Last week was an important week for consumer electronics with the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) being held in Las Vegas. This year it was bigger than ever and there were a lot of new tech on display- especially tablets.

CES is always filled with prototypes that never make it to market, as we saw last year with the myriads of tablets and ebook readers that never made another sound once CES was over. I’m sure that we will see the same thing this year as the year go by, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything “real” at CES. Companies like RIM, Motorola, Samsung, Asus etc showed off some of their 2011 lineup and it’s clear that 2011 is going to be a much bigger tablet year than 2010 was.

There were dozens of tablets on CES and you can spend hours surfing hands-on videos to see them all, but if you just want a quick overview Ryan Kim and Kevin Tofel has a nice list of the Google+Reader” target=”_self”>top 10 tablets to keep an eye on in 2011. I won’t list any of them here as you can find the spec sheets anywhere (including that link).  The similarities between many of them are striking, so much in fact that you have to wonder how anyone can make a profit in a market with so many identical devices. This is especially true for the Android tablets, and it’s hard to try to stand out from the crowd. The Motorola Xoom definitely made an impression though, especially with the screen resolution- 1280×800 on a 10″ screen is a big jump up from 1024×600 or 1024×768 and not only brings the tablet beyond the 720p mark but also means you’ll never have to shrink a web page ever again.

On one hand it’s nice to have a lot of different manufacturers and products on the market so you can choose the one that fits you the best as well as give manufacturers a reason to innovate and be on top of it all, but that sort of system also has a few downsides. First off, it confuses the heck out of mainstream consumers and it’s not easy to grasp the difference between one tablet and another when it might come down to just being the screen resolution or an extra port or two. In the end it might come down to who has the best distribution channels as brick and mortar stores are still where most people buy their electronics. Viliv, for example, has never had any major distribution channels in the US (except for a few online stores and a few cameos at BestBuy) and so it will be difficult for them to reach the customers when they don’t have anything absolutely unique to offer. It’s also hard for software developers to keep track of all the different hardware configurations- especially the screen resolution and screen size, which is important in order to create interfaces that can easily be controlled with fingers (controls need to scale independently from content in order to provide finger sized controls regardless of resolution and screen size). It’s even worse for accessory manufacturers who have to make accessories for dozens of different devices, and the result is that there’s always way less accessories for Android devices than for iOS devices where manufacturers only have to deal with one design per year. Still, by summer I’m guessing that a lot of the tablets we saw at CES will be long dead and we’ll be left with 3-4 main Android tablets. Some of the offerings at CES had pretty critical flaws, such as Creative using resistive touchscreens in their tablets- I don’t believe those will even make it to market (then again, having inferior products haven’t stopped Creative in the past)

The big thing hardware-wise was dual core CPUs, giving tablets a major speed increase. While that is always a good thing, I’m not sure if it will really matter all that much. Looking at various demos like that of the Blackberry Playbook it seems as though they mostly use the CPU power for eye-candy, such as having several windows open with videos playing or having fancy animations in menus. You generally don’t watch several videos at once, and existing hardware can already play content that’s higher resolution than any of the tablets’ screens can display fully. Until we see some good software to take advantage of the CPU power- such as video and photo editors for those 5mpix cameras that are on every tablet or some games that really bump the graphics several notches I don’t quite see the point. The main attraction of tablets seem to be pictures, video, surfing, reading and casual games which you can easily do with single core 1Ghz CPUs. In the case of the Blackberry Playbook, they still use a 1024×600 resolution screen which limits the device much more than a slower CPU would have, and the same goes for its lack of a GPS receiver. A completely new OS is also not going to help the sale of the Playbook, even if the Blackberry name itself will draw some customers. Spec wars have existed since the beginning of computing though and while it saddens me to see history repeat itself I’m not surprised.  It wouldn’t surprise me if 2011 goes by and all that those dual core CPUs will do is animate menus.

While a lot of the hardware was the same in the Android segment, there were a couple that had a few interesting concepts. Asus had two, the Google+Reader” target=”_blank”>Slider and Transformer Android tablets that integrates keyboards with tablets in a whole new way- or rather ways. They also had a Windows 7 tablet (and so did a few other manufacturers) but frankly I think that train has left the station and crashed thoroughly into a runaway boulder. Another interesting concept was the Motorola Atrix, a smartphone that can dock into a laptop like dock that essentially turns it into a full blown Android laptop where the phone is the brains.

While Apple themselves never attend CES, every single Apple accessory manufacturers seemed to be at CES like usual. Between the rows of cases and screen protectors there were even some innovative accessories. Orbotix showed off a robotic ball that can be controlled with a smartphone, sort of like Monkey Ball in real life. Cobra showed off their radar detector for the iPhone and Withings had a couple of peculiar gadgets including an iPhone connected baby monitor and an iPhone connected blood pressure monitor. Several iPad 2 mockups also popped up at CES inside cases made for the iPad 2, but we still don’t have an official announcement of the thing.

Now that CES is over, all we can do is wait for the iPad 2 to be announced. I’m guessing dual core Apple CPU, 512MB or 1GB of RAM, 5mpix back camera and VGA front camera, and better speakers. As for the screen resolution, thats what I’m curious to find out about- will Apple pull an iPhone 4 and quadruple the resolution or will they finally go Android and do an imperfect resolution jump? I think they’ll have to do the latter, but the former would be epic…