Tablets and smartphones are in, but don’t count laptops out. Impressive new laptops planned for 2012 promise to be thinner, lighter, and faster, as well as to carry longer-lasting batteries.

All the pieces are in place for a surge in laptop sales next year, from newIntel chips to the planned launch of Windows 8 to sleeker designs.

You may be in the market for a new laptop this holiday season–or youmight find that sticking with what you have and upgrading next yearmakes more sense, considering the hot models that are sure to beannounced at the annual CES trade show in January, as well as the newtechnology on the horizon.

Here’s what to expect in the coming year.

Ubiquitous Ultrabooks
Thin and lightweight Ultrabooks are the watchword,thanks to Intel, which has trademarked the name for a new category ofultraportable laptops.
By some predictions, as many as 30 to 50 Ultrabook models will beannounced at CES. For a laptop to qualify for the label, it must beless than 21mm (0.83 inch) thick, resume from hibernate to keyboardinput in less than 7 seconds, get at least 5 hours of battery life, andsupport certain specific Intel security features in the BIOS.

We have already reviewed four Ultrabooks: the Acer Aspire S3,Asus Zenbook UX31E, Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, and Toshiba Portege Z835. A fifth, theHP Folio 13, will soon be released. You’ll notice some major brandsmissing from that list, such as Dell, Samsung, and Sony; you canprobably expect to see Ultrabooks from those manufacturers in the firstfew months of 2012.

The category will kick into high gear when Intel’snext-generation CPUs, code-named Ivy Bridge, hit the market. IvyBridge’s power utilization and performance, together with steadilyfalling prices on solid-state drives, should make these superthinlaptops more affordable and appealing.

By the end of the year, we may even see Ultrabooks with screens thatrotate and fold down to transform into a tablet. The emphasis on touchinterfaces in Windows 8, together with the thinner and lighter designof Ultrabooks, could make this new generation of convertible laptopsmore desirable than the convertibles of the past few years.

Better Graphics, Longer Battery Life
The second-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs in today’s laptops wentby the code name Sandy Bridge. That platform’s successor is due nextyear. Ivy Bridge takes the Sandy Bridgearchitecture (with a few minor tweaks) and shrinks it down from a 32nmmanufacturing process to Intel’s new 22nm tri-gate process. It alsodumps the Sandy Bridge graphics core in favor of a whole new graphicsarchitecture that runs more quickly, provides better videoacceleration, and supports Microsoft’s DirectX 11.

The bottom line: At the same level of performance, Ivy Bridgechips will utilize significantly less power than their Sandy Bridgecounterparts do. That translates into noticeably longer battery life inthin-and-light laptops. And the chips will be faster while consumingthe same amount of power, which means that high-power laptops will beeven speedier.

The new integrated graphics are a bit of a mystery, but a good guess is that you can expect around 50 percent better performance in 3D games. That still isn’t enough power to provide great results in many core games, but a lot of titles that were previously unplayable on an integrated-graphics setup will suddenly become bearable. Better yet, those games that barely ran in an acceptable way, such as Minecraft, should run a lot better.

Intel has issued no release date for Ivy Bridge just yet. Weexpect the company to fully unveil the lineup of Ivy Bridge CPU modelsat CES, together with announcements of support from lots of laptopmanufacturers. Actual products will probably start to hit the market atthe end of the first quarter or in the second quarter of 2012.

What about AMD, you ask?

AMD’s next Fusion processor, dubbed Trinity,is due around the middle of next year. It takes a modified version ofthe company’s new Bulldozer architecture and marries that to a big heapof integrated-graphics power. After the very disappointing launch ofits desktop Bulldozer processors, AMD has its work cut out for it.

Windows 8 Launch Could Be Big
Windows 8 changes Windows moreprofoundly than any release since Windows 95.

The new Start screen and Metro-style interface will becontentious, sparking a backlash among some longtime Windows users.Other users will love the fresh new look and feel. Most important, theoperating system will undoubtedly inspire a major surge in PCpurchases, and an enormous marketing push from Microsoft and itspartners.

When a new consumer release of Windows hits the market, the wholeindustry responds. Schedules shift. Deadlines move. New brands launch,and old brands retire. From what we’ve seen so far, Windows 8 looks tobe a much bigger launch than the last few Windows releases, so you canexpect a glut of new laptops, desktops, and all-in-ones set to debuttogether with Microsoft’s new operating system.

We don’t have a release date right now, but given that Windows 8 hasn’tyet had a public beta test and Microsoft’s OSs generally take aboutnine months to go from the first beta to store shelves, you can expecta late-summer or fall release.

Windows 8 puts a large emphasis on providing a first-class touch interface, withoutsacrificing good old-fashioned keyboard and mouse use. That means abetter user experience on touchscreen-equipped laptops, so expect tosee more of those machines on the market.

It will also support ARM-based processors for the first time, so we mayeven see hybrid laptops that run on a full-power Intel or AMD chip mostof the time, but offer a detachable tabletlike display with an ARMprocessor for those occasions when you need longer battery life andgreater portability instead of a keyboard and touchpad.

We might even see ultralight laptops powered solely by ARM-based CPUs,though that raises some questions about expectations of softwaresupport.