CES offers an early look at where laptops are going in the year ahead, from flashier designs to more impressive specs. This year, the changes are a lot more subtle than usual, and that’s actually a good thing.
There are a few practical reasons for the subtle changes. First, Intel’s delayed 10nm chips and AMD’s slow recovery means that there’s less room for bigger improvements. Meaningfully faster, more efficient laptop processors simply don’t exist for manufacturers to use. There’s also that fact that laptops are approaching the limits of how thin we can reasonably make them. And then there’s the lack of pressure from Apple. Its MacBooks used to set a high bar for Windows competition, but they have recently taken a back seat to the company’s iPhones and iPads when it comes to hardware and software innovation.
Subtle changes speak to how strong modern laptops are
But as a whole, Windows laptops have reached a threshold where the “average” laptop is actually really, really good. If the trend at CES 2019 is boring laptop updates, that’s because most of the laptops on the market are already great.
Just look at some of the bigger laptop announcements at this year’s show. Lenovo’s most notable updates were incremental design tweaks to its ThinkPad X1 Carbon (an optional carbon fiber weave cover) and X1 Yoga (an aluminum case). Dell’s XPS 13 saw its webcam migrate back to the top of the laptop, which was a much-needed change, to be sure, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking.
As Dell’s XPS head Frank Azor admitted to The Verge before the show, “There wasn’t much more we could invest with today’s technology in making this version much better,” beyond fixing the notorious nose hair-glorifying camera.
Asus introduced ZenBooks that had trimmer bezels than the models that were announced last fall, but it’s not the same drastic redesign that we saw back then. Samsung improved the design of the Notebook 9 Pro, but the specs barely moved forward. HP debuted an impressive but still incremental OLED display variant of its existing Spectre x360.
Of course, the usual spec boosts were in attendance, too, but even those jumps weren’t that big. A shift from Intel’s first round of 8th Gen Core processors to the more recent “8.5 Gen” models announced earlier this year led the charge. Let’s face it, the addition of slightly faster Wi-Fi speeds just isn’t a groundbreaking change, no matter how you pitch it. And even the practically bezel-less laptop trend that was sweeping the industry last year has already become standard across most mainstream machines.
The PC market has moved in such leaps and bounds in recent years that it has caught up with (and even started to outpace) the computational needs of most people. Once you’ve got a decent processor, 8GB of RAM, and a nice display — something that practically every laptop has — you’re beyond what someone needs to browse the web, watch Netflix, and write a school report.
The biggest pain points are mostly behind us
Things like slow hard drives, low-res displays, and paltry RAM have largely become problems of the past, and their replacements (SSDs, QHD and UHD screens, and larger quantities of RAM) don’t struggle to meet the demands of a typical workload. Though, you can still overwhelm any computer if you launch enough web browser tabs.
There’s always going to be room to further refine and innovate on design, of course, and we’re still seeing that at CES this year. Most of it is design related, and we expect to increasingly see that as a differentiator going forward.
The high-end laptop industry isn’t going anywhere, either: even as the bar for what makes an “average” laptop moves lower and lower, there will always be a place for ultra powerful workstations and gaming rigs with tons of RAM, hexa-core processors, and dedicated GPUs for those who need them. But that’s still a pretty small chunk of the overall market. Most users don’t need 32GB of RAM or an Nvidia RTX 2080 graphics card.
It’s not that laptops still aren’t a cool or interesting place to innovate. This year at CES, we saw some of the wildest laptops yet, particularly centered on the gaming side of the market. Products like Asus’ massive Surface Pro-style Mothership, Acer’s $4,000 screen-flipping Triton 900, and Dell’s Alienware Area-51m with its desktop-style interchangeable parts all showed off bold ideas that break from the conventional model of what we think laptops can and should be.
Better hardware is coming, too — eventually
Better hardware is also coming: Intel has already started teasing 9th Gen chips for laptops and its long-awaited 10nm-scale processors at the show this year. Then there’s the announcement of Intel’s Project Athena design initiative, which wants to push the laptop industry forward in much the same way that the company’s Ultrabook reference design did a few years ago (although the company is still being pretty vague about its plans).
If CES is a preview of the future of laptops, then this year’s computers are going to look a whole lot like the ones we already have today, even if all of this year’s promised improvements come to pass. But considering how good our laptops are now, that sure sounds like a great future to me.
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