Seven Top Gadgets/Tech at CES

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The first half of January, which includes the week of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is consistently the most exciting time of the year.

At the end of every CES, everyone asks, "What were the most interesting things you saw?"

So here's my list of the top items making it into the market in 2012:

1. From Samsung: the second-generation Chromebook. Samsung's first Chromebook, a laptop based on Google's Chrome operating system, hit the market on June 15. It was a terrific product, but it fell short on general CPU/GPU power, running only a dual-core Atom Intel ( INTC) processor.

The new Samsung Chromebook version introduced at CES solves this issue. It has a new Celeron CPU that promises to be at least 300% faster than its predecessor.

It also sheds the plastic feel of the original for a more metallic feel, along with approximately 10% of its weight and some thickness. Availability should -- we hope -- be closer to March than July.

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The price should remain where it is today: $450 including two years worth of Verizon ( VZ) 100 meg/month data service, with the option to add more data on an a la carte basis, as needed, no contract required.

Samsung also showed its desktop version of the Chromebook, now called the Chromebox. This box looks just like Apple's ( AAPL) Mac Mini and can feed at least three large monitors, making it suitable for a Wall Street trading desk or a similar work environment. The price is unknown, but is likely to be favorable, especially considering the lack of need for a warranty or tech support for this nothing-can-go-wrong operating system.

2. From Motorola Mobility ( MMI): the Droid Razr Maxx. Almost every smartphone has a battery life that ranges from terrible to catastrophic. Nine out of 10 people I ask would happily accept a thicker and heavier smartphone if it meant better battery life. Yet we have seen only after-market batteries solving this problem, always without the kind of engineering excellence that an original design affords in terms of packaging efficiency.

Until now.

The Motorola Droid Razr Maxx has a battery capacity of 3,300 mAh, vs. 1,780 for the "regular" Razr. That's pretty much all you need to know. I've found that in regular use, a device of this class will yield on three to four hours of use, so this version of the Razr should last at least six hours. Motorola claims 21 hours worth of talk time, but that's presumably with nothing else going on, so it's not realistic.

Let's say you're in the market for an Android smartphone in the U.S. You don't need a keyboard, and you don't need it to be SIM-unlocked or have international GSM capability. You will now have two optimal choices:

A. If you want the best hardware, the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx is clearly it. No other Android device can beat it in terms of hardware, given the superior battery life and overall near-top specs for the other hardware components.

B. If you want the best software, the only Android 4.0 ("Ice Cream Sandwich", or ICE) smartphone thus far is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

3. From Research In Motion: ( RIMM): the new Bridge software for controlling the company's PlayBook tablet. A key reason BlackBerry still sells devices in the U.S., where bandwidth is cheap and plentiful, is its superior keyboard. But people also want to use tablets, and some of them also want to use keyboards, at least on occasion. As a result, you can use third-party keyboards such as Zagg.

However, with the new Bridge software, someone who has both a BlackBerry smartphone and a PlayBook tablet can now use the BlackBerry to type on the PlayBook. The devices connect wirelessly, over Bluetooth, just like Zagg, and you can control the cursor from the BlackBerry, and, of course, type.

BlackBerry was already the only company offering free cellular data connectivity to the tablet. Offering the ability to control it and type on it from the BlackBerry differentiates it from all the other tablets I've seen. Now, if people would only start buying PlayBooks, this might start to matter in the market.

4. Novatel's ( NVTL) new WiFi hotspot on Verizon, which improves on the previous version in a couple of important ways. First, and most importantly, it offers an optional larger battery, much overdue. I don't know the exact capacity, but it looks to be approximately twice the current version's 1500 mAh.

The new Verizon MiFi also offers HSPA+ for global roaming. The only downside to the new device appears to be that the password is now found in the display, so anyone who manages to see it, even temporarily.... Well, I guess this bug will be fixed soon enough. This newest MiFi on Verizon should be available in the next few weeks.

5. From Sierra Wireless ( SWIR): the Tri-Network Hotspot (TNH) on Sprint ( S). It combines the EVDO and WiMAX capabilities of its predecessor device with LTE on 1900 MHz, which becomes available in at least the first four cities no later than June 2012. That's when this device is expected to become available in retail.

As with the competing Novatel MiFi on Verizon, the Sierra Wireless TNH also offers a much-needed doubling in battery size, to something in the 3,000-3,500 mAh range. Again, kudos to Sierra Wireless, Novatel and for that matter also Motorola for recognizing that most consumers will happily take a thicker and heavier device if the additional weight and size are devoted to a more capable battery.

6. From Intel: The PC chip giant showed its low-power chip for smartphones and tablets, and it announced deals with Motorola and Lenovo. Very little specifics in terms of U.S.-versions are known at this point, but the first products should hit some market such as China by approximately midyear 2012. I would be very surprised if Motorola doesn't offer at least an Intel smartphone or two -- and for that matter a tablet -- by November 2012. Well before that time, of course, Motorola will simply be a division of Google, unless the current acquisition plan changes.

The significance of the Intel announcements for smartphones and tablets may be of great importance to the long-term prospects of companies such as Nvidia ( NVDA), Texas Instruments ( TXN) and Qualcomm ( QCOM), who are the main competitors, with Marvell ( MRVL) also having a toe in this space. Either way, Intel's performance demos with its reference device were extremely impressive. Time will tell.

On the Ultrabook side, Intel's many partners showed laptops that will become available in stages from February to September. I thought the most attractive one was from Dell ( DELL), but good devices from Samsung, Acer, Lenovo and others were also shown.

7. From Microsoft ( MSFT): AT&T is bringing two LTE smartphones based on Windows Phone 7.5 to market over the next few short months: one from HTC and the other from Nokia ( NOK). I would be shocked if others are far behind, including obviously Samsung, but perhaps also LG and Dell.

These new Microsoft LTE smartphones from HTC and Nokia now have a chance to show that they can produce better battery life than the Android LTE smartphones in the market today. Apple and RIM have yet to launch LTE versions of the iPhone and BlackBerry, respectively, but they're expected to do so by year-end 2012. Microsoft may be as much as six months ahead of Apple and BlackBerry on this achievement!

(I already pointed out in this article that I believe Microsoft's smartphone position exiting 2012 will be a lot better than it was entering 2012.)

At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL, GOOG, QCOM and RIMM.
Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.

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