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Future Tech 2013: The PCs, tablets and cutting-edge hardware of tomorrow

Tablets that perform like high-end PCs. TVs with gesture control. Big sensors in small cameras.

The forward march of technology moves at a dizzying pace. Yesterday's gadgets look like quaint antiques. Today's gadgets are already tainted by the mark of familiarity. And tomorrow's gadgets appear to be magical, enchanting, engineering wonders.

That is, until they become today's gadgets, at which point, "meh."

Yes, we're suckers for new and shiny tech toys at PCWorld, so we gathered up all our reporters and set them loose on digging up details about the PC, mobile, and home entertainment hardware of 2013 and beyond.

Disagree with any of our findings and predictions? Enter your own comments at the bottom of this article.

Laptops

The line between laptops and tablets is rapidly blurring. Five years from now, the line may have vanished entirely.

Today's tablets and laptops are very different gadgets. The ideal consumption devices, tablets are frequently used for passively browsing the Web, watching video, and reading on the go. Laptops are better suited for productivity. In the long run, these two different devices will become aspects of the same hardware. Tomorrow's laptop and tablet will be one and the same--and that's why this section is as much about tablets as laptops.

The first phase of that transition is already under way--Windows 8 hybrid systems show a little of what's possible. Lenovo's Yoga 13, Dell's XPS Convertible Touch, and the Sony Duo 11 are already combining elements of tablets and laptops. But these systems remain more laptops than tablets overall. The Sony Duo 11, with its 11-inch screen, is the lightest of the bunch, yet it still weighs nearly 3 pounds. Today's pure tablets have smaller screens and limited storage, and lack the performance of full-fledged laptops.

The future will be tablet-centric. Larger tablets, with screens up to 13 inches, will become lighter and thinner, and will be adaptable for productivity by means of a separate, wireless keyboard. Touch interfaces will improve, though external-pointing devices such as pens and mice will still be needed for precision work.

What technologies are emerging to create this tablet-centric future?

An improvement in persistent memory technology (better flash memory) is one key component. Even as cloud storage becomes more important, having large-capacity local storage is critical, particularly if you're on the go in areas that don't offer reliable wireless broadband. You'll need to have those big presentations on local storage; and for video and photo editing, ample storage is key. Improvements in cloud storage, along with a decreasing cost per gigabyte, will be important, however, in keeping files and settings in sync between multiple devices.

CPU improvements, of the type we'll see with Intel's Haswell CPU, will permit tablets designed to dock and become full-fledged PCs easily. CPUs will use less power, for longer battery life, without giving up the performance we see in today's mainstream Ultrabooks. One key improvement that Haswell and other future processors will bring to the table is better graphics performance, even as power consumption decreases. Today's tablets and Ultrabooks offer limited performance in 3D games, for example. Better 3D performance may mean a wider range of gaming options for tablets.

Connectivity must improve as well. Today's mobile broadband speeds are improving, but bandwidth continues to be expensive per gigabyte. Consumers will crave access to higher-capacity wireless broadband, and if the carriers can't deliver that capacity at a more reasonable cost, alternative solutions will likely emerge. Metered connections aren't going to disappear, but prices need to drop well below the levels we see today.

Also coming soon are better tablet docks, tuned to the needs of business users. Such tablet docks will include a full-size keyboard, support for multiple monitors, and additional storage.

The traditional clamshell laptop won't completely disappear, however. Some users will still need access to larger screens, robust keyboards, and higher levels of performance. Engineers, professional graphics designers, and others may need 15- to 17-inch systems while on the go. But they will constitute a niche market focused on business users. Mainstream consumers are driving tablet adoption today, and those users will flock to the converged devices of the future.

In the long run, the two extremes will coexist. Users will have a powerful desktop system that connects and is synchronized via the cloud to mobile devices that every user will own. People won't need bulky laptops, but instead will carry lightweight tablets whose performance will exceed today's Ultrabooks. As a result, consumers will have the best of both worlds: a powerful PC at home, and a tablet with docking options that will offer enough performance and capability for their on-the-go needs.      --Loyd Case

All-in-Ones and Desktop PCs

Predictions about what will happen at the end of the PC era have been floating around for years now, and they become more dramatic and more inaccurate with each claim. Why would desktops die off now, especially when they're becoming so cool?

