Laptops were boring at CES, but there’s hope for the future

Laptops were boring at CES, but there’s hope for the future thumbnail

CES 2020 was a boring year for laptops — at least, it was a boring year for laptops that will be real products that you can actually buy in 2020. The upgrades were incremental at best, and even the more interesting changes are reliant on unproven technology, like AMD’s new processors and 5G internet.

But despite the fact that the upcoming wave of 2020 laptops so far looks like it’s been upgraded even more incrementally than ever before, all is not lost. Among the minor spec boosts, CES 2020 also offered the first glimmers of what might come next for portable computers, with new screen technologies, wild new designs, and 5G modems. Those trends are important for the future of laptops, but we’re not quite in that future just yet.

The simpler updates are the easiest to explain: laptop innovation is largely driven by what parts are available. When new high-resolution screens came out, laptops got better displays, and when Nvidia releases new graphics cards (like at last year’s CES), gaming laptops get more powerful. The most recent hardware release was Intel’s proper next-gen 10nm process Ice Lake processors from late last year that bring big boosts to battery life and efficiency. So a lot of the “new” laptops at CES fall into the category of “similar design that just got upgraded to Intel’s new chips.”

Those laptops include Asus’ new ZenBook Duo, which is smaller and lighter than last year’s Pro model (although the specs are worse, despite the fact that it has Intel’s 10th Gen chips). Asus’ various sizes of VivoBook S laptops got the new chips, too. Acer similarly upgraded its bread-and-butter Spin 5 and 3 laptops, as did Samsung’s with its cheaper QLED Galaxy Book Flex Alpha (which is effectively a rebranded Notebook 9 Pen successor).

Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

Other laptops, like the XPS 13 and Spectre x360 15, got slightly more dramatic redesigns alongside the new chips. But even then, the designs weren’t really new. The XPS 13’s redesign matches the one the XPS 13 2-in-1 got last year, and the Spectre x360 15’s smaller bezels and not-terrible trackpad debuted on HP’s 13-inch model in 2019, too.

In an interesting twist, Chromebooks got in on the Intel upgrade cycle this year with the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and the Asus Chromebook Flip C436, both of which got Intel’s newest chips and the Project Athena designations. They’re also the first Chromebooks to have this certification, which covers things like size, weight, Wi-Fi 6 support, and longer battery life, which could help them compete better with conventional Windows laptops. (Those have been getting similar certifications for months.)

Of course, there are always new chips on the horizon, and it’s there where some of the most immediate potential lies. AMD came back ready to take on Intel again with its new Ryzen 4000 series of processors for laptops, and we saw plenty of laptops with those, too. Although, like the Intel spec boosts above, many of these were upgrades to existing designs, like the Dell G15 and Yoga Slim 7. AMD is making some big promises with these new chips: it claims that they’ll outpace Intel’s Ice Lake chips when it comes to performance, along with battery life that’s twice as good as the last generation of AMD chips.

Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

AMD needs the win. The second-generation Zen+ chips that AMD previously offered were handily outpaced by Intel’s 10nm lineup, but we’ll have to wait and see if AMD can keep up (or surpass) Intel here when we can test the laptops for ourselves. That means that even the more interesting AMD laptops, such as Asus’ ROG Zephyrus G14, are still a bit of a question mark for now.

Not one to be left behind, Intel started teasing its upcoming Tiger Lake chips, which will bring the 10nm process to all of its mobile processors (not just the U-series chips) as well as the company’s upgraded Xe graphics, which it promises will be twice as powerful. Intel also previewed its first discrete graphics chip for laptops, the DG1 GPU, but that’s also still months away. These are products that could bring big changes to the entire laptop world — imagine an ultralight laptop that could play games like Destiny 2 with decent performance — but they’re still months away from being in the hands of product manufacturers, let alone in laptops that you can actually buy.

Foldable and dual-screen laptops grabbed a lot of headlines at CES, between Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold, the Dell Concept Ori and Duet, and Intel’s Horseshoe Bend prototypes. But the category is still in its earliest days. Lenovo’s model is the only foldable screen laptop at CES that has concrete plans to ship a product in 2020. Even that will ship with regular Windows 10 at first, not the upcoming Windows 10X operating system that Microsoft is designing for dual-screen / foldable devices (like its own Surface Neo, which is due out at the end of 2020). And these laptops will need 10X to succeed: right now, they’re running customized versions of Windows 10, which just isn’t designed to handle dual-screen / foldable displays like 10X will be. Plus, 10X will offer a consistent experience across all devices of this category, instead of developers having to adapt to whatever unique solutions Dell or Lenovo come up with on their own.

Add in the fact that the ThinkPad X1 Fold starts at $2,500, and you’ve got a product category that — at least for now — looks more like a curiosity than the future of computing, with a couple of similar-looking prototypes that may never result in real products. Foldable laptops like these may eventually be ubiquitous, but it’s certainly not happening this year.

The same could be said about 5G connectivity, which we saw start to trickle into laptops with the announcements of Dell’s Latitude 9510, HP’s Elite Dragonfly G2, and the Lenovo Yoga 5G. Here, too, it’s clear that the upgrade at hand isn’t really ready for primetime. Two of those laptops (the Dragonfly and the Latitude) are business-focused devices that aren’t really aimed at consumers, and both only offer 5G as a configurable option, not as the default.

This makes sense since 5G rollouts are still ongoing across most of the US. And while 2020 will be a big year when it comes to consumer adoption of the next-gen cellular standard, it’s still very early on in the process. Still, it’s a bit disappointing to see that more laptops aren’t even trying to offer 5G support, given that they’re the exact sort of device that would benefit from reliable, ultra-fast internet on the go that offers speeds comparable to traditional cable internet.

Of course, it wouldn’t be CES without a few exciting experiments. MSI announced the Creator 17 as the “world’s very first” Mini LED laptop, promising better HDR and zone lighting from its far brighter-than-usual screen. MSI also had a pair of gaming laptops with blazing-fast 300Hz displays for gaming and beefy 99.9Wh batteries. Lenovo had a laptop with a full-fledged E Ink panel built into the lid; Asus had one with a customizable dot-matrix LED display that can play animated GIFs. And Alienware stuffed an entire gaming laptop into something the size and shape of a Nintendo Switch with its Concept UFO prototype. Some of these innovations could go on to be the next big thing in portable computers, but it’s too early to tell which will succeed and which won’t. (I wouldn’t go betting on E Ink lids being the new standard for laptops just yet.)

2020 is just getting started, and there’s going to be plenty of new laptops out this year that didn’t make an appearance at CES this week. New processors and parts will presumably ship at some point, enabling the kind of overhauls for higher-end creative and gaming machines like we saw last year, thanks to products like Nvidia’s then-new RTX laptop GPUs.

But despite the promises of flashy folding screens and fast 5G, this year’s laptop lineup looks, for the most part, boring. But it’s the good kind of boring that makes laptops look better, last longer, and feature more refined designs than ever before.

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