The Biggest PC Trends At CES 2020

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
 ANSHEL SAG

Historically, the annual CES conference is when all the big PC manufacturers announce their first products of the year. This year, however, was more of a conceptual year with a lot of new platforms and ideas being floated—some theoretical and others already shipping. PC manufacturers, big and small, had some interesting products and ideas to share at CES 2020—even suppliers like AMD, Intel and Qualcomm brought some to the table. Let’s take a closer look.

Small form factor gaming gets bigger

Small form factor PCs (SFF PCs) were a growing trend in 2019, but if CES 2020 is any indicator, this trend will accelerate greatly in 2020. One of the big announcements was that Intel is coming to market with a new generation of the Intel Compute Element for the NUC 9. Intel launched the NUC Element last year with the NUC 8 back at Computex in June. This new compute element will power new SFF PCs like Intel’s ‘Ghost Canyon’ NUC 9 Extreme, which the company showed off at CES 2020. Additionally, Razer adopted the Compute Element to build its Razer Tomahawk SFF PC, which also includes a full-size GPU. The Tomahawk does not have a price yet but is expected to ship for $2,000 according to The Verge. Cooler Master also announced an Intel NUC Element-based enclosure, the NC100, which fits somewhere between the Razer Tomahawk and Intel NUC 9 Extreme in size. The NC100 will come with a power supply and baseboard for the NUC Element to plug into and will sell for $199 sometime later this year. While I personally go back on forth on the utility of SFF PCs (and have mostly gotten that itch out of my system), it is quite clear that some people desire these high-performance desktops that take up minimal space. I’m glad to see SFF PCs getting more attention as it enables the entire market to continue to grow and meet different users’ needs.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold, with keyboard.
 ANSHEL SAG

Unidentified Foldable Objects

At CES, there was a plethora of folding, flipping and form-changing PCs at the show. Intel showed off its Horseshow Bend concept, which takes the idea of a foldable PC and blows it up into a 17”, 4:3 display. This concept is obviously designed to help its OEMs think about foldable PCs, but I believe there are still some Windows and app interface challenges with foldables that need to be addressed. I think that Lenovo is aware of these challenges—that would explain why the Lenovo Carbon X1 Fold comes with a keyboard that sits between the two screens when they’re not being used. Fundamentally, PCs are still productivity devices, which means smooth and easy user interactions and inputs need to be preserved. Software keyboards simply don’t work for a PC and I’m not sure that they ever will.  Currently, an actual keyboard is the answer. Everyone knows how important this is for productivity—Apple learned this lesson from the iPad and Microsoft learned it from the Surface.

Dell also had its own pair of foldable device concepts, the Ori and Duet laptops. Ori is a foldable PC with a single display. Deriving its name from the word Origami, the Ori folds nicely into a very small book-like form factor from a much larger tablet. Since these are concepts, nothing is final about fit and finish or even design ID. Interestingly, it is still unclear which market Dell will target with the Ori, but I suspect that it will somewhat mirror Lenovo’s business ambitions. When unfolded, Ori has a 13.3” OLED display like what you’d see on many laptops. The Ori can also be used as a reader-like device when folded slightly. I believe that foldables as a device category are here to stay. However, there will be many early growing pains, as we’ve seen with the Galaxy Fold.

Dell’s other concept, the Duet, takes two screens and adds a traditional laptop hinge in between to make it a dual screen laptop. It isn’t quite the same experience as a foldable, but I do believe a dual display is valuable—especially if Dell can help users realize the productivity benefits of having such a device. Duet is designed for multi-tasking and expanding your ability to see wider/longer pages or documents all at once. Personally, I travel with 2-3 laptops everywhere I go, and I usually use them as multi-screen setups. It would be nice to have a single device with multiple displays. I believe Dell’s greatest challenge with these devices is their input methods. As I mentioned earlier, people are going to want to type on them if they’re being sold as productivity devices—that’s going to require some sort of thin keyboard accessory.

