With CES now wrapped up and all of us home or headed home, Anand has tasked each of us with putting together some thoughts on what we saw at CES and where the market is headed. I’ve discussed much of what I’m going to say here in our recent podcast, but with my area of focus being laptops I’ve got both good news and bad news. Let’s start with the good news.

Last year at CES 2012, I gave my thoughts on some of the most exciting products of the show for me. Chief among these were the Lenovo Yoga, ThinkPad X220, and the Sony VAIO SE, both of which shared a common trait: IPS display panels. They were really the only two laptops I saw one year ago with IPS panels, and it was frustrating to see displays improving on other devices while the laptop languished in mediocrity. I read a book recently where the question was posed: what’s the opposite of success? If you answered failure like so many do, you’re only correct if we’re speaking in terms of the English language antonym. The author of that book posited—and I wholly support his position—that the opposite of success is mediocrity, and in fact if you want to succeed, your best bet is to increase your rate of failure. The people and companies that succeed don’t do so by accident; they do so by repeatedly trying, and in the process that might mean one, two, or many failures.

This year at CES 2013, not only have we reviewed several IPS equipped laptops over the past year, but there were numerous laptops on display where it’s apparent that the OEMs are finally starting to get the importance of display quality. The race to the bottom hasn’t finished, sadly, but with displays the OEMs are finally being forced into recognizing how critical the component that you stare at whenever you use a device really is. A walk through Intel’s booth for example had well over a dozen different Ultrabooks and laptops on display; many of these—and in particular the hybrid laptop/tablet devices—are now using IPS panels, or some other equally viable wide viewing angle technology (*VA or PLS). As such laptops begin to occupy retail space next to the budget TN panels, hopefully there will be enough uptake of the laptops with improved displays that we can finally halt the downward spiral we’ve been on in that area.

The bad news is that the reason we have this trend towards better displays is almost completely attributable to tablets. When consumers look at a $300-$400 tablet and see wide viewing angle displays with decent colors and good contrast and then they look at laptops with low-end TN panels, their eyes tell them all that they need to know about which looks better. The problem is that more and more people are shifting to tablets, and once they leave they’re basically gone for good. I said something similar to quite a few of the vendors that I met with, and the message bears repeating: if tablets offer better displays, better build quality, better features, and an overall better experience, for many people a $400 tablet (or $500 with a keyboard of some form) is the far more sensible choice.

I don’t think everyone will end up using tablets and smartphones in place of laptops, at least not in the near future, in part because many of us older folks just don’t have the vision to deal well with smaller screens. However, I also don’t think we’re anywhere near the final equilibrium in terms of tablets vs. laptops, and when we reach that point I suspect that tablets will be outselling laptops in the market just like laptops are outselling desktops today. The best way to stem the tide of departing laptop users is to improve the value of what they’re getting—not only by cutting the price of laptops, but also by offering better features and quality. Better displays, especially touchscreens, are a good way to keep people buying laptops. Better battery life and a more consistent user experience (e.g. good SSDs) also help. But mark my words: just as the netbook market has essentially imploded, going from dozens of netbooks from every conceivable manufacturer to essentially none at this CES, the budget laptop market is likely to do the same. Tablets are there to pick up the users, and the only real question is will those tablets be running Windows, Android, or iOS.

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  • jemima puddle-duck - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    In 5 years the closest the majority of teens will get to a laptop is the keyboard they attach to their tablets when they want to type long-form. It's a seismic transition, and it's already happened. There's no turning back.

    I'm always suspicious when people use the word 'real', as if we just hold on long enough time will reverse and everything will be comfortable again. Uncomfortable is good. It's progress and regeneration. It's a sign we're getting older and have to start making way. Netbooks weren't a progression because we knew they were a comfortable subset of what we already had.

    Here's a scary thought. This is the first year that there are teenagers that have no experience of the 20th century. The first computer they were passionate about was probably an iPhone or Android phone. It's possible they've never used a Microsoft product (other than an XBox), and see no reason to. That's the world we're in.
    Reply
  • Malphas - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    It's just you and other slightly delusional folk who think their worldview should apply to everyone. People said the same thing ten years ago about laptops, now it's about tablets. "Enthusiasts" tend to greatly overestimate the computing needs of the general public, which is really just thinks like Facebook, eBay, Amazon, Twitter, etc. which can be handled perfectly well by tablets and apps. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    I have a smartphone (Galaxy Nexus), a tablet (Chinese made, cheap but comparable to other 1280x800 tablets in performance, build quality and features), I have a laptop (11.6", 1st gen Intel Core i3 ULV with an Agility 1 SSD) ad a Desktop (i7 860 @ 3.8GHz, HD7970, 8GB RAM etc.). The desktop gets the most use, when I'm at home I don't use my laptop and the tablet gets used when kids are here to play with or when I'm having a rather long appointment with the toilet. When I'm on the go my tablet and smartphone get used equally in terms of media consumption (watching movies/shows, reading the internet, playing games). My laptop gets used when I need to work on something (rarely) or when I'm staying somewhere longer than one night.
    I wouldn't mind having a tablet replace my laptop, but it needs to be x86 with windows support and an easy way to attach a keyboard and mouse. I want to be able to play my GOG games, flash games and the occasional steam game with it. But if I have to chose between a 900€ tablet with that stuff (Surface Pro) or an 800€ laptop with that stuff (Asus VivoBook U38N) I'd take the laptop in a heartbeat.
    Reply
  • ET - Sunday, January 13, 2013 - link

    A Nexus 7 with DosBox Turbo can run some GOG games decently. Reply
  • StormyParis - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    I have a cheap laptop and a tablet. The tablet is "nice to have", the cheap laptop is vital. Actually, I just sold my tablet before Xmas, thinking I'd get a Nexus 10... now I'm having 2nd thoughts because I don't really miss it, I can wait for the new gen of tablets that didn't get announced a CES... probably MWC ? Reply
  • NeBlackCat - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    ...where can I get a Windows laptop with a modern DPI @ >1080p and <16:9 ?

