Attending the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is like walking along a loud, crowded boardwalk on a hot summer day. There may not be much sun or sand, but amongst the thousands of tech peddlers who flock there each January, you'll find no shortage of hype, hoopla and expensive gimmicks. What keeps visitors coming back, however, is the chance to hear about new trends and see new technologies before they're available to the general public—a glimpse at the gadgets that are most likely to be the hottest gifts by year's end.

It doesn't always work that way, of course. 3-D televisions haven't lived up to the billing they received a few years ago, nor have 4G networks. Still, CES puts all of these technologies out in front of well more than 100,000 attendees every year, giving them the opportunity to see and judge for themselves.

This time around, to cite just a few trends: The venerable PC will try for a comeback against upstart tablet technology; automobile makers will demonstrate even more ways to transform their vehicles into gadgets on wheels; and content providers will talk up ways to further wed social media and television.

Ultrabooks and tablets

CES 2012 features a showdown between makers of tablet computers and so-called "ultrabooks," an Intel trademark used to describe a class of thin, lightweight portable computers that have evolved to save PCs from extinction. The concept of ultrabooks isn't much different than that of the "Netbooks" that Dell, HP and others were hocking at CES a few years ago. Ultrabooks have actually been around since Apple launched its MacBook Air in January 2008. They have bigger displays, longer battery life and more advanced microprocessors than Netbooks, which is why they cost about twice as much.

For many PC vendors, ultrabooks are a way to liven up the PC market and keep tablet vendors like Apple at bay, for now anyway. Tablet PCs accounted for one quarter of all PCs sold in 2011 and are slowly eating into the market for notebook PCs, according to research firm NPD DisplaySearch. Earlier this week, the research firm reported that by 2017 notebook PC shipments should reach 432 million units, with tablet PC shipments expected to reach 383.3 million units. "Demand for ultrabooks will be driven by consumer interest in sleek design and convenience like instant-on and long battery life," according to the NPD report. Tablet PCs, meanwhile, will be driven by increasingly powerful multi-core processors, mature operating systems, growing application libraries and higher resolution panels.

Connected cars

It's hard to think of an automobile as an appliance, but carmakers have spent the past several years filling up their latest models with gadgets that connect drivers and passengers to mp3 players, mobile phones and the Web. Ford CEO Alan Mulally will be part of the CES keynote lineup for the third year in a row, this time as part of the January 11 "Innovation Power Panel" with executives from Xerox and Verizon. One of the more interesting directions Ford has taken is its proposed in-car health monitoring system, which would link drivers and passengers to glucose monitoring devices, diabetes management services, asthma management tools and Web-based allergen alerts while on the road. Ford first introduced this idea in May.

Social TV

TV networks have taken a special interest in younger audiences that are more likely to watch real-time programs with a laptop, iPad or smart phone in hand, ready to more actively participate in the social-network buzz around a show. Yahoo's purchase of IntoNow last year gave the former kind of search an entry into the social TV movement with software designed to listen to what you're watching on TV, identify the program and send this information out to friends via social networks.

The utility of this aside, look for more of these kinds of announcements this year at CES. During a November 16 social-media event in New York City, Andy Mitchell, Facebook's manager of strategic media partnerships, indicated his company would make a TV-related announcement at CES, although neither he nor the company would provide details.

So long Microsoft

Bill Gates said goodbye to CES in 2008. It's worth noting that the company he co-founded is pulling up stakes as well. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will give his final CES keynote on January 9, and the company says it will not have a major presence at the show beginning next year. Much of this has to do with the fact that neither Microsoft nor any of the other major tech companies actually debut products at CES anymore. Most of what they present at CES has already been introduced the previous year at trade shows that specialize in different types of technology—mobility, video games and such. Before hitting the CES stage in January 2010, for instance, Microsoft had already unveiled its Bing search engine at the May 2009 All Things Digital conference and Kinect for Xbox 360 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) one month later.

This time around Ballmer will surely talk about Windows 8, which the company hopes will be the premier operating system for the emerging ultrabook PC category. There's already a lot of information about Windows 8 available on the Web of course, including listings of new features and a version of the OS for software developers to tinker with.

Image of the 2011 CES show courtesy of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)