This year promises some nice improvements for PCs, with more
competition leading to more powerful machines, better graphics, and things like
smaller bezels on displays and improved connectivity options.
Now make no mistake about it: Personal computers are a
relatively mature category. Even the different parts of the market that
comprise it—things from gaming behemoths to svelte executive laptops—have now
been around for many years, and as a result, the changes from year-to-year are
usually incremental. I’m not expecting any radical reinvention of the category.
That said, both desktops and laptops should see some strong improvements in
These follow the release of the first Intel 10nm Ice Lake
systems late last year, and we’re now seeing Ice Lake in more systems, such as
the new version of the Apple MacBook Air.
But there are big changes coming in other areas as well.
Bye Bye Bezels, Hello Bigger Screens
Let’s start with the look of laptops. One of the most
obvious trends is that the bezels around the screens are shrinking on just
about every kind of laptop, and this is most obvious on high-end ultraportables
Perhaps the best example of this is the new Dell XPS 13 9300,
which follows on from the 2-in-1
version I looked at last fall. Compared with last year’s model, the screen
has switched from a 16:9 ratio to a 16:10 ratio while retaining the same
approximate size. You can get the display in a 1,920-by-1,200 pixel version or
a higher-end 3,840-by-2,400 display—even more pixels than a 4K TV. The extra
vertical depth is useful on a lot of web pages, or word processing documents—it
is not a game changer, but it is quite nice. This allows Dell to fit a
13.4-inch display in a machine that isn’t much larger than 11-inch laptop of a
few years ago.
In a more mainstream laptop, Acer is taking this even
further, going back to the 3:2 display ratio we used to see year’s ago,
offering a version of its Swift 3 laptop with a 13.5-inch, 2,256-by-1,504 pixel
display. Acer says this covers 18 percent more depth than a typical 16:9 display.
Of course, most laptops are keeping the 16:9 ratio, but
still they are using smaller bezels to make for smaller machines. Consider the HP
Spectre x360 15, a 2-in-1 with a 15.6-in display: This year’s version of
HP’s shown on the right in the picture above is 24 mm (almost an inch) smaller
than last year’s model shown on the left, mainly due to the smaller bezels, as
shown in the screen assemblies below. This year’s version now has a 90 percent
screen-to-body ratio, up from 80 percent last year.
This will be available in both 2K (1,920-by-1,080 pixel) and
4K (3,840-by-2,160 pixel) versions
Making laptops work with smaller bezels is not just a matter
of improvements in screen technology. Manufacturers have also found webcams
that take up much less space so they fit into the new smaller top bezels. For
instance, HP replaced the 6mm IR camera in last year’s model with a 2.2 mm IR
camera. All the major vendors are doing the same.
Laptops as Convenient as Phones
It’s also clear that laptops in general are gaining many of
the features that we would expect from tablets or phones. Touchscreen laptops
or even 2-in-1s aren’t anything new, but we’re seeing more of them. Of course, we’re
seeing thinner and lighter laptops, sometimes called ultraportables, become a
larger part of the market.
But we’re also seeing many of the advantages of phones, such
as all-day battery life, always-on Internet connections, and instant on
(actually the ability to wake from sleep instantly). Intel calls its version of
Athena and already all of the major vendors have products that fit this
definition, including the Dell XPS 13, Lenovo
ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and the HP Elite Dragonfly.
Lighter Than Air
Speaking about light weight,
laptops have been getting lighter for years, and the trend is now towards even
lighter machines. Ultraportables that weigh under three pounds are now
commonplace, and we’re starting to see more machines that aim for the 1 kg (2.2
pound) target, including the Elite Dragonfly.
A few machines are even lighter,
so much so that when I pick them up, it feels like something is missing. Some
of these models have been around for a while, but they seem to be getting more
mainstream. For instance, NEC has offered its Lavie line for a while, but at
CES, Lenovo announced it would bring
the model back to the US market. This includes a 13.3-inch Lavie Pro
Mobile, with a Core i7 processor and full HD display weighing 1.85 pounds and
coming in at 15.5 mm thick.
