Like PC gaming, laptops were supposed to be on their way out by now. Bulkier and less flexible than tablets, they were meant to be obviated by a more streamlined hybrid beast: the 2-in-1 computer that’s both a laptop and a tablet. But here at CES 2015, what I see is not the demise, but the resurgence of the laptop in all its glorious varieties. Gaming machines are roaring louder, business PCs are doing more with less power, and, well, have you seen Dell’s XPS 13 yet?
Every year brings iterative innovation and improvements, yes. What’s different about this one is that a confluence of events has built up into a bubbling tide of awesome that’s about to spill over the laptop market in 2015. Allow me to elaborate.
Intel’s 14nm Broadwell processor is finally ready for release. Having been announced and re-announced by Intel at every electronics show for the past couple of years, this week Broadwell leaps from promise to fulfilment. Intel tells me that this will be the fastest ramp-up in production and distribution in the company’s history. Broadwell is being released "across all price points and ranges at the same time," an unprecedented move for the company that will see Celeron, Pentium, Core i3, i5, i7, and even the freshly minted Core M brands all updated with Broadwell silicon.
The end of Broadwell's delays marks the start of a great time for laptop buyers
And why should you care about Broadwell? At 14nm, its transistors are a fraction of the size of the 22nm Haswell that it’s replacing, which translates into higher power, space efficiency, and lower heat emissions. The typical 15W CPU will now, all other things being equal, power a laptop through an extra 90 minutes of video playback. There are beefier graphics to be had, too, but that’s one of those gradual updates that no one is going to jump up and down about it. What will excite people is the extension of battery life by up to 30 percent from the upgrade to Broadwell.
There’s a stat that Intel is reciting regularly here at CES, which speaks to the company’s goals: 600 million PCs around the world haven’t been upgraded in the past four years. What we have on our hands is a significant reserve of pent-up demand, and what’s needed to unlock it are compelling new devices. The twin factors of Broadwell’s absence and AMD’s continuing struggle to offer anything more than a budget CPU alternative to Intel have collectively made the laptop category feel stale and unexciting. It may not have been intentional, but Intel built up its own demand, and now it’s about to capitalize on it in a big way by finally delivering the silicon to make significantly better machines possible.
Dell’s XPS 13 is a visual and physical delight. It has an edge-to-edge screen that screams of future technology, and its top and bottom are reinforced with machined aluminum and carbon fiber elements. It’s built like a rock, saves a bunch of space relative to any other 13-inch laptop, and even its touchpad is fast, responsive, and pleasurable to use. The best thing about the XPS, though, is that this computer will be far from alone. Dell’s managed to squeeze all of those good things into a package it’s pricing at $799, so we’re not talking about the extreme, inaccessible peaks of high-end mobile PCs. Dell’s clamshell is simply the harbinger of a new generation of devices that will be immediately, recognizably better than their predecessors. The almost bezel-free display uses Sharp's IGZO technology, though LG Display has shown similar designs in laptops from LG and Acer in the past, and we should see even more of them as the year rolls on, with Dell’s pricing suggesting they’ll be more affordable than before.
Alienware, Dell’s gaming brand, is coming to CES with refreshes of its over-the-top, LED-illuminated portable gaming machines. Though their evolution is less pronounced, the Alienware 15 and 17 are quite a bit slimmer and up to 20 percent lighter, plus the 15-inch model now has the option to be specced with a 4K touchscreen display. Alienware’s been showing these new laptops off at CES alongside an external GPU box that will give you the power of a full desktop graphics card, should you require it. Then there’s MSI’s completely insane GT80 Titan, which comes with a mechanical keyboard and dual GeForce GPUs built in. It also has a set of golden WASD keys that will delight some and horrify (most) others.
It’s not just Windows computers that are set for a revival this year. Acer has brought a 15-inch Chromebook to CES. When it comes to the budget "buy something for your parents" market, this new laptop is the most significant new entrant in years. We’ve already noted how important of a factor screen size is for people looking to buy an uncomplicated and cheap laptop like a Chromebook, so giving them that XL option should now mean a bump in interest in Google’s alternative to Windows. Acer’s laptop is also well-made and has a design that doesn’t betray its budget aspirations. As will the XPS 13, what we’re seeing at CES is just the first of a new wave of nicer Chromebooks that serve people’s needs better than before.
Bigger Chromebooks and smaller MacBooks will fill longstanding demand
The most significant (and consistent) CES absentee every year is Apple, but even its MacBooks managed to get into the news this week with a leak suggesting there’ll be a leaner and meaner 12-inch MacBook Air coming this year. The key to making that happen, beyond the move to the more efficient Broadwell CPUs, is the newly introduced USB Type-C connector. Shaped like Apple’s own Lightning plug, it’s slim and symmetrical, and it’s going to make it possible to build even thinner laptops than we already have. It’s crazy to think it, but Type-C is the sort of blindingly obvious upgrade in convenience that may push some people over the edge to go and finally upgrade their years-old laptop.
Whether it’s Intel’s chips, Apple’s design chops, or the continuing refinement of Windows machines, you’ll have more reasons to consider buying a new laptop in 2015 than in the previous three years combined. It’s a good time to be in this market, that’s for sure.