Opinion: The laptop, as a form factor, has no future in their current direction. As always, the relentless march of progress will force them into thinner and lighter configurations and they’ll inevitably continue to receive sharper screens and more powerful processors, but that isn’t enough to drive sales. To keep the bottom line happy, laptop manufacturers must break out of the same-old clamshell laptop and find something new.
It was too long ago for many of us to remember, but there was a massive shift in the laptop market somewhere around 2011. The MacBook Air, while released in 2008 to mixed reviews, had suddenly improved and snuck up on the whole industry, claiming the throne as the laptop to beat. It set the stage for modern devices: it prioritized thinness, lightness and design, and it had a great price.
Apple was selling millions of units, and between that and their iPad – which was predicted to lead the world into the ‘post-PC era’ – laptops from HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Asus were losing ground. Intel was so scared of Apple’s new products that they began investing left, right, and center into any company that said they would make an ultrabook – a term that for a long time referred to a Windows-based MacBook Air.
After a couple of years other manufacturers did catch up, and even new players joined the fray. But, for the most part, they were guided by fear and a need to catch up to Apple – the goal was to be thinner and lighter than the Cupertino company. Everything was about being thin and light.
Windows 10 released in mid-2015, and it built on the failures of Windows 8 to deliver the first desktop operating system that was truly touch compatible. Manufacturers and analysts first saw this as a way to combine the ‘dying’ PC market and the upcoming tablet/mobile market, but they quickly realized that touchscreen laptops were unique enough to stand alone.
To take advantage of touchscreens, many manufacturers added rotating hinges or took them away entirely in the case of Microsoft, whose Surface line was taking off with the Surface 3. However, rather than focusing on how good their products actually were, manufacturers continued comparing themselves to Apple. The constant back and forth of the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” and “Less talking more doing” campaigns were evidence of that.
Other than the distinct operating systems (which are closer than ever in terms of features), touchscreens and value have stayed as the features that supposedly give Windows machines the edge. Apple has stubbornly refused to budge on either, and Windows device manufacturers have focused on refining their devices rather than adding new features, believing they already have the spec-sheet advantage.
The biggest flaw with the new MacBook Air: the keyboard can be a bit annoying. The biggest flaws with the Surface Laptop: no USB-C and the keyboard isn't particularly durable. The Dell XPS 13: no Thunderbolt 3 or NVMe storage. The Razer Blade Stealth: costs more than its competitors. These are petty differences compared to what it was like five years ago, and all these devices have changed very little over their previous iterations.
Laptops have stopped improving in meaningful ways. To drive sales, manufacturers will have to start making their devices different, very different.
First and foremost, this evolution will be driven by new solutions. Apple, already having desktop and mobile platforms, is unsurprisingly at the forefront of blending the two. As you can see above, two of their patents spotted in 2017 describe laptop-like shells, one of which uses an iPhone for processing power and a trackpad, and the other an iPad for processing power and a screen.
Apple is far from alone in this market, however. Razer took everyone by surprise back at CES 2018 when they revealed Project Linda, a working laptop shell that was powered by a Razer phone. Samsung, meanwhile, offers DeX, a desktop interface powered by a smartphone via a single cable, and it’s a fairly acceptable solution. Hardware: check. Software: check.
Not only is this technologically viable but there’s plenty of demand for a solution like this, too, particularly among students.
Think about it this way: for $1,200 to $1,500, you get a flagship smartphone or tablet, plus a fairly powerful laptop. While not too many apps would fully support a trackpad interface at first, apps designed for iPad would work reasonably well. And performance-wise, flagship smartphones and tablets offer a lot more performance than a $200-$500 laptop anyway.
Perhaps less likely to eventuate but no less interesting, there’s also a variety of very creative solutions that we’ve seen patented and discussed.
Apple, Razer, and Lenovo have been pioneering some very different concepts that revolve around multiple screens and new ways to interface with them. Very recently Apple patented a MacBook with a flexible touchscreen that sits above the keyboard, letting users see double the data while still offering a good keyboard.
Razer, meanwhile, showed off a triple screen laptop called Project Valerie. While such a product is doubtlessly bonkers, it does let users increase their productivity. And though it would be expensive, it might be worth it for creative professionals that connect their laptop to two or three external monitors at work and home.
Keen to cater to budding artists, Lenovo released the Yoga Book Create Pad, a laptop that traded a keyboard for a sketchpad. When we reviewed it about two years ago we concluded that it was beautiful and innovative, but flawed.
While all three of these solutions are completely different, they all have the same core appeal: they’ll make you better in creative tasks. Catering to creativity is an expanding market that's starting to catch up to catering for office work, as Apple’s latest iPad Pro and advertisements demonstrate.
Perhaps one day far into the future, Augmented Reality glasses like Microsoft’s HoloLens (which are about to get an update) and the Magic Leap One will find their way into professional workflows.
Before we dive too far into the future, however, let’s take a step back and look at the inevitable solutions.
First, there are folding phones. Their potential impact on the mobile world has been heavily discussed, but their impact on the laptop world also has the potential to be significant. Over time, more and more of our digital lives have switched over to phones, like checking email, reading the news and light gaming. What else might be pushed over to smartphone-land by the larger screen?
Secondly, there’s PCIe 4.0 and 5.0, which are poised to revolutionize the external GPU market. Right now, eGPUs only connect to the CPU via four PCIe lanes, which can reduce performance by 10-15%. And if you’re not using an external monitor, the bandwidth of the returning signal also cuts performance by 10-15%. External storage, keyboards, and mice? Don’t even think about it.
Once PCIe 4.0 roles out on laptops, possibly with the next generation of mobile Ryzen debuting in less than a year, Thunderbolt 4 can be developed, which will double the bandwidth. PCIe 5.0, which is about a year behind 4.0, will double it once again, truly abolishing any performance hits.
Not only will the next few years see the bandwidth bottleneck removed, but they’ll also see CPU bottlenecks reduced as well. Many laptops already have 6-core processors, but there are rumors and even a 3Dmark database entry for 8-core Intel laptop processors. Combine these factors, and eGPUs will be 20%-40% better value than they are now, which has the potential to seriously encroach into the desktop market.
All in all, the future holds fascinating potential for new devices and I'll be holding my breath with keen interest to see what comes next.
- Likelihood of phones powering laptops: 75%
- Likelihood of tablets powering laptops: 75%
- Likelihood of a dual-screen MacBook: 25%
- Likelihood of multi-display laptops: 25%
- Likelihood of professional AR use: 50%
- Likelihood of folding phones: 100%
- Likelihood of eGPUs taking off: 85%