Computex has always been the Wintel show.
Before the age of Android-running, Qualcomm-powered smartphones, the dominant software-hardware combo in the world of personal computing was that of Microsoft’s Windows OS and Intel’s CPUs. But now Microsoft is preparing for a post-Windows future and Intel is scrambling to figure out what else it can do beside baking chips for a satiated audience of PC users. So what does that mean for Computex, the annual Taipei-based showcase of the latest innovations in the Intel-Windows ecosystem? It means change.
I’ve travelled halfway round the world to be here for Computex 2018, because I don’t expect the same old Computex. To be sure, Taiwanese powerhouses Asus and Acer will have plenty of traditional laptop and desktop systems to demonstrate, and their gaming sub-brands will show us the latest innovations in the use of LED lights in industrial design. But it’s on those same companies — along with smaller competitors Gigabyte, MSI, and Shuttle — to also show us the future of their business. If the standard desktop PC tower is dying, what shape will the all-in-one PC be that replaces it take? Will it even be an all-in-one, or might it be something like Intel’s impressively powerful yet compact NUC 8 PC?
This year, Computex coincides with Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, and there’s no denying that Apple’s design influence has long been felt in the products the PC industry churns out. Microsoft has itself gotten into the hardware design business, with some lovely Surface devices to show for that effort. Between the examples set by Apple, Microsoft, and Intel’s reference design team, PC manufacturers have some strong ideas to emulate. The fascinating thing to watch at Computex will be how companies try to square the circle of delivering the high-end, premium qualities that Microsoft is making seem mainstream with actual mainstream pricing.
My perennial disappointment with companies like Asus, Acer, and Korea’s LG is that they build PCs and peripherals that have all the latest specs but only give the appearance of a high-quality design. It’s the “too good to be true” business model of having a laptop that’s thinner and lighter than Apple’s MacBooks, but also flimsier. (Lightness is something you can identify immediately when you try a computer out at the store, whereas judging durability takes weeks of use.) Last year’s ZenBook 3 Deluxe from Asus is a good example of what I mean: it charmed me with its good looks, but ultimately left me frustrated with a fan that would kick into high gear if I so much as looked at it with productive intent.
The final layer of polish that’s always been the difference between PC makers and Apple is less of an issue in the mobile realm, where smaller device sizes allow companies to spend more on materials, and more integrated ARM-based systems-on-chips make hardware development faster and more predictable. And that’s where Qualcomm is coming from to try and shake up the ultraportable PC market (again). The mobile processor and modem specialist is leading the charge of expanding the selection of “always-connected” ARM-based Windows PCs, which can be thought of as a reboot of the failed Windows RT PCs that were the focus of Computex 2011.
To give you an idea of how much has changed since the last time Microsoft was really pushing Windows on ARM devices, consider that The Verge didn’t yet have a name at Computex 2011 and Microsoft still called its Windows 8 design language “Metro.” So yes, I’m willing to give Microsoft and Qualcomm a fresh chance with their renewed ARM effort, especially when it comes accompanied by promises of multi-day battery life and other niceties like thinner, fanless designs and integrated styluses for inking in Windows.
The Computex component that hasn’t and won’t soon change is the focus of this show on personal computing. As Windows continues morphing and evolving, so too will the devices that run it. Intel’s dominant position is now under threat from a resurgent AMD and an ambitious Qualcomm. Microsoft is having to fight off the combined challenges of Google’s Chromebooks at the entry level and Apple’s iPad in the contest for ultraportable computing.
Previous Computex shows have given us plenty of wild ideas like the Asus Taichi dual-screen Windows 8 laptop and the Transformer Book V that could dual-boot Windows and Android and even dock an Android smartphone on its back. The need for more daring and provocative designs is still there, but at Computex 2018, I expect to see new designs that are more mature and, hopefully, more commercially successful than in years past. If Taiwan’s PC makers are to retain their status as leaders in their field, they’re going to have to play their part in shaping and defining what the term “PC” will mean in the future.