Will 3D Laptops Fall Flat?

Earlier this week at Best Buy’s holiday preview event, a reporter asked what technologies had failed to gain as much momentum as the company had anticipated. The retailer’s CEO responded that 3D TVs sales were not as high as the company had hoped. He argued that part of the issue was poor marketing, saying that 3D needs to be positioned as a feature, not as the sole reason to buy a brand-new TV.

Another issue, according to a survey just released by Nielsen, is that many consumers simply don’t like the idea of having to don glasses to gain an extra viewing dimension. Despite this rough start, several PC makers are lining up this holiday to offer 3D-enabled notebooks, and it looks like they could be an even tougher sell.

Right now, the leading technology for 3D laptops is Nvidia’s 3D Vision, which pairs active shutter glasses with high-performance 120-MHz displays. (There’s a competing software-based solution from TriDef, but it’s not nearly as immersive, and its passive shutter glasses offer much narrower viewing angles.) ATI has a competing technology that also uses active shutter glasses, which will power a new version of the HP Envy 17. What can you do with all this technology?
Play 3D games with a new level of depth, and enjoy 3D videos, whether from 3D Blu-ray discs (once they arrive) or a small but growing selection of 3D online content (such as this year’s PGA championship).

Now that 3D-enabled cameras and camcorders are starting to hit the market, 3D notebook owners will also be able to view user-generated content on their screens. And you don’t necessarily need to buy whole new Blu-ray discs for movies you already own. Both the new Acer AS5745DG and Toshiba Satellite A665 3D feature software that converts 2D images to 3D. Nevertheless, 3D notebooks face some serious challenges.

Initially, 3D Vision-enabled machines cost at least $1,500, but Acer just announced a 3D laptop with Nvidia’s technology that will sell for $999 (without Blu-ray). Toshiba’s latest Satellite A665-3D, which includes a Blu-ray drive, sells for $1,299. While certainly more reasonable than before, these price tags are still well above the average selling price of a mainstream laptop. If you purchased the above Toshiba without 3D but with all the other same specs, you would still be talking about a $200 premium. HP hasn’t yet released a price for its ATI-powererd HP Envy 17 3D, saying only that it will cost under two grand.

And then there are the glasses. In that recent Nielsen survey, 57 percent of people said that glasses were a major reason they were unlikely to buy a 3D TV. And 90 percent said the glasses would hinder multitasking while watching television. That multitasking includes using a laptop while channel surfing, a very popular activity. The problem is that you can’t use the same glasses for 3D TVs as you can notebooks (nevermind the same glasses for different brands of TVs), and no one is going to switch between pairs. I’m not even sure consumers want to wear glasses while using a 3D notebook by itself. After all, many users switch between watching video and viewing 2D content all the time.

When you look at the sales forecasts for 3D notebooks, they look pretty meager, especially when compared to 3D TVs. According to DisplaySearch, it expects 179,000 3D-ready notebooks to be sold in 2010, compared to 1.2 million 3D TVs. That number of laptops represents only .08 percent of the market, and the firm expects that number to grow to only 1.66 percent by 2015.

Where 3D notebooks start to get more interesting is through technologies such as 3DTV Play, a software update coming from Nvidia that will enable consumers to attach their laptops to 3D-ready TVs. That way you’ll be able to kick back and enjoy all sorts of 3D content on the big screen. However, at least up until now, very few laptop owners have bothered to connect their notebooks via HDMI cables. It might take a wireless version of 3DTV Play to make it truly compelling.

Now that tablets are starting to garner all of the attention, it’s easy to see why notebook makers are pushing 3D. It’s an exciting technology, and over time it could go mainstream. However, in order for that to happen, prices need to come down further, there needs to be more 3D content (from the likes of Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix), and the number of cameras and camcorders that can capture 3D pictures and video must grow. Most of all, the powers that be need to establish industry standards for glasses that can be used with both laptops and TVs. Until then, 3D notebooks won’t really pop.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.