Sure, drastic changes are afoot, and perhaps the desktops of the near future won't look at all similar to the desktops of the present. But change and evolution are facts of life in the tech industry, and adjusting to the new is a necessity.

All-in-one desktops were once seen as a luxury that couldn't possibly support the needs of the average computer user. They lined the walls in sci-fi movies and boasted futuristic-looking programs that had no discernible purpose. Today, they have become centerpieces for PC companies to showcase the glamorous side of desktop computing. Vizio, for example, strayed away from focusing on televisions and media players to create the new CA24-A2, a beautiful touch-enabled media marvel. Even so, many all-in-ones continued to ship with some corny apps and software installed--there are, after all, only so many ways you can pretend to paint; playing Tap-a-Mole gets old, and so does challenging someone to a spirited game of knock-off Pong.

Cheaper and stronger with every new generation of processor, all-in-ones are becoming viable power PCs. In past years, you'd have been hard-pressed to find anything of decent quality even at $1500. Today you can find tons of options below $1000, allowing people everywhere to enjoy these models' benefits without breaking the bank. In the future, nearly all PCs will be equipped with a discrete graphics card to power basic games at an adequate frame rate, and they will boast such built-in media capabilities as Blu-ray and video-on-demand apps.

In addition, more families will adopt PCs as their center for entertainment, with touch controls that every user can access easily, regardless of PC experience level. PCs will migrate away from the dark, lonely corners of home offices and storm into living rooms, kitchens, and other main gathering areas to provide endless family enjoyment in the form of streamed movies, television, creative applications, and games.

The conventional desktop systems of today--the tower units that are either parked under a desk or displayed prominently like a show car--will remain popular with certain niche groups (such as gamers and business owners, at opposite ends of the PC user spectrum). They will remain the cheapest option for basic computing and office-oriented productivity when glamor and graphical power aren't necessary. Physically, however, they will begin to shrink. Indeed, just this past year, we've seen business computers dwindle to the size of a shoebox, and some models, such as the Lenovo ThinkCentre M92P, can even be mounted under a desk in a space-saving hiding spot.

Enthusiasts' computers, on the other hand, will continue to grow to the size of a minifridge to accommodate extra video cards and water-cooling equipment. Some of them will glow and shine with custom paint jobs and interior lighting, modified to become impressive works of art. The Digital Storm Aventum is one such product that takes pride in its size and crushing weight--it almost doubles as a table for a family room. They will be proudly displayed next to a desk bearing multiple monitors and enough gear to make it look like a space cruiser's command deck. My biggest hope is that games of the future will be able to catch up to the power that some computer enthusiasts will be wielding.

The future of desktops is bright and ongoing, no matter what radical claims to the contrary are made. Though most people may resort more frequently to their phones and tablets to get work done quickly on the go, true computing power will continue to come from that thing plugged into a wall.   --Alex Cocilova

Tablets

Tablets have evolved at a lightning-fast pace. And for 2013, we expect another year of rapid and significant change in areas ranging from performance and displays to battery life and price.

Just two years ago, the tablet market that is so large today was in its infancy, dominated by Apple's first-generation iPad. Android tablets were barely getting off the ground, and were saddled with an inappropriate cell-phone operating system slapped into a tablet's larger case.

Today, we have competition and diversity. Apple's iOS-based fourth-gen iPad and iPad mini still dominate, but Android-based tablets are finally making inroads. Leading the way is Google's own Nexus lineup, consisting of the affordable 7-inch Nexus 7 (which starts at $199 and goes up to $299 with HSPA+ mobile broadband connectivity), and the 10.1-inch Nexus 10 (with its crazy-high resolution). Amazon's Kindle Fire HD, a competing $199 tablet built around Amazon's media and services and running Android apps sold through Amazon's own store, has done well, too. And now Windows 8--based tablets are here, led by Microsoft's own Surface With Windows RT tablet.

