The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which happens every year in Las Vegas, Nevada, has always stood for wild technology showcases that rarely are close to consumerization. It has also been the quintessential show for the showcase of the latest in PC and TV technology. After all, only at the dawn of the last decade, this was the trade show which was the home for Microsoft and all things Windows, till gradually the Redmond giant moved out and today, its keynote features people from the automotive giants like Mercedes Benz to Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump. While most will be dismayed by the gradual decline of CES as the apex technology trade show, there is still hope. For the first time in at least 5 years, there is ample evidence at CES that 2020 could be a comeback year for the PC. In fact, it could be a big year for traditional computing giants like Microsoft, Intel, Google, AMD and their multitude of partners like Dell, Lenovo and the works.
Foldables coming into vogue with the Windows crowd
While 2019 was all about foldable smartphones with Samsung’s Galaxy Fold being the highlight of the year despite many production and quality issues, 2020 will be the year foldables go mainstream. And they will just not go mainstream on the phone form-factor. Going by what’s been showcased at CES, foldables are arguably more attuned for the laptop form-factor. There are a couple of great examples driving this.
- Intel’s project Athena which was announced months in advance showed signs of fruition at CES. Intel didn’t only revise and add more specifics to the Athena spec, it also showed two foldable notebooks by its partners — Lenovo and Dell, apart from having a unique “Horseshoe Bend” concept which had a 17-inch OLED screen bent in a 12-inch laptop, providing the “U” bend of a horseshoe than folding flat.
- Lenovo’s Thinkpad X1 foldable which was one the notebooks Intel showcased at its keynote was arguably the most impressive notebook that I have seen in years. Not only is this the world’s first foldable PC, but it also uses a 13.3 pOLED screen from LG that can be folded into a 9.7-inch screen, which is the same size as the standard iPad. It will eventually be based on Windows 10X which is a version of the operating system Microsoft has been developing for foldables and dual-screen tablets. Basically, it can shuffle between a compact laptop, a large tablet and even a mini All-in-One PC with the support of a tiny kickstand on the back. Like Microsoft’s Surface Neo, it also has a Bluetooth keyboard that magnetically latches on top the bottom quadrant of the display but also has a trackpad. It’s also a ThinkPad which means it is rugged, primed for work and well based on a new Intel chip which means it will be fast. With it coming in mid-2020 at $2,499, it will be one of the most exciting PCs I’ve ever seen.
- Dell’s concepts the Duet and Ori also piggyback on the foldable and dual-screen trend. The Ori can be folded with a floating keyboard extending to the bottom half of the screen. It is also primed to view content in horizontal and vertical views providing adaptability to content creators. The Duet is more like an oversized Surface Neo with the focus on providing more screen real estate to the user either vertically for people who code or design or horizontally, more in line with a traditional laptop except that instead of a keyboard you get all screen. You can use it vertically or horizontally with content spreading across two screens like an e-book for instance.
- And all this comes with the backdrop of the Microsoft announcement from last October where they announced the Surface Neo, a dual-screen Windows tablet which will also have a new version of Windows called Windows 10X which is expected on many of the concepts at CES. This will be a major theme for 2020 as Microsoft also doubles down on ways Android phones can talk to Windows in a better way. For this, it already has a partnership with Samsung for the “My Phone” Windows app which will presumably be integrated even in the Surface Duo Android phone it is developing. So Microsoft is indeed doubling down on duals-screens, foldables and interoperability with mobile.
Innovative Gaming PC solutions
Last CES was the one where Alienware wowed the world with its Area 51m notebook which basically a full upgradable PC, in a frame of an oversized laptop. This year didn’t have that one wild product, but rather an assortment of practical innovations. But this is a very important year for gaming with new net generation consoles launching in the latter half of the year, which means that PCs have to innovate otherwise, a huge chunk of the market will go to either Microsoft or Sony.
- Alienware’s UFO handheld concept takes a page out of Nintendo’s playbook. It is essentially a Windows PC in the form-factor of a Nintendo Switch which has the ability to play Windows games which not only are vastly more in number than the Switch but also more affordable. Alienware didn’t say what’s inside the guts of the concept but one can’t imagine something cutting edge for triple-A titles in that form-fact. But what’s interesting is that this is the year we have game streaming services — like Google Stadia and xCloud going prime time. This could be a cool way to play those titles on the go. If not that, this could be something that Alienware provides as an add-on or a bundle with its PCs so that users can stream games on the hand-held from their own PC.