Dynabook (formerly Toshiba’s
laptop division, now owned by Sharp) is moving in a similar vein with the Portege
X30L, a 13-inch 6-core laptop weighing under 1.9 pounds, running Comet
Just a bit larger is Acer’s 14-inch
Swift 7, which
weight just 1.96 pounds. (The company’s Swift 5 series is
less expensive and the 14-inch version is just a bit heavier at 2.18 pounds.)
Lightweight machines now even
extend to 17-inch notebooks, with the LG Gram 17 coming in
at under 3 pounds, a big deal for a machine with that large of a screen.
The Game is Thin
The push towards thin machines may
be most notable when you look at gaming laptops. Not too long ago, these were
behemoths of machines, with 13-inch models often starting at more than 5
pounds, and 15-inch versions at around 8 pounds.
That’s changed. You can now find a
15-inch gaming laptop with a great design for under five pounds, such as the Alienware m15
R2. Similarly, if you’re interested in a machine with AMD’s latest Ryzen
Mobile 4000 APU, there’s the Asus ROG Zephyrus
G14 (above), which includes a 14-inch screen and Nvidia RTX graphics in a
High-end mobile gaming got a lot
thinner with Nvidia’s Max-Q platform, and Nvidia is raising the bar a bit this
year with new versions of its GeForce
RTX 2070 and 2080 “Super” GPUs for laptops. Already we’re seeing
a number of new
machines with these new graphics boards.
For instance, Lenovo is pushing new
gaming laptops, including its Legion 7 with Intel processors, Nvidia RTX
graphics and a 15.6-inch screen, starting at 4.6 pounds.
5G Isn’t Just For Phones
It’s no secret that 5G isn’t just for phones—backers are
talking about how 5G will be important in all sorts of markets, from industrial
applications to cars. But the PC industry is looking at incorporating 5G into
laptops as well.
Perhaps the first laptop specifically designed for 5G and
headed for US markets is Lenovo’s
Yoga 5G, which it first announced with Qualcomm last summer as part of what
they called “Project Limitless.” The 14-inch laptop, which will have
a 1080p display and weigh just under 3 pounds, will use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon
8cx processor and the firm’s X55 5G modem, and will support both the millimeter-wave
and sub-6GHz versions of 5G.
We will see if this gets traction
when it comes out in the US shortly. ARM based laptops haven’t been able to
match Intel or AMD ones for speed running Windows, and in the US connected
laptops haven’t been as popular as just using your phone as a hotspot
Of course, Intel isn’t standing
still. Having abandoned its own 5G modem plan, it has announced a partnership
with MediaTek to create a 5G modem designed for laptops with Intel processors. Both
Dell and HP have announced plans
to use that modem, but we’re not expecting to see that until next year.
Of course, nothing stops other vendors
from adding a separate Qualcomm 5G modem to a machine with an Intel or AMD
Corporate Laptops Get Thinner, Greener
For instance, Dell’s
forthcoming Latitude 9510, its new flagship corporate laptop, is designed
for 5G antennas and 5G support using the Qualcomm X55 modem.
This brings together many of the trends in notebooks into a
new corporate line. The Latitude 9510 is a 15-inch, 3.2-pound laptop that Dell
claims has 30 hours of battery life (with a 2-in-1 version that is just
slightly heavier). It runs the Intel Comet Lake processors and uses the new
smaller bezel displays to get a 15-inch display into what recently would have
been a 14-in size. This looks like a strong contender in the ultra-premium
corporate line. Meanwhile the 14-inch Latitude
7400 2-in-1, which I tried out last fall, is being renamed the 9410.
Similarly, HP has announced that the next version of its Elite Dragonfly will
have a 5G option. This is a very lightweight notebook, weighing 2.2 pounds with
a 13.3-inch display. Other new features include an update to its SureView Reflect
privacy option that is supposed to do a better job of letting you see the
screen head-on while preventing people from seeing the screen from the side.
