CES, the consumer electronic industry's preeminent trade show, sets the tone for the year in tech. In 2017, for the first time in a while, laptops truly stood out against a crowded showcase of TVs, smart home devices, robots and other gadgets. The standout laptops from the show weren't necessarily thinner than prior models, but instead offered more functionality, fresh aesthetics, or eye-popping gaming or overall performance.
"2016 set the groundworks for a real change in the business … with a growing focus on revenue over sales volume, premium prices over entry-level, and different form factors (and use cases) over standard, everyday plain boxes," NPD vice president Stephen Baker said. "It is clear, as we head into 2017, that these factors have whetted the consumer's appetite for better, more interesting, more innovative products."
This year, the laptop market will innovate and the field will be competitive again. I can't wait.
2-in-1s killed tablets
Laptops essentially ate the tablet market. Outside of weak offerings from D-level manufacturers like E Fun and RCA, we didn't see any new tablets at CES, which means we're not expecting them this year. Apple will be able to run the iPad unopposed; no other company worth taking seriously had something prepared to show.
Instead of stand-alone slates, OEMs brought 2-in-1s. The hybrid category is hardly new, but it continues growing and going mainstream.
"I think we can trace the revitalization of the laptop even further back to 2015, with Microsoft's launch of the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface [Book] ..." Baker said. That was followed in 2016 by Lenovo’s Yoga 910 and HP’s Spectre and Spectre x360, which excited consumers.
But now laptops are taking spots as flagship computers, replacing the slots that tablets would have previously occupied. Dell made a 2-in-1 version of the XPS 13, Samsung's new touch-optimized Chromebooks are convertibles and HP introduced its business-focused EliteBook x360.
Where PC companies were once looking to make the next MacBook Air, it now appears that they're trying to make the next Microsoft Surface. Dell's lineup, for instance, included two detachable 2-in-1s, while Lenovo is taking another shot at the detachable market with the Miix 720.
Thunderbolt 3 is here
USB Type-A isn't dead yet, but the future is here and its name isn't USB Type-C — it's Thunderbolt 3. Almost every high-end offering we saw had the port, which provides higher speeds than USB and enough bandwidth to output to dual 4K displays. Most of the announced notebooks that didn't have Thunderbolt at least came with Type-C, which is reversible and can dock or charge with a wide variety of accessories.
We'll see a bigger selection very soon. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 relies solely on USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3, but it includes a USB-C to USB-A connector in the box. Asus' ZenBook 3 Deluxe will have three Type-C ports, two of which will support Thunderbolt 3.
Soon, you'll be able to use the same charger with any brand of laptop and use a single cable to connect to two monitors plus a high-speed external hard drive.
Gaming laptops are in
Every major laptop manufacturer had a gaming offering in its lineup this year. Someone, somewhere, realized that offices are saturated, but gaming is the next battleground for computers, and every company is aggressively scouting the space.
Samsung, which hasn't made a gaming system in years, is trying to get in on the action with the Notebook Odyssey 15. Lenovo is doubling down on its gaming line with new "Legion" branding, which includes great touches, like embedding Microsoft's wireless dongle technology into the laptop to use with Xbox controllers, and VR upscaling that turns 2D games and videos into VR experiences.
MORE: The Best Gaming Laptops
With the release of the Nvidia GTX 1050 and 1050 Ti GPUs for laptops, manufacturers are getting into budget gaming again this year. The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming and Acer Aspire VX 15 will both play the latest and greatest titles for under $1,000 when they launch this year. They just won't handle high-end virtual reality.
Doing it because they can
Of course, it wouldn't be CES without some crazy ideas. Acer and Razer have plans for the future of luxury laptops.
Acer's Predator 21 X is a $9,000 behemoth with two GTX 1080 GPUs, a mechanical keyboard and a 21-inch curved display (the first on a laptop). Oh, it also has Tobii Eye Tracking, five fans and nine heat pipes, four speakers and two subwoofers. It will go on sale in February. Razer's Project Valerie is just a concept with no price or release date, but it wowed everyone at the show with its three 4K displays.
These computers are pushing laptops to their logical extremes (at what point is a laptop too big to be a laptop? Who would drop $9,000 on one?), but they're important experiments. They show that laptop manufacturers are still innovating and experimenting, and that they're confident enough in these attempts to show to the press, analysts — and, by extension, the public — for feedback. In the future, a three-screen laptop and a $9,000 gaming rig may not be so crazy.
Baker said that the big news from this CES is that manufacturers continue to focus on innovative, high-end laptops. So expect even more envelope-pushing portables in 2017 and 2018.
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