The Consumer Electronics Association put on its annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month. It brought together more than 2500 vendors who introduced over 20,000 new products. The total attendance through day two was 112,515, which was a bit higher than the same period for the 2009 show. I put on my walking shoes and waded into the fray to get an update for MD&D. Here are the major highlights.

Consumer Goodies

Probably the biggest and most visible emphasis was 3D TV. Yes, it is real and it will be coming to your own home if you’re willing to invest in this major new technology. It isn’t like movie theater 3D with colored glasses. Home 3D requires special electronic glasses that get their on/off signals wirelessly for each eye from the TV set as the content plays. It works well enough for the major manufacturers to begin shipping the sets, but as usual, the technology is ahead of the content. Material eventually will be broadcast and released, though. Blu-ray movies will be great, and just think of sports in 3D.

Another major push involved mobile computing devices like new netbook models and some new smartbooks or tablet PCs, which are small portables with touchscreens. They aren’t your usual laptops, and they’re really designed for communications via e-mail and text, Internet Web browsing, and multimedia video, games, and music rather than office-type functions. They are bigger than a smart phone but smaller than a netbook, and for the most part they’re a new category all their own.

Dell showed a prototype with a 5-in. screen that’s expected to come out by mid-year. Lenovo’s IdeaPad U1 looks like an ordinary clamshell laptop, but its 11-in. screen can be removed and used as a touchscreen tablet PC. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer CEO also revealed a tablet PC that HP will introduce sometime this year. It can be used as a video player, e-reader, or plain-old PC with a touchscreen. This is definitely a new product category to watch for this year. Look for something similar from Apple in the coming months.

Speaking of e-readers, the show had a special section this year for this new category. More than a dozen companies showed new products. The most popular current devices are Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s nook, and the Sony readers. Some of the new readers come from companies like Plastic Logic (the e-ink experts), Hearst Corp., Spring Design, Entourage Systems, DMC Worldwide, Bookeen, and Samsung.

Most of the screens on these new models are larger, at more than 10 in., than current models. Also, most of the devices are wirelessly enabled. This is a hot new mobile category and growing fast. It is driving the book publishers nuts but appears to be a hit with consumers. The magazine and newspaper folks are in on the act and that involvement is growing as well.

Another theme that seemed to thread its way into more than a few discussions I had was Internet video. Most technologies aim to connect your TV set to your PC to get more video content than you may get from your current cable or satellite provider. There are already many such sources like Hulu, Netflix, and others, and more on the way. There will be more Internet-ready TV sets as well as a whole slew of products that will connect your laptop to your HDTV set wirelessly. A number of companies showed such products including Alereon, Wisair, and Amimon.

For The Designers

For most of the show, I stuck to my agenda of talking to the wireless chip vendors. The Bluetooth SIG demonstrated its Lincoln SUV with its Bluetooth-enabled Sync feature, which lets you make phone calls from your handset strictly with the in-vehicle voice response system. Another demo showed Bluetooth connecting audio devices as well as a pair of netbooks. The Bluetooth 3.0 version with its higher speed was a part of those demos.

There were also lots of announcements around Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi Alliance talked about its new Direct Connect feature, which allows two laptops to talk to one another directly rather than via an access point. This feature is implemented by a software extension using existing hardware. It more or less runs as an app on the existing system. This extension is not on the market yet but most Wi-Fi chip and equipment vendors will no doubt adopt it. The Wi-Fi Alliance will perform the testing and certification to ensure full interoperability.

Another major direction for Wi-Fi is 4x4 multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO). Qualcomm introduced its 4x4 802.11n chip. So did Quantenna, whose 4x4 chip includes a beamforming feature that adds range and helps ensure link reliability as it can steer the beam to overcome obstacles. Marvell’s Personal Mobile HotSpot device lets multiple Wi-Fi enabled laptops connect to the Internet via a 3G network. Atheros also showed its latest Wi-Fi combo chips and GPS receiver chip. And, Broadcom showed a 802.11n Wi-Fi chip designed for use in consumer devices to stream video. It uses 2x2 MIMO and has a USB interface.

Products based on the 802.15.4 wireless standard were also on hand. I spoke with representatives of GreenPeak, who presented their ultra-low-power wireless chips for RF4CE remote controls and home monitoring and control with ZigBee. The GreenPeak chips are so low-power, they can be operated from any number of energy-harvesting sources like solar cells or any mechanical generator.

The ZigBee Alliance had a special area in the exhibit hall as well. Bob Heile of the Alliance updated me on its current activities. The biggest of course is the Smart Grid energy-saving activity going on among the utilities, the government, and appliance manufacturers who want to get in on the forthcoming greening effort. Lots of ZigBee companies showed their wares, such as Cambridge Consultants, Texas Instruments, Freescale, Ember, GreenPeak, and Tendril.

RFaxis showed a front-end chip that includes a low-noise amplifier (LNA), power amplifier (PA), and TX/RX switch in a package to add to existing Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or other transceivers to extend their range and reliability. Texas Instruments demonstrated wireless audio chips for in-home wireless speaker connections. Aminon showed a unique 5-GHz 5x4 MIMO chipset that’s designed to stream video at rates up to 3 Gbits/s. This is now a standard called WHDI.

On the cell-phone front, I got an update on the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. This multi-processor chip with an ARM compatibility and separate DSP runs at 1 Gbit/s. It is the fastest chip designed for handsets and is now used in the new Google Nexus One. Look for more cellular design-ins. I also talked with Simon Saunders of the Femto Forum, who said that the femtocell movement has been quiet for a while but was still viable and well on its way. The carriers had just about solved all their technical problems, and more femto services should be forthcoming this year and next.

The home networking companies also were at CES this year. The powerline communications companies showed off their latest chips and technologies. I spoke with Gigle Networks about its new HomePlug chip and potential future efforts with the new ITU standard. Entropic also demoed its coax home networking chips and systems. Atheros, the Wi-Fi chip company, bought powerline chip company Intellon and will now move toward a joint wireless/powerline home networking product line.

What’s Next?

Finally, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Julius Genachowski spoke at the conference. He didn’t say much about net neutrality. Instead, he focused on what he saw as his main objective as chairman—the implementation of a national broadband policy that brings Internet connectivity to all U.S. citizens.

Genachowski was very general and spoke in broad terms about preserving the freedom of the Internet as well as promoting and preserving competition among the various broadband service providers. He also recognized the spectrum shortage and said the FCC was working on that problem.

The CES is a real handful. I only saw a fraction of what was there. But it is a great place to see the new electronic consumer gadgets, get a technology update, and spot the trends in all consumer areas. Wireless was certainly a huge part of all that is going on. Watch for some more detailed product coverage here shortly.

More CES 2010 coverage