CES preview: What to watch at this year's gadget show

CES buzz suggests it'll be a big year for e-readers, 3-D TVs, and tablet computers. But which predictions hold water?

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
A guest wears 3-D glasses as he watches a Mitsubishi 3-D television during a media preview for the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas January 5, 2010. The show runs from Thursday until Sunday.

The International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the biggest tech convention of the year, feels a bit like the World's Fairs did many decades ago. Part spectacle, part innovation benchmark, CES welcomes the wizards of the modern age to unveil their latest gizmos and inspire awe, glee, and a healthy dose of covetousness.

In the days before the show, tech analysts earn their keep by predicting how "this will be the year of the [fill in the blank]." With CES kicking off Thursday, many see the 2010 tech horizon dominated by 3-D TVs, e-book readers, and tablet computers.

These forecasts always feel accurate within the walls of the convention center. But all too often, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Trends that seemed sure-fire fizzle before the new year.

For example, CNET's gadget of CES 2009 was the Palm Pre. The slim, snazzy smart phone surprised and ensorcelled reporters. Some called it an "iPhone killer." Popular consensus considered it Palm's savior. Now, many wonder if the company will make it to 2011. The Pre and its little sister, the Palm Pixi, have gained barely any traction while the iPhone and Android close in on BlackBerry.

Many years in a row, analysts – or at least loud publicists – proclaimed the year of the 3-D had arrived. The third dimension definitely reached theaters in 2009. Four of the 10 top-grossing movies of the year were 3-D titles. And the 3-D sci-fi epic "Avatar" pulled in a billion dollars worldwide in only three weeks. Whether the same trend will invade living rooms remains unknown, but several encouraging signs popped up recently. Last month, the industry group behind Blu-ray finalized plans to let the high-definition discs play 3-D movies. And ESPN will launch a 3-D sports network in June. The new station will air 85 live events before the end of the year. But the problem with bringing home 3-D video is equipment. Both Blu-ray and ESPN will require special TVs and glasses for their 3-D schemes to work. Unless CES 2010 delivers a tech miracle, expect the televisions to be expensive and the glasses bulky.

E-readers seem a safer bet. Amazon's Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook seem to have had a smashing Christmas. The former was Amazon.com's most gifted Christmas product ever, according to the company. And the Nook struggled to keep up with demand – with its current back-order date reaching into early February. (Of course, the apparent drought of Nooks could be due to a slew of orders or a crack in the manufacturing chain.) It's also uncertain how many contenders can fit in the ring at once, especially when the first big e-book device, the Sony Reader, has fought a mostly losing battle for attention.

The final prediction, which calls for a boom in tablet computers, comes pegged to Apple's much anticipated tablet – if such a thing exists. Apple has never made a peep about such a computer, but countless rumors and seemingly legitimate reports from The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and many respected analyst groups have convinced the industry that such a product is waiting in the wings. Some foresee rivals launching a preemptive strike against an iTablet. For example, the New York Times suggested that Microsoft may unveil and throw its weight behind a Hewlett-Packard tablet during the company's keynote tonight. But early announcements from Las Vegas point toward a different trend: netbooks, netbooks, netbooks. Of the new PCs coming out of pre-CES coverage, almost all fit into the pint-size category. Asus, Lenovo, and Intel have hyped their new netbooks and the chips which keep them chugging.

Check in on the Horizons blog this week to see which CES predictions came true and which might extend deeper into 2010. Also, let us know your tech forecast – or dream gadgets. Comment below or follow us on Twitter.

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