Laptops Embrace Smartphone Tech in Wake of the Pandemic

According to IDC, although computer sales have been decreasing for the past decade, during the COVID-19 pandemic PC sales shot up 50 percent or more per quarter compared with the previous year. As a result, laptop manufacturers are now integrating technologies once reserved for smartphones, including powerful processors, higher-resolution displays, and increased battery life. New designs such as tablets that snap onto keyboards (detachables) and thin laptops with 360-degree hinges that fold into tablet form are also emerging.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, “the laptop’s next transformation is powered by changes in the behavior of consumers, businesses and schools during the pandemic, but it has also coincided with rapid evolution in the technology going into PCs.”

CCS Insight chief executive Geoff Blaber reported that Apple is “leading the way” in providing longer battery life, due to “years amassing in-house chip-design expertise while designing its own processors, first for the iPhone.” In fact, he added, Apple’s chip performance “has got the rest of the industry very, very concerned,” because it is “orders of magnitude ahead of the competition today.”

Qualcomm senior director of product management Miguel Nunes said that Apple’s “tight control of hardware and software means that the company has in some ways pioneered — and hastened the industry-wide adoption of — microchip customization, to better run the software we use most often.” Customization of hardware, in other words, “makes software faster than it would be if it were just running on general-purpose chips.”

Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, a newer detachable, “runs on an Arm-based processor designed in collaboration with Qualcomm … [but] Windows isn’t yet as capable on such processors, largely because not many third-party developers write software for the version of Windows used on such hardware.”

Intel “retains about 80 percent market share in laptops, with the rest being almost entirely its direct competitor AMD, which makes chips that speak the same language as Intel’s,” with “a fraction of the remainder” being Arm-based and using “chips made by Apple, Qualcomm, MediaTek and others.”

To stay competitive, Intel has created an Evo platform “for laptops that use its latest-generation processors” that requires the device to be “thin and light design, instant-on, 9-hour battery life, and other features reminiscent of smartphones.” Intel corporate vice president in charge of laptops Chris Walker said that, “this work was already in progress, and then people’s needs for our key Evo experiences were greatly accelerated by the pandemic.”

Google’s share of PCs sold “exploded in the last 18 months,” with the Chrome ecosystem available on “devices from every major PC manufacturer except for Apple, running on x86 processors made by Intel, but also Arm-based processors from Taiwan-based MediaTek and Qualcomm.”

As laptops evolve into a larger version of a smartphone, however, the missing piece is still “near constant connection to the Internet through a cellular network.” Moor Insights & Strategy president Patrick Moorhead noted that, the challenge itsn’t getting modems into the PCs, but that carriers are “concerned about potentially data-hungry devices like PCs overwhelming their networks.” With 5G, however, there’s a chance to “align incentives so that it is easier for individual buyers of laptops to easily get data plans.”