking about, however: a report from the Seattle Times claims that Microsoft will be launching a cut-down version of Windows designed to offer an alternative to Google TV and Apple TV - which could explain why the company has been buddying up to ARM in recent months.

Moving back to the world of gaming, it'd be nice to think that Sony will be confirming the much-leaked PlayStation Portable Phone, expected to be launching under the company's Xperia brand but so far roundly denied by the company. Early indications, however, are that Sony is holding that one back for a future event.

The gaming arena and the home entertainment section will be linked for the first time this year by a common technology: 3D. With companies queuing up to launch 3D TVs, laptops, and even smartphones, 2011 is already shaping up to be the year that 3D goes mainstream - even as people begin to question exactly how much is added to a film or a game when you wear those dorky glasses. While glasses-free systems are likely to be more popular, expect that technology to be limited to hand-held and small-screen laptops for now.

With so much technology to choose from, one thing is clear: despite having been going since 1967, the Consumer Electronics Show is showing no signs of slowing down.