- Intel’s Ghost Canyon NUC mini gaming PC represents the future of the assembled computer and budget gaming PC. The idea of this is to enable the user to easily swap out the CPU, GPU, RAM, storage and even the ports without needing to change the motherboard and minimise wiring with the Intel NUC (next unit of computing) module. The Ghost Canyon is based on the new Intel Core i9-9980HK chip which is primed for AAA games with two Thunderbolt 3 ports, twin Intel gigabyte ports, HDMI 2.0a, 4 x USB 3.1 gen 2 ports and an SDXC reader. There are also Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 dual antennas while for graphics is a slot for a desktop-grade GPU with a 500-watt power supply. Additionally, there are two M.2 slots for NVMe storage and space for up to 64GB RAM. Razer also has something based on Intel’s NUC, alongside CoolerMaster which means we can expect many of these to pop up just like motherboards.
- MSI Creator 17 laptop has become the world’s first laptop to feature a mini-LED display which marks a major movement of the needle in laptop display technology. The Creator 17 is said to be able to showcase 100% of DCI-P3 colour gamut at up to 1000 nits of brightness which is impressive. It is not only great for HDR content but also will be handy for gaming something MSI’s notebooks are already known for.
- The launch of AMD’s Ryzen 4000 chipsets for notebooks could mark a major shift in Intel’s monopoly of mobile notebook chipsets. Based on AMD’s Zen 2 architecture, these are the first notebook CPUs to be built on a 7nm manufacturing process and will be offered in two avatars — Ryzen U for low-voltage up to 15-watt notebooks and Ryzen H for up to 45-watt notebooks which are workstation replacements. AMD has some impressive figures to share claiming that they “U” series of Ryzen 4000 is 4% faster than the latest Intel chip in a single thread, 90% faster in multi-thread while having 28% edge in graphics which has been an inherent strength of its chips. AMD also claims huge gains on battery life with a 100% improvement over the previous generation derived mostly thanks to the massive 7nm node update from 12nm. AMD based solutions are also proving to be significantly cheaper as proven by the new Lenovo Yoga which also has an Intel-based version but the Ryzen 4000 model is $360 cheaper.
- Last but not least is the launch of Intel’s Tiger Lake CPUs which will power most of the notebooks this year. The big improvement comes in the form of the Xe graphics architecture which Intel claims will deliver 2x performance over Ice Lake. These gains come in the form of the new architecture and the 10nm+ manufacturing process. The big improvements in Tiger Lake are palpable for because Intel claims 4x AI performance which is usually derived through the GPU and the GPU is said to have discrete graphics level of performance. There is also the DG-1 discrete GPU which will come later in the year based on the same Xe architecture and reports claim that users will be able to double up the discrete DG-1 GPU with the integrated GPU on the Tiger Lake SoC for even faster performance something that can’t be achieved with Intel-based CPUs and discrete GPUs from Nvidia and AMD. Overall, 2020 will be the year when the base-level of performance on laptop gaming will be much higher than before.
Chromebooks to get better, a lot better
Google’s Chromebooks have meandered along for almost a decade. Sure, they have grown in popularity in the last couple of years especially in schools, but they haven’t come close to replacing a full-fledged Windows PC. In fact, last year, it could be argued that they fell behind even the iPad. But now that Google is partnering deeply with Intel and adding Chromebooks to project Athena, they are bound to become better this year. How is this happening?
- Intel will be collaborating with Google to customise chipsets for Chromebooks and have templatized specs for these ChromeOS based utensils. This includes ‘fast wake’ using fingerprints or push-buttons or lift lids; use of Intel Core i5 or i7 processors; “Ice Lake” processor designs; better battery life and charging; Wi-Fi 6; touch displays; 2-in-1 designs; narrow bezels and more.
- There are already two models that Google demoed at CES — the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook which features a premium design and an AMOLED display which is rarely seen even on high-end notebooks and the Asus Chromebook Flip C436 based on the Intel 10th generation CPU and NVMe storage. All these premium features point towards a strategy that’s moving Chromebooks more head-on with Windows, an attempt from Google to make them used more widely by consumers and businesses.