This is also the first laptop with an option to have Tile
built-in to let you track where the laptop is even when it is offline. Tile co-developed
a hardware solution with HP for, and you can track the laptop via the Tile app
on a smartphone. Tile draws its power from the laptop (using only a minimal
amount) and works whether the laptop is online or offline.
HP is also pushing “green” with the notebook,
saying that it is now using 90 percent recycled magnesium in its chassis, with
over 82 percent of the mechanical parts made from recycled material, including ocean-bound
plastic material in the speaker boxes.
Foldables and Dual-Screen Laptops
Perhaps the most radical change to laptops that could happen
is the addition of a second screen, or switching to a screen that could bend in
half so the laptop could be folded flat. While this concept is not likely to
have a big impact on the market this year, many vendors are experimenting with
foldable or dual-screen laptops, thinking this will be a new form factor.
One of the first we’re likely to see is Lenovo’s
ThinkPad X1 Fold, which is expected to be released later this year. This
uses a bendable 13.3-inch OLED display with 2,048-by-1,536 pixels in a 4:3
ratio, meaning that it would be the equivalent of two 8.4-inch displays. This
is designed to use Intel’s forthcoming Lakefield
processor and to have up to 11 hours of battery life. I tried it out at
CES, and it’s interesting—unfolded it feels very thin (and relatively light at
2.2 pounds), folded it’s a bit thicker—there’s extra space around the bend
because it doesn’t fold completely flat.
Lenovo has an external keyboard, and that’s probably good—if
a bit inconvenient—because typing on a screen has never felt as good as typing
on a real keyboard. But you can type on the screen, just as you can on your
phone or tablet.
Last year Microsoft showed off the Surface
Neo, which uses two 9-inch displays that combined have the size of a
13-inch display (but with a noticeable gap where the hinge comes together). It’s
an interesting idea—Microsoft says it will use the thinnest LCD display ever,
with the whole device measuring 5.6mm thick and weighing 655 grams (1.4
pounds). This was announced to ship at the end of 2020, and to be running a new
version of the operating system dubbed “Windows 10 X,” designed for
dual-screen devices. Recently, there have been some stories saying both the
machine and the operating system have been delayed
until 2021, so we’ll see. (Note the other dual-display product Microsoft
announced, the Surface Duo, is an Android phone, not a laptop).
Meanwhile, at CES, Dell showed off two different concept
Ori is a fully foldable display designed to be carried like a book, while Duet
(above) is essentially a 13-inch laptop in which a second display replaces the
Neither of these has actually been announced for sale,
though technically, it seems like the Duet would be the easier to bring to market.
Lenovo brought a dual-screen
laptop to market in 2018, using an e-ink display in place of the keyboard,
though it wasn’t a big hit.
With the Duet, you would normally use the second screen as a
keyboard when you need it, though an extra physical keyboard would be available
to magnetically attach to the machine. I tried it for a little bit, and it
seems interesting, though I’m still skeptical even though we type on the screen
all the time on our phones and tablets.
The Ori concept is in some ways more ambitious, as it uses a
foldable display to come together like a book. In many ways, it looks similar
to the X1 Fold. The screen folds in the middle, and there’s less of a gap than
the X1, but it’s further away from being a product. A virtual keyboard would pop
up when you are typing, and applications include taking notes while watching a
Dell talked about this as “an intelligent
companion,” something you would take with you all the time, as it opens to
a full size tablet, and then closes to the size of a book.
Also at CES, Intel showed its own bendable screen prototype,
Bend. This opens up to a 17.3-inch OLED display in a 4:3 ratio, but can be
used either as a more conventional laptop (using the bottom part of the screen
as a keyboard) or propped up like a book. Intel also showed a connected physical
keyboard. Again, this is mostly a concept, so it’s unclear whether machines
like this will actually come to market.