So what lies ahead? Big growth, for one thing: Research firm IDC expects worldwide tablet shipments to hit 165.9 million units in 2013, up from 117.1 million in 2012. And by 2016, IDC says, worldwide shipments should reach 261.4 million units. This growth will come at the ex­­pense of traditional laptops and desktops, and it will foster a growing acceptance of tablets as tools in everyday life, whether as a "second screen" to accompany your TV viewing, as an e-reader, or as a productivity tool.

One of 2013's big stories is likely to be an impending processor battle. That may sound strange--after all, you rarely buy a tablet for its processor alone. And you get what you get--not a lot of customization or variation can be had for any particular model. But that circumstance doesn't lessen the vigorous competition over tablet performance, and the processor inside can make all the difference in how snappy your tablet feels, or how well your favorite games play.

That's where Nvidia's expected refresh of its Tegra 3 system-on-chip platform comes in. This quad-core (plus a fifth, low-power core) processor has been a favorite choice in leading Android tablets for the past year, and it's ready for a refresh.

A leaked roadmap that surfaced in 2012 indicated that the next platform, code-named Project Wayne, will incorporate four ARM Cortex-A15 processors, up from the Cortex-A9 in use in Tegra 3. Its use of A15 will put Tegra on a par with the Qualcomm S4 Pro and Samsung's Exynos 5. With the new processor, we anticipate better system and graphics performance, along with better power management, which should translate into improved battery life, and LTE support. You can ex­­pect to see additional tablets based on Qualcomm's S4 Pro as well as on ARM's Cortex-A15 in the next year.

You won't see more tablets running Texas Instruments' OMAP platform (currently on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD). TI pulled out of the highly competitive mobile market to focus instead on embedded systems.

Another processor battleground in 2012 pitted the aforementioned ARM-based platforms, with their efficient battery life, against x86-based platforms like Intel's Clover Trail Atom and AMD's Hondo. These processors may possess more performance oomph than the ARM processors, but battery life can lag. Their big benefit for Windows 8 tablets is that they can support full Windows 8 and all legacy applications that run in desktop mode. Few Clover Trail tablets shipped in 2012, but look for a deluge in 2013.

Microsoft Windows 8--based tablets will be 2013's biggest tablet wild card. With Apple's iOS tablets firmly en­­trenched, and Google's Android challengers looking more polished and appealing than ever, can Microsoft tablets hold the same allure and appeal? That remains to be seen. However, the confusion between Windows RT and full Windows 8 tablets may worsen once Microsoft unleashes its highly anticipated

tablet, expected in January 2013.

We expect more high-pixel-density tablets to hit the market in 2013, continuing a trend begun by Apple's iPad With Retina Display and furthered by Barnes & Noble's Nook HD. Look for 1280-by-800-pixel resolution to become the norm on 7-inch tablets, and 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution to pick up steam on 10.1-inch tablets. Optical bonding, which eliminates the display's air gap, should become more common, too.

Competing with Apple's breadth, other tablet software ecosystems continue to struggle. Google has made progress, albeit slowly, while Microsoft remains far behind in app count. We expect both Google and Microsoft to expand their respective ecosystems; the trick is whether their quality and quantity can compete with Apple's strong base.

Look for more connected tablets, too. In late 2012 some of them finally hit the market. One was Google's affordable, unlocked Nexus 7 WiFi + Mobile Data, which works with 200-plus carriers worldwide. By the end of 2013, we'll look back on the connected Nexus 7 and realize that it was the start of a new trend.

Meanwhile, we expect to see prices continue to plummet over the course of the year. As demand skyrockets, so does production--and in response, prices fall. Given today's cutthroat competition, it wouldn't shock us to see a top-tier 10.1-inch Android tablet selling for $300 by the end of 2013.         --Melissa J. Perenson

Expect to see more affordable full-frame DSLRs, like the Nikon D600. Cameras

We expect several trends to emerge in connection with this year's new cameras: Big sensors in small cameras: Several excellent premium compact cameras have been released in the past few years, but 2012 was an especially innovative year for the category. That's because the image sensors in these pocket-size cameras are getting much bigger and much better, and we're reaching the point where a pocketable camera will offer the image quality of a DSLR.