In addition to Dell’s foldable and dual-screen concepts, the company showed off something that I’ve been privy to for quite some time: Alienware’s own UFO concept. I consider the Alienware UFO to be a transformative offering—it does not fit into most people’s ideas of what a PC is. The Alienware UFO concept gets a lot of comparisons with the Nintendo Switch because it is a hand-held PC. Ultimately, though, I believe the fact that it has detachable controllers and runs on Windows essentially makes it a portable gaming PC that you can use like a Switch. I call the Alienware UFO a ‘Super-Switch’ in that it has access to a much larger library of PC games and can run them at higher quality settings than the Switch. Additionally, the UFO could still be used like a regular PC with a keyboard and mouse. It could even be connected to a TV if you want to. It has the full media capabilities of a PC, so you can watch all your movies and TV shows on it as well. The Switch ecosystem is no doubt robust and growing every day, but it still pales in comparison to the much larger and richer PC ecosystem. There is no official pricing or expected release date since the UFO is still a concept, but I expect that it would be priced like a gaming laptop in the $799-$999 range depending on the specs.

5G PCs finally arrive

I think a lot of people over-predicted how big 5G would be at CES this year. That said, cellular technologies have never been particularly popular at CES—that’s MWC’s job only a month and a half later in Barcelona. This year, though, we did see some of the first 5G PCs. The biggest PC OEMs, Dell, HP and Lenovo, all had their own 5G PCs to show off. This confirms the predictions by some that 2020 would be the year that the 5G PC becomes a reality. That said, each company only announced one 5G PC optional SKU in each of their respective product lines, so I wouldn’t necessarily say there is a flood of 5G PCs coming. I also believe that we will hear and see more 5G PCs around Computex and IFA time. The most impressive of the 5G PCs, to me, was Lenovo’s 5G YOGA PC, which the company announced at Qualcomm’s press conference. Lenovo’s announcement is impressive because Lenovo is the first to announce a 5G PC that supports both mmWave and Sub-6 GHz spectrum in the same device. Both Dell and HP are shipping 5G PCs with support for only Sub-6GHz spectrum, which makes sense in terms of early deployments and the type of 5G networks that will roll out in the coming year. However, to access the full speed of 5G, one needs to include mmWave as well. Lenovo’s device will initially be the only one capable of leveraging all types of 5G spectrum.

All three devices are going to be powered by Qualcomm’s X55 5G modem, which means that they will support standalone 5G networks and be capable of multi-gigabit speeds. Dell is integrating the X55 into its new super light and super thin flagship business laptop, the 15.6” Latitude 9510, which the company announced at CES 2020. HP’s 5G laptop is the Dragonfly G2, which is also a super light and super thin 13” laptop at under 1KG. I like HP’s Dragonfly G2 because it is an incredibly thin and light notebook with 5G connectivity and a bunch of environmentally friendly components. Over 82% of all the mechanical parts are made of recycled materials, including 50% of the keyboard keycaps (made of recycled DVDs) and 90% of the chassis (made of recycled magnesium). I believe that we can reduce the amount of plastic in our oceans by increasing the use of recycled parts, and it also improves repairability and the longevity of PCs and companies like HP and Dell are really leading the charge.

Wrapping up…

Overall, there was a pretty healthy amount of PC innovation at CES 2020 coming from all the leading PC OEMs. I don’t think we saw as many PCs as we have in previous years, but I believe that is because last year had so many models launch and this year was more of a conceptual year. This year also appears to be less gaming-focused than previous years. It seems that many of the PC OEMs will focus more of their gaming PC announcements later in the year around Computex or at their own conferences. That said, it was great to see the new foldable and 5G PCs. I think we’ll see more of both moving further into 2020, with 5G PCs really hitting their stride in 2021 when Intel’s partnership with MediaTek takes off. I also believe Qualcomm’s 5G PCs with its Snapdragon processors will dominate in 2020, since Qualcomm is currently the only modem vendor that has announced PCs with 5G modems in them. I have a strong feeling that Lenovo is just the beginning of this 5G PC wave.