You're still slathering on sunscreen, and the dog days of summer (by ancient reckoning) arrived less than two weeks ago; but the most tempting HDTVs, Ultrabooks, games, and smartphones for the impending holiday season are already coming into focus.
What's going to be hot this winter? Will retailers slash prices on Windows 7 laptops as they push newly arriving Windows 8 PCs? What pricing gimmicks will they try? What's going to be the big thing with HDTVs, games, and cameras?
We talked with experts around the country to find out what great technology will be available in a few months, when deals are sure to be spectacular, and what newer tech will reach stores in time for you to slap a bow on it. Here's what we found.
The Hottest Products
Mobile connected devices--smartphones and tablets--will be the hottest things going, followed by Intel-powered Ultrabooks and other laptop computers running the new Microsoft Windows 8 operating system, according to Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis with the Consumer Electronics Association.
This year's refresh of the iPhone will likely be on the scene, too, and it will undoubtedly be a hugely popular gift again this year. Scads of 4G Android smartphone alternatives, as well as handsets running the new Windows Phone 8 OS, will vie for consumers' attention, too.
Amazon may try to make a play again this year for holiday tech purchases. According to rumor, the company may launch a second-generation Kindle Fire with a larger 8.9-inch display in time for the holiday shopping season.
More than 140 Ivy Bridge-based Ultrabooks are in the pipeline; of those, more than 40 will be touch-enabled, and a dozen will offer convertible, swiveling-screens. These touchscreen Windows 8 models will bring the tapping and swiping experience from tablets to laptops.
"Touch-enabled systems will be key for Windows 8 sales; and convertible systems, combining the best of a notebook and a tablet, are clearly where the industry is headed," Koenig says.
Gaming consoles and games are perennial favorites with holiday shoppers. This year Nintendo is looking to reclaim lost market share with two new pieces of gaming hardware: the 3DS XL and the Wii U. The former is a bigger and brighter version of the Nintendo 3DS handheld console.
For its part, the Wii U will blend game play between its DS-like touchscreen controller and your TV screen. The Wii also features motion-sensitive game play, streaming media support, and social gaming connectivity.
You shouldn't plan on seeing a Sony PlayStation 4 or a Microsoft Xbox 720 this season, however. Sony's current console is hard to improve on at this point, and Microsoft's new console is unlikely to arrive until late next year.
As for new games, Bob McKenzie, GameStop's senior VP of merchandising, says that Madden NFL 2013, which comes out on August 28, looks to be the best one yet.
Other games that McKenzie think will excite gamers appear in the charts below.
Release dates not yet available
"Also, when Nintendo announces the release date for Wii U, there are many exciting games that will ship for this new platform. There are also many accessories for Wii U that will be popular with gamers and gift givers for holiday 2012," McKenzie says.
Televisions are another popular item during the holidays, less as presents than as bargain electronics at that time of year.
According to Gartner principal analyst Paul O'Donovan, the big thing this year will be Smart TVs, which can connect to the Internet via broadband. These HDTVs also can draw a wide range of content from sites such as Netflix and YouTube, and let you download everything from games to Google Maps.
"These smart TVs will be able to be controlled from Android-based smartphones and tablets," O'Donovan says. "For some models, you can share content from your smartphones or tablet or even laptop on your smart TV wirelessly. [On] some you can use your mobile device like a wireless games machine controller, and play a video game on your smart TV."
O'Donovan says that LG, Samsung, and Vizio are developing a number of smart TV apps, and he expects that most TV manufacturers will offer a range of smart models.
Next: Cameras, Windows 8, Deals, and Black Thursday
During past holiday shopping seasons, consumers tended to stock up on cheap point-and-shoot devices that sold for less than $100. This year will be different, experts say.
"The camera market has really become a very specialized device market, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that consumers are using smartphones to capture and share pictures and aren't really printing [photos] anymore," says IDC research analyst Chris Chute. "Cameras as a stand-alone device have sort of fallen by the wayside in that aspect&. [Sales are] declining about 15 percent year over year."