The marquee models for this trend are Sony's Cyber-shot RX100 ($650), a compact camera with a sensor nearly three times larger than the ones found in cameras of similar size, and the very high-priced Sony Cyber RX1 ($2800), which offers a full-frame sensor that's bigger than those in most consumer DSLRs. Big sensors translate to outstanding images, especially in low-light settings. As other camera companies unveil their own big-sensor pocket cameras, we're betting that this trend is just getting started.

And that just covers the point-and-shoots. In DSLR-land, full-frame sensors are showing up in more moderately priced camera bodies. Before the latter half of 2012, a full-frame DSLR fetched at least $3000, but two more-recent DSLRs--Nikon's D600 and Canon's EOS 6D--sell for around $2000 each. That's not cheap, but it's cheap for full-frame. Expect that more-for-less theme to continue.

Strong sales for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras: Fewer people have been buying basic point-and-shoot cameras over the past few years, thanks to the con­venience and improved capabilities of camera-equipped smartphones. Smartphones are sufficient for handling everyday photography, but they've also introduced many casual shooters to the fun of photography--from which they develop an interest in higher-quality cameras that capture noticeably better photos.

According to 2012 estimates by the Consumer Electronics Association, DSLR sales are expected to increase by 13 percent this holiday season over 2011, while point-and-shoot sales will continue to trend downward by nearly 8 percent. And first-time DSLR owners will have a number of easy-to-use, well-priced op­­tions to choose from. You can find several good DSLRs for $500 to $1000 as a kit; and as noted earlier, some full-frame DSLRs are now available for about $2000.

Compact interchangeable-lens (or "mirrorless") cameras have also matured nicely. Compared with just last year, the mirrorless category offers many more lens options to choose from, smaller bodies, and cameras built for both beginners and seasoned shooters.App cameras and connected features: Wi-Fi--enabled cameras aren't new--they've been around since the Kodak EasyShare One debuted in 2005. However, we've never seen as many connected cameras as we have in the past year, and certainly not as many high-end models with wireless-sharing features.

Wi-Fi sharing is now an option in DSLRs and compact interchangeable-lens cameras, not just in basic point-and-shoots. Canon's full-frame EOS 6D DSLR, Sony's new NEX-6 and NEX-5R interchangeable-lens cameras, and Panasonic's Lumix GH3 mirrorless camera all offer Wi-Fi sharing features to complement their high-end imaging and video capabilities. Sony's latest NEX cameras also run proprietary, add-as-you-go apps that let you extend the camera's functionality over time.

On the point-and-shoot side, the 21X-optical-zoom Samsung Galaxy Camera is the most ambitious of the new breed, as it offers 4G and 3G connectivity, runs Android 4.1 and all its compatible apps, and boasts a huge 4.8-inch touchscreen. Nikon's new Coolpix S800C compact camera also runs Android. Wireless sharing, apps, and smartphone-like features are bound to find their way into many more cameras in the next year.

4K/Ultra HD camcorders and DSLRs: Quite a bit of hype has surrounded 4K (or Ultra HD) TV recently, and you'll see a few early-generation 4K HDTVs re­­leased in the upcoming year. But UltraHD is at least a few years away from being mainstream-ready, in large part because not a lot of 4K content is yet available for viewing. And no wonder: At 3840 by 2160 lines, 4K footage has four times the resolution of 1080p video.

Right now, the cameras and camcorders capable of capturing 4K footage are professional-level models, most of which cost several thousand dollars. The exception is the rugged $400 GoPro Hero3 camera, which can capture 4K video, but only at a sluggish rate of 15 frames per second. In the coming year, watch for more video-capable DSLRs and high-end consumer camcorders that can capture 4K video. These models will be strictly for the early-adopter crowd--very expensive and storage-hungry--and unless you've already bought a 4K TV or projector, will you notice the difference when viewing favorite videos?  --Tim Moynihan

Smartphones

Spoiler alert: Your current, top-of-the-line smartphone will be quite outdated by this time next year. That's not entirely a bad thing: Advances in mobile technologies come at an astonishing pace, and smartphones will continue to get smarter and better as time goes on. So while you may think your current phone has a lot of nifty features, your next smartphone will be capable of even more.

