Although there’s plenty of talk about 3D TVs and wireless systems for cars at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, tablet computing is clearly the major trend at the show. And while Blackberry and Motorola presented new and impressive tablets, the show really seemed to revolve around Apple, a company that doesn’t exhibit at CES, and the iPad, a device that, in less than a year, seems to have set the standard for how a tablet computing device should perform.

Probably the most impressive tablet PW was able to see on the first day of the show was the Blackberry Playbook, a 7” touchscreen device with an eye-poppingly sharp screen that offered pure multi-tasking (you could switch easily between multiple open windows running video without the slightest glitch) and an OS by QNX, a 30 year old firm that typically produces embedded operating systems for “life critical” platforms like medical imaging and nuclear plants. No pricing was announced but the device will launch bundled with e-reading software from Kobo and hit the market around the spring. At the same time Motorola unveiled the Xoom tablet, the mystery device it hyped in a teaser video. Xoom offers a 10.1” screen and runs Android 3.0 or Honeycomb, the updated Android OS optimized for larger tablet screens. It comes with a USB port and will be loaded with Google eBooks e-reading software and should be out by early summer. No pricing as yet.

Both of these devices try to offer features (like support for Flash, which Apple does not offer) to position them to compete with the iPad. Of course, Apple doesn’t exhibit at CES, preferring to set up its own presentations to unveil new products and upgrades, but in some ways you’d never know it. I’ve only cited two but there are a lot of tablet devices on display—the tech press says as many as 80 are being presented at CES—and they’re all being measured against the iPad. “This whole show seems to be chasing a company that declines to attend,” said Walter Mossberg, the influential WSJ tech reporter, who was speaking at the HigherEd Tech Summit, a mini-conference on technology and education held as part of the show.

Mossberg was a speaker late in the day at HigherEd Tech, which featured panels on such topics as the “High Tech Backpack”—the digital tools college students use today—and “From Dewey to Digital”—a panel that included CourseSmart’s Sean Devine and Cengage’s Bill Rieders. The latter panel discussed a range of ed tech issues including interoperability (“there’s no one piece of standard hardware used in education so everything has got to work together,” Rieders said), e-book interactivity and availability, the use of open content (stuff from outside the classroom) versus professional “certified” content and, of course, the final cost of all this for students and parents.

Indeed Mossberg also cited “tablets and the cloud” as the big developments at CES before talking about his role as a college trustee at an institution that was facing severe budget issues in a tough economy. He called the iPad, “the biggest thing this year; it has a serious chance of challenging the longtime computing role of the personal computer. It’s a new type of computer; it’s immersive, it’s different, it’s its own thing. This will effect education. ”

But his ultimate point was that tablets will not only effect how students learn, but probably whether they or their parents can afford to have them educated. (There was a fair amount of discussion on the previous panel about whether digital texts and content would, in fact, ultimately be cheaper, at least in the short run). He said he was constantly asked by parents whether to get their kids an iPad or a conventional laptop, and called the typical issues and cost structures around conventional textbook publishing and used textbooks, “ridiculously primitive. I have to vote on cost cutting issues all the time and in this economy families are having problems keeping their kids in school.” He emphatically declared that “if digital texts aren’t going to be cheaper then we’re all wasting our time. It has got to be cheaper to move bits around than atoms.”

There were also a couple of significant announcements on the software side featuring Copia, the social media driven e-reading and e-book retailing platform, as well as Blio, futurist Ray Kurzweil’s much ballyhooed multimedia-rich e-reading software. Blio will be bundled on a range of Dell computing devices including a new tablet device being presented her at CES.

Copia announced partnerships with Microsoft, Motorola and Samsung and Android to place its e-reading/social media software on Windows 7 devices, multiple Android devices including Motorola’s Droid X smartphone phone and Samsung Tablets. After planning to release its own suite of digital readers, Copia switched strategies to partner with other manufacturers and a Copia spokesperson said these new partnerships will give Copia access to more than 100 million e-readers across many devices. Ben Lowinger, executive v-p of Copia Interactive, said he was “thrilled to be able to deliver a seamless experience across tablets, PCs, and smart phones, regardless of the OS.”

Look for more reports on CES next week.