It’s a fascinating time to purchase a PC. While Apple has managed to incite a firestorm around the MacBook by toning down performance and stripping out ports, the Windows hardware ecosystem has marched forward in recent years relatively unabated. We now have Windows 10, Microsoft’s most robust and fleshed-out operating system in almost a decade. We’re also experiencing a surge in experimental electronics that rely on the added power of the desktop and laptop, led by the burgeoning world of virtual and augmented reality.
Where that leaves consumers is in a peculiar place, existing in two worlds simultaneously. On one hand, we have the tried and true PC, a refined device you’ll likely purchase from HP, Dell, or Lenovo. They’ve got solid specs and perform the necessary functions we’ve come to expect from devices that use mice and keyboards, or do not rely solely on touch. On the other, we have the more cutting-edge gadgets: the virtual reality-ready desktops, the absurdly decked-out gaming laptops, the transitional 2-in-1 workhorses, and the design-first all-in-one’s.
Nowhere is this duality more apparent than CES. The annual Las Vegas gathering is where almost every top gadget maker trots out the latest advancements in both the solid and dependable PC world — the gadgets people might actually buy — and the wacky and experimental one. This week, we’re seeing plenty of both. In the process, we get a glimpse of where the most simultaneously ubiquitous and enduring consumer electronic device, the personal computer, is headed next. And while the PC has felt mostly relegated to the background in recent CES shows, we’re now seeing the Windows machine strike back with a vengeance.
Take, for instance, the new Dell XPS 13. It’s not a new laptop. But Dell this year unveiled a new 2-in-1 variation of the gadget. We’ve had a touchscreen-enabled XPS in the past, but this new model adds the transitional element of the 2-in-1 form factor. That unlocks the full freedom of hand gestures and the versatility of a tablet for one of the most popular Windows notebooks on the market.
“The mobile and PC world appear to be blending at a few points, namely the buyer’s desire for thin, sexy designs with lots and lots of battery life,” says Patrick Moorhead, an industry analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. “2-in-1s have been successful, in part, because they pulled some important characteristics out of mobile.” Notably, the new XPS 13 has up to 15 hours of battery life, more than any mainstream tablet available.
Then there’s the new LG Gram 14. The Korean electronics giant has been trying to dominate the ultrathin notebook market for quite a few years now, copying the MacBook in style and yet failing to the deliver the engineering, build quality, and battery life to command its price tag. This year, however, the company claims to have broken new ground. The new 14-inch Gram, unveiled today at CES, comes with 21 hours of battery life, LG claims. While that will certainly have to be tested, it shows an ambitious attempt to marry the longevity of mobile devices to an elegant tablet-thin design, all with work capabilities of a traditional standalone PC.
On the desktop side, companies like HP are pushing all-in-one products that, just a few years ago, seemed unnecessary and extravagant. Now, those same products appear to have needed just a little time to mature. The latest version of the company’s Sprout Pro all-in-one PC is readymade for the world of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. It incorporates a 3D scanner and a 21-inch projected second display that lays flat in front of the screen so you can capture and then edit physical objects in a virtual space. Originally designed for 3D printers, it now seems even more capable as a tool for bringing the real world into VR and AR environments.
For video game fans, Asus’ new VivoPC X flips the script on VR-ready desktops by packing in the necessary components to play Oculus Rift and HTC Vive-capable games in a device no bigger than an Xbox One. Instead of asking consumers to simply shell out thousands of dollars for the most robust and capable gaming PC, Asus has instead given consumers a low-cost option that hits the minimum spec requirements. With Intel’s latest Core i5 Kaby Lake processor and an Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics card, the VivoPC X is now on the cheapest ways to get high-fidelity VR — it costs just $799.
Microsoft deserves some credit here for helping reshape how consumers, and gadget makers, conceive of the PC. Since the advent of the first Surface 2-in-1 in 2012, the company has been unrelenting in its push to put the PC back to the design and productivity forefront. After the slow and steady success of the first few iterations of the Surface, Microsoft switched gears and began building out the name as a broader brand, one that represents a conception of the PC as forward-thinking and supremely capable. In turn, this shift illustrated a consumer appetite for PCs as more than just a no-frills workplace machine.
“While Microsoft had a very shaky Surface start, I see them as one of the key PC trailblazers for new use cases and even product design,” Moorhead says. We now have the Surface Book laptop, arguably the most polished and well-crafted 2-in-1 on the market. And last fall, Microsoft entered the territory of Apple’s iMac with the transitional all-in-one Surface Studio. “Any other company with the start they had with Surface would have pulled out, but to their credit, they kept moving on and after a few products, nailed it.”
This steady evolution of the PC is essentially a story of relevance. It was considered a foregone conclusion that the smartphone would become the de facto personal computer, and that the tablet would accelerate this shift. The reality is that PC makers adjusted to become more mobile and the tasks we reserved for the beefier, more powerful machines on our desks expanded.
It’s never been a better time to buy into the world of Windows than today, if only for the myriad choices you have to decide how cheap, mobile, or powerful you’d like your most capable piece of technology to be