But what kinds of improvements can we expect from smartphones in 2013? By looking at today's smartphones, we can get a sense of the kinds of features smartphone makers will focus on in the coming months. Here are some of them.

Wireless charging: This isn't anything new: For years now, you've been able to charge your smartphone wirelessly, thanks to battery cases and charging pads from companies such as Duracell and Energizer. Only recently, however, have we started to see smartphones with inductive charging coils built into the handset itself, obviating the need for special cases or battery packs in order to charge the phone wirelessly. You can recharge models such as the HTC Droid DNA and the Nokia Lumia 920 with any wireless charger that supports the Qi standard, and more Qi-compatible handsets are expected in coming months.

Quad-core becomes the norm: Phones with quad-core processors may be newcomers, but we expect that they will quickly become standard in 2013. These processors let you run more-advanced apps on your smartphone, and they are especially good for playing games with high-definition graphics. If you still use a phone that has a single-core processor, it may be time to consider upgrading to something with a little more oomph under the hood.

Bigger screens: The era of smartphones equipped with small screens is quickly coming to an end. Most of the phones released in 2012 had screens measuring 4.3 inches or greater, and that trend seems likely to continue in 2013. While having a large screen makes a phone difficult to use one-handed, the extra screen space does have some significant benefits: You can view more of your content without constantly having to zoom in and out, and typing on the onscreen keyboard is much more enjoyable, thanks to the buttons' being larger and easier to tap accurately.

NFC becomes big (again):Yes, it's this old song and dance: Last year we predicted that near-field communication (NFC) would take off in 2012, and here we are a year later saying that it will surely happen in 2013. Most phones to­­day ship with an NFC chip, though many manufacturers, retailers, and customers don't seem to know what to do with the technology.

Both Google and Microsoft let you use NFC to make purchases with your phone, but most people are reluctant to give up their physical wallet for a digital one. Samsung's recent ad campaigns showing people sharing media via NFC may help in demonstrating ways that the technology can be useful for things besides mobile payments, but broad ac­­ceptance of near-field communication won't happen until the public is ready.

--Armando Rodriguez

TVs and Digital Entertainment

In 2013, televisions are going to get bigger. Not in size, but in resolution, with the first displays to support Ultra High Definition resolutions hitting the market. The new Ultra HD standard offers two resolutions: 7680 by 4320 pixels (16 times as many pixels as on a standard HDTV), and 3840 by 2160 pixels (also known as 4K). Both can support frame rates of up to 120 frames per second for smoother video, and the higher resolution makes images sharper and more realistic. Several manufacturers have an­­nounced Ultra HD models: LG offers the 84-inch LG 84LM9600, and Sony has its Bravia KD-X9000. Because Ultra HD is so new, both are pricey--just under $20,000 for the LG, and $25,000 for the Sony.

Ultra HD: These displays may share the problem that 3D TVs did at launch: lack of content. Although the Ultra HD standard has been finalized, no straightforward way to get Ultra HD content exists, as no Blu-ray or broadcast standard supports it. So buying an Ultra HD right now would appeal only to the most ardent early adopter, until a clear-cut way to deliver the content to your TV appears. In the meantime, Sony is lending early purchasers of its Bravia KD-X9000 model a server that is preloaded with Ultra HD content, including ten movies (ranging from the recent Spider-Man reboot to the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai) and other Ultra HD content, with the promise of more such offerings to come.

Smarter screens: Your TV may already be smart, but it will soon get smarter. Existing TVs can run various apps that let you do such things as watch Netflix movies and tweet--but that's just the beginning. The range of apps available will continue to widen, with existing companies jumping into the TV app market. For in­­stance, Electronic Arts recently announced versions of the popular board games Monopoly and the Game of Life for Samsung Smart TVs, and other gaming companies are looking at this area.Although the Ultra HD standard has been finalized, no straightforward way to get Ultra HD content exists, as no Blu-ray or broadcast standard supports it. So buying an Ultra HD right now would appeal only to the most ardent early adopter, until a clear-cut way to deliver the content to your TV appears. In the meantime, Sony is lending early purchasers of its Bravia KD-X9000 model a server that is preloaded with Ultra HD content, including ten movies (ranging from the recent Spider-Man reboot to the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai) and other Ultra HD content, with the promise of more such offerings to come.

