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For one week a year, the machines causing the most excitement in Sin City don't spit out coins.

That's when the electronics industry descends on the desert city of Las Vegas to show off its latest wares at the trend-setting Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

This is where deals are made, products are either passed over or shot to stardom and the technology world sets its agenda for the coming year.

The CES itself is huge, bordering on the ridiculous. Those with an aversion to queuing have no place at the show. The numbers are simply astounding - 130,000sq m of floor space, about 50,000 industry exhibitors representing 2700 companies hawking leading-edge tech, plus masses of media from the mainstream press and specialists through to geeky bloggers.

And then there are the squadrons of retailers and agents hunting out the next big thing and legions of enthusiasts who just want to be among the first to see what's hitting electronics stores, the web and the world at large in the coming year.

Navigating the show floor makes Christmas Eve at St Lukes mall look like a stroll down the main street of Eketahuna - with several halls devoted to a selection of fields such as digital imaging, gaming, wireless, software, automotive electronics - even digital health and fitness, gadgets for the home, and lifestyle electronics.

Actually getting to see what you want to at the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Centre, while juggling appointments and daily keynote speeches that are spread around the town's casino hotels, is an artform in itself. It is simply impossible to see everything.

The show kicked off yesterday and runs until Monday - but half the hype is over by time the doors open. As manufacturers fight for attention, most of the major players have made their pitches to the press before the doors even open.

The big noise this year is around tablet PCs, with segment owner Apple not putting in an appearance as competitors to its iPad come out of the woodwork. But a monster show like this is a far cry from the smoke-and-mirrors approach that Apple tends to take with its pre-release marketing and PR.

And to be fair, Apple's long-term rival Microsoft owns this show. Bill Gates gave the event's opening keynote for a decade with his often accurate, often wildly inaccurate, predictions of the future, before passing the baton to chief executive Steve Ballmer.

Last year Ballmer lauded "slate" computers, and this year has come under a bit of fire for not following through. To be fair, there are numerous slates, or tablets, running the full Windows 7 operating system.

But at the keynote, it was announced Microsoft's next version of Windows would use "system on a chip" processors - like the versatile ARM processors seen in numerous mobile devices.

The ARM chips come with three new processor partners - Texas Instruments, nvidia and Qualcomm - signaling a huge seachange for long-time manufacturers Intel and AMD.

Ballmer insisted that the operating system would not be diluted for any device, and that all Windows versions would work closely together - from the fresh Windows Phone 7 to the full operating system.

"Today's Windows 7 PCs can be found in so many wonderful form factors," he said.

"Windows PCs will continue to adapt and evolve. Support for system-on-a-chip means Windows will be everywhere on every kind of device without compromise."

Since last year's keynote, this was the first solid signal that Windows tablets are on their way.

Several devices, using recompiled code, were used to demonstrate existing PC software, including Office and Quicken, even printing.

Will this lull of action be enough to sate the Microsoft faithful, with Apple's iPad2 looming in the wings?

Hard to tell at this early stage, as Windows boss Steven Sinofsky was very loath to put the move into any kind of timeframe.

Neither did Ballmer, focusing instead on recent successes with Windows 7 proper, the launch of Phone 7, and the staggering announcement that the gesture control system Kinect for Xbox 360 had shipped eight million units in two months.


Gadgets first introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show include:

* Videocassette recorder (VCR), 1970

* Laserdisc player, 1974

* Camcorder, 1981

* Compact disc player, 1981

* Digital audio technology (DAT), 1990

* Digital versatile disc (DVD), 1996

* High-definition television (HDTV), 1998

* Microsoft Xbox, 2001

* Blu-Ray DVD, 2003

* Tablets, netbooks and Android devices, 2010