    Don't even worry about the cost.

    I couldn't find one.

    Vendors have been producing "me too" models to Intel/MS dictats for years now, that sell in ever decreasing quantities because they aren't offering the market what it wants, which is changing because of the move of some traditional laptop functions (eg multimedia) to tablets and phones. Leaving the more "serious" (formerly desktop) functions to laptops.

    So what do they do? Give us puny laptop screens incapable of doing those functions, increasingly set in "tablet transformer" form factors. And they wonder why sales decline.

    It isn't rocket science, Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc. Give me a powerful, well connected, portable laptop with a 15" to 17" IPS screen @ at least 1920x1200, with no additional GPU (it's for getting work done, not gaming) and I'll snap your hands off.

    And a netbook with decent CPU/RAM/interfaces would be nice too. People still have use for that form factor, the problem is has been the puny Atoms.

    Anything like that at CES?
    Reply
  • Bordee - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    Since Apple released Retina Display MacBook Pros with 13-inch 2560x1600 and 15-inch 2800x1800, I began hoping that PC laptop manufacturers would finally start offering >1080p displays on laptops. Much to my display, I've watched one Ultrabook or Win 8 laptop after another released with 1378x768 resolution. It is still hard to find 1080p displays on 15 inch laptops. I'm shocked at the stagnation in PC laptop display quality while there $400-500 tablets with 1200p or 1600p displays.

    One thing that I still don't understand with Intel's Ultrabook push and Windows 8 marketing: why has neither Intel nor Microsoft collaborated with laptop manufacturer in the same way that Microsoft has partnered with Nokia for Windows Phones, to make a drool-worthy flagship laptop? Why isn't there even a single premium (i.e., $1500+ or $2000+) Ultrabook or Windows 8 laptop with a 2560x1440 or 2560x1600 display? I'm sure there would be some demand for such a laptop considering that Apple's Macbook Pro retinas seem to sell pretty well.

    Finally, with PC laptop manufactuers not offer >1080p displays, it give you little reason to need or want to upgrade. I've got a HP dv6t 15.6" 1080p laptop with 16gb of ram, a Sandy Bridge quad core i7, and a decent video card (I don't game on the laptop). For me, there is little point in upgrading from a Sandy Bridge i7 to Ivy Bridge. I'd be much better offer investing in an SSD, which I plan to do down the road. But if better displays were being offered, it would be a different story...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    Actually, Intel got pretty hands-on with several recent Ultrabooks -- Acer's S7 was one of them. It's still not perfect, so Intel may need to get even more involved, but my understanding is that they have actually sent serious engineering talent to some of the OEMs to help with the Ultrabook designs.

    As for higher DPI/resolution displays, I did see at least one laptop with such a display, but I can't tell you who it was from or anything more right now. Best-case, I think we're still probably six months or so away from the 2K displays (2560x1600, 2560x1440, 2880x1620, etc.) showing up in Windows laptops. I hope we'll see at least a couple such offerings when Haswell ships.
    Reply
  • Gc - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    PCWorld's Lloyd Case says he saw a prototype laptop from Acer. with high DPI display
    http://www.pcworld.com/article/2024391/acer-takes-...

    [Sadly the prototype's aspect ratio is 16:9 (2880x1620), which isn't great for businesses filling the screen with two-up documents, or squarer presentations of maps or diagrams. (Many business laptops will no longer come with DVD/optical drives, so there's no reason to design them as DVD viewing devices for developing markets.) Many tablets are breaking away from the tired 16:9 cliche --- maybe some tablet screens could be used for notebooks. (Panasonic's 20" 15:10 tablet prototype screen sounds nice for graphics work, though it may take a wheeled briefcase for a road warrior to transport it gracefully.)]

    Microsoft's first priorities have been about getting Windows 8 out the door. Now that it has shipped, maybe they can work on improving support for high resolution displays. It might be a big task to provide backward compatibility for Windows applications.

    [Speculation: I don't know if we can be sure Microsoft will take the same approach as Apple did, halving the resolution dimensions for apps that don't handle such high resolutions (displaying each app pixel with 2x2 screen pixels). That might not handle a variety of resolutions well. Microsoft also may need to standardize how graphics devices handle the high-DPI scaling efficiently, which takes time negotiating with vendors. Microsoft also may need to update some of its libraries, such as ClearType font rendering. Browsers vendors were able to get something to work better in the months after the Apple Retina display came out, but Microsoft would like the display to work well for all apps.]
    Reply
  • NeBlackCat - Sunday, January 13, 2013 - link

    Are these 2K displays any help though?

    Strikes me that, unless you want to go blind, the most logical pixels you want on a "display lots of stuff" laptop screen is around 1920x1200.

    For that, there's no point going further, to multiples of lower resolutions (like 2x the accursed 1366x768) for the physical resolution, because you still only output at the lower resolution, and still can't get "more stuff" on the screen.

    Unless you either adopt non-integral upscaling (quality loss?) or go 1:1 (and therefore blind) if the system allows it.

    For me, someone needs to realise that there's still a demand for 1920x1200 class displays in higher margin products. You don't have to look round many forums on the net to see it.
    Reply

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