The number of ways that your TV can receive this extra content will increase, too; the forthcoming ATSC 2.0 standard will allow broadcasters to send files to your TV on the same signal as the show itself, so they could offer things like alternate endings or behind-the-scenes videos similar to the ones found as extras on DVDs. This standard (to be finalized early in 2013) also offers the possibility for a TV to send data such as live sports stats to a second device--a phone or tablet, say--alongside the live video on the TV, for example, or a link to a website running a TV commercial.

However, the ATSC 2.0 standard won't include support for broadcasting Ultra HD video; that will have to wait for ATSC 3.0, which won't be ready until at least 2015. You'll also have to add extra components to your media center when this standard rolls out, as current displays will require another decoder box.

Talking to your TV: Soon, yelling at your TV might actually be productive, since several manufacturers are adding voice control and other technologies to make your TV easier to use. Last year, Samsung launched sets with a feature called Smart Interaction, which blends voice, facial, and gesture recognition. This feature is being rolled out across a wider range of models in 2013.

The latest version of Google TV also includes voice control, so you can change channels or search by saying the name of the station or show. LG is the first maker to announce a TV that uses it: the G2 series will cost $1700 and $2300 for, re­­spectively, a 32- and a 47-inch model.

Apple has been experimenting with voice recognition for some time through Siri on the iPhone, and we hear persistent rumors that this might be one of the key features that its long-expected TV will offer, or that future models of the Apple TV receivers could include. --Richard Baguley

Displays

Thinner. Higher-definition. Less power-hungry. You can expect these traits to define monitors for desktop and laptop computers for the next two years.

Buyers want, and even expect, longer battery life and sleeker design with every generation of displays. So manufacturers have every reason to keep turning out devices that satisfy that market, recognizing that buyers deem the display to be a crucial part of the user experience.

Touchscreens: Windows 8 integrates touch support as no previous version of Windows has done. In the new Windows Start screen and in Windows Store applications, you'll be able to use a multitude of touch gestures, many of them involving full, ten-point multitouch interaction; that is, the display will recognize the unique input from all ten fingers. And numerous multitouch displays that fully support Windows 8 are on the horizon.

Some new Windows 8 devices come with pressure-sensitive styluses that let you draw or paint digitally with predictable precision; we'll continue to see more such products in the coming year.

And what about Apple? iOS devices have led the way for Apple in offering high-definition displays, so it stands to reason that its touchscreen technology may also be on the way to the Mac, de­­spite the company's long-standing reluctance to adopt it. After all, competitors like HP have been putting touchscreens on desktop and laptop PCs for years.While Apple has so far been careful to maintain the boundary between its iOS and Mac operating systems, it would be harder to maintain that separation if everything had a touchscreen. The latest versions of the Mac OS have used trackpads as a touch-by-proxy system, and the market seems to like that compromise.

Better resolution, but slowly: The first rule of monitor shopping is, Don't skimp on image quality! You can work around awkward pedestals and poorly located cable connectors. But you'll be staring at your screen day in and day out, so it's not the place to economize.

Luckily, current-generation touch displays, though expensive, appear to use high-quality components. Most boast IPS (in-plane switching) technology, which offers a wide range of satisfactory viewing angles plus good color fidelity. Samsung is coming out with new PLS (plane-to-line switching) displays, which the company claims beat their IPS rivals in viewing angle, brightness, image quality, and cost of production. Analysts expect to see Samsung's series of low-end PLS-based monitors at some point in 2013.

Right now, you won't find multitouch desktop displays capable of resolutions higher than 1920 by 1080 (also known as "full HD"). Even 27-inch touch displays are limited to 1080p; and no 2560-by-1440-resolution displays with capacitive touch are yet available for discrete, stand-alone monitors. Fortunately, however, the display quality at 1080p is great on many touch displays.

