Everywhere around us, there is chaos and disorder. Political instability, economic crises that last decades, nuclear saber rattling... the future is all bleak entropy! But one time a year, we can all escape the unhappy news cycle by replacing it with a weeklong-dose of ambitious futurism and unabashed tech optimism, courtesy of CES. We undertake our annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas because we love to see things improve — nothing improves faster or more reliably than personal electronics — but I’m sad to say that not every company that comes here is doing its utmost to push things forward. And it’s kind of our fault.
My favorite category of technology, gaming hardware, seems like a one-note record repeating itself for over a decade. More LED lighting, more of that wannabe Lamborghini aesthetic, and more of the Tron-like typography that should have gone out of style last century. CES 2017 was a great opportunity to disrupt this self-satisfied market, as the giants that are Lenovo and Samsung launched dedicated sub-brands for gaming PCs, starting off with big and powerful gaming laptops under the Lenovo Legion and Samsung Odyssey banners. But what they didn’t do was innovate. At all.
First of all, take a moment to soak up all the fake accoutrements on each machine. If you’re thinking all the red stuff above the Lenovo Legion keyboard is a speaker array, part of a cooling system, or something else functional, it is not. It’s just stuff. And somebody please explain to me why Samsung built this ridiculous glossy outgrowth around its Odyssey trackpad. Samsung sure couldn’t. That touchpad decoration collects fingerprints and distract the eye with its LED illumination, but serves zero discernible purpose.
Honestly, I’d probably be okay with design for design’s sake, but this isn’t even that — both Samsung and Lenovo are treading a very well worn path by gluing on more angular plastic and tacking on features like a "Beast Mode" button (whose name Samsung promises to change before release, at least).
I laid my hands on both Lenovo and Samsung’s new laptops here in Vegas, and I can tell you that the pictures fail to convey how cheaply and poorly made they are. At a time when Lenovo is weaving carbon fiber into its ThinkPads and Samsung is exploiting a magnesium alloy to make the world’s lightest 13-inch notebook, these gaming computers are almost inexplicable. I certainly consider them inexcusable. Both the Legion and Odyssey exhibit flex in their top lids and keyboards, neither has a particularly charming display, and their hinges leave a lot to be desired.
What I can’t reconcile is how gaming laptops and desktops have remained so stagnant while mobile devices have progressed from cheap, ugly, and plasticky only half a decade ago to their current state of amazing awesomeness. Okay, you have tempered glass on gaming cases now — but that’s only to expose the internal LED lights better! Mobile design is now light years ahead of the desktop, and we’ve got an entire generation of current and future gamers who’ll be more accustomed to perfectly finished aluminum unibody cases than cheaply glamorized plastic. Don’t gaming PC and peripherals makers want to sell to that crowd?
To answer my own question, I queried a number of gaming hardware companies here at CES and, while their executives didn’t wish to be named, most of them sighed a deep sigh and just said that RGB LEDs sell. Multicolored, banal, and offensively tacky they might be, but people are actively making purchases on the basis of whether a case fan does or does not have lights built into it. There is, it turns out, a considerable contingent of gaming PC buyers who demand not only the high specs within, but also the demonstrative appearance to signal those specs on the outside. It just so happens to be that the aesthetic we’ve settled on for signaling awesome specs is not in itself awesome.
But make no mistake about it: tech companies are selling us ugly stuff punctuated with LED lights because we’ve shown them that’s what we want. The blame is ours.
In an ideal world, I’d love to have seen Lenovo and Samsung cast off all the preconceptions about what a gaming PC should be and truly break new ground. But I can see the limitations those companies are working within as well: high specs do cost plenty of money, and investing in design and high-end materials on top of that cuts into the profit margin that invites these manufacturing giants to make gaming gear in the first place. We all love our nicely designed phones, but they are vastly less complex in their structure and require only a fraction of the metal that you might need to build a full-size gaming laptop. And yet Razer is somehow achieving that feat with its Blade line of unibody aluminum laptops.
The solution, as best as I can see it, will require some sacrifice from all sides. Gaming PC makers are going to have to wake up to the existence of a millennial generation that cares about industrial design, and we’re all going to have to spend a little more to prove that we do, in fact, care about better design. Otherwise, the one-note dirge of CES will continue.