What will be hot, according to Chute, are more-expensive interchangeable-lens digital cameras, such as the Canon EOS M, which will debut in October. Other probable beneficiaries of the predicted trend include Sony NEX cameras, Nikon 1 models, the Panasonic GF line, the Olympus PEN line, and the Samsung NX line.
Though these devices resemble point-and-shoot cameras in their compactness, their capabilities put them closer to the professional category. As a result, they're far more expensive than point-and-shoots; the Canon EOS M, for example, will cost about $800.
"As for digital SLRs, these are perennial holiday favorites, ever since Canon introduced the first sub-$1000 model close to 10 years ago. These days, users are often buying their second or third DSLR, and often upgrade to more-expensive models," Chute says, adding that the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 will be particularly popular with buyers.
To ease the sticker shock, he says, vendors are likely to dangle generous rebates that reward buyers for choosing packages offering, for instance, a $200 rebate to customers who buy two lenses.
The best camera deals are usually online, if you know what you want and don't need to feel the camera in your hand before buying it.
"The more expensive the camera, the more research goes into it, and the more forums become important where there are impartial reviews and user comments," Chute says. "Then, from there on in, usually it's a question of buying through Amazon."
Repercussions from Windows 8
Microsoft's new OS will cause a major upheaval in the entire tech scene when it appears at the end of October. For one thing, you can expect incredible deals on Windows 7 PCs, if you can still find them.
"Inventory levels are so tightly controlled these days that there's probably not going to be too much overhang; and whatever overhang there is, Microsoft is going to give you a very low-cost if not free upgrade path to Windows 8," Koenig says.
In addition, consumers are likely to be inundated with Windows 8 promotions.
"This is a big deal for Microsoft, certainly with the Metro interface and what they're trying to do with their play in tablets," Koenig says. "Microsoft just had their first quarterly loss since the '80s, [which] underscores what's going on there, and the stakes are high. Microsoft needs to make Windows 8 successful; they really can't afford another misstep like they've had with some of their other operating systems in the past."
You might imagine that the Windows Phone operating system is dead in the water, but such thinking underestimates the connection that people may make between the Metro interface on their desktop or tablet, and the one they can get on their smartphone.
"They're going to start promoting [Windows Phones] to connect the two in consumer's minds," Koenig says. "And it would probably happen from the phone side; so if you get a Windows Phone, you can also get a Windows 8 tablet, just as an example. This makes sense because carriers like AT&T are starting to offer more shared data plans across devices."
Bundles and Layaway
The safest bet of the coming season: You'll see bundles everywhere.
Koenig says that layaway is making a comeback, and that you're likely to see better deals this year than ever before. But the trick of this marketing model is to get you to walk away with more in your cart that you anticipated.
"This holiday we'll probably see more of these uber-bundles [such as, if you buy] a 55-inch TV, you get a 40-inch TV of the same brand and type for free," Koenig says.
Also look for total family computing bundles that offer a smartphone, a computer, and a tablet for one price.
The Endless Black Friday
If you plan to get up before dawn on the day after Thanksgiving to brave the throngs of aggressive shoppers competing for the best deals, you may have to forgo sleeping altogether. Every year, the stores seem to open earlier.
"It used to be that they opened at 6 a.m. on Friday, and then it was 4 a.m., and then it was midnight madness. If you go earlier than midnight, you're into Thursday, so we're expecting to see some of that," Koenig says.
Koenig also notes the Pavlovian effect that Black Friday has on some people: Because they associate the date with red-hot deals, they tend to view retailers' Black Friday offerings as terrific bargains even when they're not. Sellers of every stripe have noticed and are responding by stretching their window for "Black Friday specials" to encompass first the whole Thanksgiving weekend, then a full week around it, and in some instances even the entire month of November.