Why PCs are turning into giant phones
Your next laptop will be like a smartphone, but bigger, more powerful, and more capable. It’s a reversal of nearly a decade of trends in mobile computing, a decade that saw our phones get faster and faster while our laptops and other PCs felt like they were whistling.
For everyday tasks at home and at work, we have long had a choice: pull out a heavy brick with a noisy fan, a pixelated screen, a few hours of battery life and a tenuous Internet connection; or grab that instant supercomputer, always connected and stuffed with apps in our pockets.
Laptops have survived primarily because they’re better for heavier jobs – their screens are bigger, and physical keyboards are better for productive and creative tasks. And when a global pandemic arrived, we found those features outweighed the mobility benefits of phones and tablets, especially since we were usually on home Wi-Fi and plugged into the wall outlet.
Computer sales have generally been declining over the past decade, and these declines are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. During the pandemic, PC sales grew 50% or more per quarter, compared to the previous year, according to technology market research firm IDC. Laptop makers are profiting from this sudden comeback.
Each major PC brand incorporates more and more technologies that have made our phones so central to our lives. They adopt powerful but powerful processors and sharper screens, along with the corresponding decrease in thickness and weight, as well as increased battery life. And these evolving technologies make possible more post-clamshell laptop designs, including ‘detachable’ (tablets that snap into keyboards) and 2-in-1 (slim laptops with 360-degree hinges. that fold up into a tablet).
Perhaps most transformative, laptops will eventually gain direct connections to cellular networks, including 5G. Laptops with cellular connectivity appeared a few years ago but never became mainstream, mainly due to the lack of cooperation between hardware manufacturers and wireless service providers.
The next laptop transformation is fueled by changes in the behavior of consumers, businesses and schools during the pandemic, but it has also coincided with the rapid evolution of PC technology.
Apple is leading the charge
Longer battery life is directly related to reducing the computing power of fewer watts of electricity, and Apple is leading the way, says Geoff Blaber, CEO of CCS Insight, a technology consulting firm . Apple has spent years gaining in-house chip design expertise while designing its own processors, first for the iPhone. These processors are based on the chip instructions used by British chip design company Arm and compete with Intel.‘s
X86 technology, which dominates the PC and data center industries, and until recently powered Apple’s Mac computers. Apple has used the same expertise to develop its M1 processors for Mac.
Mr. Blaber said that Apple’s chip performance “has been very, very concerned about the rest of the industry,” adding that the company is “several orders of magnitude ahead of the competition today.”
For Apple, this translates into record performance on many benchmarks for its MacBook Air and Pro laptops, but also its iPad Pro, which uses the same M1 processor and has 5G connectivity. The M1 chip is also now in the iMac, but Apple has yet to give any of its laptops a touchscreen, which is found on many competing PCs.
Apple’s tight control over hardware and software means the company has, in some ways, been pioneering – and accelerating the adoption of industry-wide chip customization, to better execute software we use most often, said Miguel Nunes, senior director of product management at microchip giant Qualcomm..
Such hardware-level customization makes software faster than it would be if it only ran on general-purpose chips, such as the ones that have been Intel’s core business for decades.
A wave of competition
When it comes to pushing the phone-ization of the PC, Apple’s competitors have also been forward thinking.
Surface Pro X, one of the company’s new detachable, runs on an Arm-based processor designed in collaboration with Qualcomm. Windows is not yet as capable on such processors, in large part because few third-party developers write software for the version of Windows used on that hardware, despite continued encouragement from the company. Microsoft has announced that it will unveil a new version of Windows on June 24, and early indications are that it will include a substantial operating system overhaul that will make it more usable and unified across a variety of processor types and designs. from PC.
Intel retains around 80% of the laptop market share, with the rest almost entirely being its direct competitor AMD, which makes chips that speak the same language as Intel’s. A fraction of the rest are Arm-based and use chips made by Apple, Qualcomm, MediaTek, and others. Intel has responded to these changes in laptops by adapting their designs to stay competitive with Arm in laptops. It has created an “Evo Platform” certification for laptops using its latest generation processors. To be eligible, a device must respond strict standards: slim and light design, instant ignition, 9 hours of battery life and other features reminiscent of smartphones. However, these specifications usually come with a hefty price tag.
“This work was already underway, and then people’s needs for our key Evo experiments were dramatically accelerated by the pandemic,” said Chris Walker, Intel vice president of laptops and others.
Blaber says PCs are enjoying a renaissance of web applications, programs that can run in a browser and don’t need to be written for a particular operating system. But it’s also one of the reasons Windows PCs and Apple devices could continue to lose ground to Google-powered Chromebooks. Google has long pursued the strategy of enticing users to use web applications, through its Chrome operating system. Thanks in large part to the rapid adoption in the education market, the share of Chromebooks in PCs sold has exploded over the past 18 months.
The Chrome ecosystem appears on perhaps the most diverse range of devices and underlying technologies of any operating system, with devices from all major PC makers except Apple, running on x86 processors manufactured by Intel, but also on Arm processors from MediaTek, based in Taiwan. and Qualcomm. Both are starting to roll out more powerful laptop-specific chips than the ones they’ve sold to Android phone makers for years, and have more in the works. Examples of devices that already include such processors are the Lenovo Chromebook Duet, which runs on a chip from MediaTek, and the Acer Spin 7, which uses a chip from Qualcomm and is capable of 5G connectivity.
Connectivity is not quite there yet
Perhaps the most useful feature of our phones is their almost constant connection to the Internet through a cellular network. This missing piece might not get to our laptops as quickly as other pieces of mobile computing.
The challenge is not to integrate LTE and 5G modems into our PCs, it has been possible for years. It is that operators have not yet found their end, explains Patrick Moorhead, president of the technology consultancy Moor Insights & Strategy. They worry that potentially data-hungry devices like PCs will overload their networks, he adds. (Imagine a cell tower designed to handle occasional bursts of data traffic lighting up with a few dozen laptops streaming “The Avengers” in 4K.)
The good news is that 5G represents a chance to align incentives so that it is easier for individual laptop buyers to get data plans easily. “All of these operators are making all of this capital expenditure, and they need to get a return on their investment in spectrum and equipment,” adds Moorhead. “We’re going to be in an oversupply of connectivity.”
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For some time now, Windows laptops have had the ability to connect to cellular networks without consumers having to purchase the type of physical SIM card smartphones are built on, a Qualcomm spokesperson said. Currently, the Microsoft Surface Pro X supports this “e-SIM” technology and allows the purchase of data plans through an application, he adds.
The PC respects
Despite the connectivity challenge, analysts predict the recent surge in PC sales will persist. Reasons for this include unmet demand in the education market, a shift towards people buying new PCs every four to five years instead of the usual six to seven, and the way “work from home” Has meant that employees need their own devices, rather than sharing them as they have in some workplaces such as call centers, says Jitesh Ubrani, analyst at IDC covering smartphones, tablets and the PCs.
There are also a number of behavioral changes that can support PC buying, and many of them are made possible by the new types of PCs on offer, he adds. These include the rise of hybrid desktop and remote work setups, and the wide adoption of Zoom meetings, which has driven demand for better web cameras on laptops.
Other factors include the surge in video games caused by the pandemic. Alas, there are some changes that most of us would probably prefer to do without, such as every kid needing their own computer at home because – guess what, kids! – now that school districts have experience with distance learning, many are declaring the snow days are over.
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Write to Christopher Mims at [email protected]
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