The possibility of integrating multitouch in high-res monitors is not far-fetched. Case in point: Dell already sells a 27-inch all-in-one--the XPS One--that features native 2560 by 1440 resolution. Whether future touch displays take this direction will depend largely on consumer demand and on how much consumers are willing to pay. Prices of 27-inch, 2560-by-1440­pixel panels are starting to drop, so it's likely that we'll see some high-resolution models with multitouch support in 2013.

In mid-2012, Apple began bringing its high-definition Retina screen to the MacBook Pro in stages. Those high-def screens are expensive, but so far consumers seem to be prepared to pay for them. Even so, the rollout could happen slowly on the desktop, largely because using standard-definition technology for displays of 19 inches or greater remains more cost effective. That means that the iMac could be the last to go Retina.

But larger displays might not even be the best use of Retina technology. You could argue that it's overkill for a 24- or 27-inch monitor; it would be gorgeous, but it would also be awfully expensive.

More screen space and better ergonomics: Smaller bezels and shrinking profiles are likely to become the norm for both freestanding computer displays and all-in-ones. The newest line of iMacs are 45 percent thinner and 8 pounds lighter than previous generations of the computer, and offer a glimpse of what is to come across the board. One added benefit: The slimmer the display panel, the lower the power consumption.

Product designers are doing interesting things with stands and ergonomics, too. The Acer T232HL LCD monitor uses a single, curved bar attached via a ratcheted spring mechanism to enable the display to tilt at various angles, depending on how you want to use the hardware. Dell's S2340T (a multitouch display, like the Acer) offers an impressively flexible stand that you can tilt easily at various angles--or even make completely flat. Plus, its USB 3.0 ports are located on the base and are easy to reach.

Because of the latest in touch integration, we can expect to see more such innovative ideas on the ergonomic front.      --Loyd Case and Joel Mathis

3D Printing

What can you do with 3D printing? What can't you do with it? Although the technology is still quite young, it's loaded with potential.

Right now, most consumer-grade 3D printers use ABS plastic as their primary building material; ABS is the material that makes up Lego bricks, but it's relatively brittle, which limits what you can do with it. You can expect to see more-versatile 3D printers come to market in the not-too-distant future. And 3D printers will become considerably more precise: The new Replicator 2 from MakerBot, for instance, can lay down layers of plastic that are 100 microns thick--about as thick as a sheet of paper. The thinner the layers, the better the result.

Consumer-grade 3D printing remains in its infancy, but the technology could one day revolutionize manufacturing. Imagine: Instead of running out and buying your kid a new action figure for her birthday, you could purchase and download a file that tells your 3D printer how to print one out for you. Now that's instant gratification.       --Nick Mediati

Routers

The IEEE should ratify the 802.11ac standard this year, which will make people more comfortable buying routers based on that standard (rather than on a draft of the standard). The performance of 802.11ac routers from Asus, Linksys, Netgear, and other manufacturers knocked our socks off in 2012, delivering high throughput and surprisingly good range using the un-crowded 5GHz frequency spectrum. We also expect to see more 802.11ac media bridges shipping this year; buying two expensive routers so you can configure one as a bridge is an unnecessary pain in the neck.

Two other trends should be­­come stronger this year: First, more companies will manufacture routers that include integrated hard drives, similar to Western Digital's My Net 900 Central and Netgear's Centria line of routers. Second, routers will become even more connected to the cloud, which will make it easier for you to reach your home network when you are on the road.    --Mike Brown

Storage

We expect to see many more hybrid hard drives arriving in 2013. Seagate and Samsung were first to market with these devices, which combine a large cache of flash memory with a moderate-size mechanical drive. The hybrids deliver some of the speed of a solid-state drive as well as the voluminous capacity of a conventional hard drive. Both Western Digital and Toshiba plan to enter this market. WD has not disclosed its plans in de­­tail, but Toshiba has announced that it will offer a 1TB hybrid drive outfitted with 8GB of flash--enough memory to load an operating system and frequently used files.

Hard drive prices will likely remain high through the year--the industry is still recovering from the mass flooding in Thailand that damaged much of its production capacity. At the same time, the prices for true SSDs will continue to fall, as production of 20nm NAND flash ramps up.     --Mike Brown


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