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CES Preview: Tablet PCs, Smartbooks Take Spotlight

Smartbooks and tablets have yet to excite mainstream consumers. The latest wave of always-on, touchscreen devices may turn things around.
Speculation has traveled across the Web for weeks that the computer maker will introduce a tablet PC at the end of the month. Of late, the speculation has turned into a growing number of media reports quoting anonymous sources who are "in the know." Apple, however, has declined comment.

If Apple launches a tablet, then industry watchers say it could give a big boost to the smartbook/tablet market. That's because the company is known to jumpstart product categories. Examples include Apple's iPod, which energized the market for portable media players, and the iPhone, which drew consumer attention to the smartphone market.

Nevertheless, some analysts still aren't sold on the idea that the time is right for a phone-less, Web-enabled device that has a bigger screen than a smartphone, but essentially doesn't do much more.

"The area between a smartphone and a netbook (inexpensive mini-laptop) remains kind of a no-man's land," Baker said. "Smartbooks, tablets will still have a really tough time."

This year, however, could see vendors making some progress elsewhere. Three-D television, for example, is expected to get a boost from the increasing number of 3D Hollywood movies, some of which have been very popular. Four of the 10 top-grossing films last year were presented in 3D.

In addition, entertainment companies announced this week the launch of two 3D networks. One is a joint venture of Sony, Discovery Communications, and IMAX, and the other is from Walt Disney's ESPN.

With 3D content on the rise, consumers are more likely to take a second look, and vendors are getting ready. Major TV makers that will demo 3D screen advances at CES include Sony, Panasonic, LG ,and Samsung.

Not all analysts believe the time is quite right, however. Current 3D technology requires viewers to buy special polarized glasses, which people are unlikely to want to wear in their living rooms, Van Baker, analyst for Gartner, told InformationWeek in an interview. "The technology has to evolve to where you don't need glasses, but we're years away from that happening, if ever," Baker said.

In addition, consumers are still getting used to the immersive feelings 3D can bring to the movie viewer. "Some people get nauseous and some just don't like it," Baker said.