CES 2015 and the Resurrection of the PC

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 7, 2015

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is one of the most typical and oddest conferences around. Typical in its relentlessly self-congratulatory “It’s always sunny in Las Vegas” industry attitude. Odd in its motley collection of attendees – vendors hawking shiny new products, wholesalers and retailers looking for an angle, hard core techies and consumer electronics geeks on the prowl, and thousands of reporters and analysts looking for stories.

On one level, CES is really a celebration of the new – new technologies, new goods, new trends. On a more practical level, the conference offers an expansive window into what vendors and their retail customers are betting consumers will buy during the coming year. Some of those wagers (often the ones that garner the most media attention) are long shots, but if you attend often enough, you can develop a sense for longer-term trends and their markedly optimistic underpinnings.

The premature death of the PC

That attitude was on full display at CES during the past couple of years as a host of minor and major vendors aimed to ride into glory with iPad knockoffs. The gauzy trend they hoped to tap into was what some sycophantic fan boys and boosters dubbed the “death of the PC.” That assumed that the rapid uptake of Apple tablets would inevitably result in a death spiral of epic proportions for traditional desktop personal computers and clamshell laptops.

Apple’s remarkable success in smart phones may have been the foundation of that attitude, and consumer uptake of the iPad initially seemed to bolster it. But the PC deathwatch crowd blithely ignored a few hard truths:

  • That despite their considerable attractions (including portability and battery life) tablets are better for consuming media than creating it;
  • That with time and investment, vendors and component makers would develop innovations that enabled PCs to catch up with tablet performance;
  • That robust sales aside, considerable evidence suggested that consumers were buying tablets to complement their PCs, not replace them, and;
  • That continuing changes in form factor, both with shrinking tablets and growing smart phones, would further alter the market and demand

That final point gained visibility in 2014 as tablet sales, even Apple’s, began to falter at the same time once-depressed PC sales began perking up proving (to paraphrase Sam Clemens) that reports of the PC’s demise had been greatly exaggerated.

Next gen Intel-based innovation

Not surprisingly, CES 2015 is chock-a-block with innovative new laptop and desktop PCs from a wide variety of vendors. The vast majority are sporting Intel’s new 5th generation Core “Broadwell” processors, the first to leverage the company’s latest 14nm process and technologies.

Some would say that Broadwell’s benefits are incremental, and that’s fair in one sense. The boost in overall performance isn’t huge – in the 20% range for graphics, for example, and in delivering an hour or more of additional battery life. But taken in concert with the benefits delivered by previous gen Core (Haswell) chips, laptops based on Broadwell can deliver full-blown PC performance with battery life very close to what tablets offer.

However, that’s just one part of Intel’s overall PC narrative these days. The company also continues to layer new features and innovations onto its Core platform, making it increasingly difficult for competitors to meet, let alone surpass its offerings. The new features in 5th gen Core include Intel’s RealSense 3D camera technology, which enables 3D imaging and depth-sensing computer vision and gesture recognition, and integrated speech recognition for supporting a wide variety of complex voice recognition and commands.

Add in other offerings expected during the coming year, including Microsoft’s much anticipated Windows 10 OS and sharp-as-a-knife 4k Ultra HD displays, and 2015 could and should be a very good year indeed for PC sales.

New PCs at CES 2015

With dozens of vendors and hundreds of PC products on display at CES 2015, providing an exhaustive review would be, well, exhausting. However, I think the products spotlighted by three major PC vendors – Dell, HP and Lenovo – are worth considering in some detail:

  • Dell hasn’t had a high profile at recent CESs, but the company hit the show this year with an expanded portfolio of laptops and tablets that earned it seven CES Innovation awards – the most in the company’s history. Leading Dell’s pack is the new Venue 8 7000 that at 6mm qualifies as the world’s thinnest tablet (it also captured a coveted CES “Best of Innovation” award). Other award-winning Dell products include the redesigned XPS13 laptop which packs a 13” display into an 11” laptop frame, the XPS15 which is now available with a 4k ultra HD display, the Alienware Area 51 gaming desktop, the Latitude Education 13” laptop and Mobile Cart, the Inspiron 15 7000 Series laptop, and two new monitors – the curved Dell UltraSharp 34 and the Dell UltraSharp 27, a 5K ultra HD display. The company also introduced new Alienware 15 and 17 laptops and said it is adding Intel RealSense 3D Camera Front F200 to Inspiron 15 5000 Series laptops and Inspiron 23 all-in-one (AIO) desktops.
  • HP is a longstanding CES attendee and the company arrived this year with a host of new products and some excess baggage – the fact that this will be the last CES HP attends as a unified company. On the PC side, HP’s new Pavillion Mini Desktop and Stream Mini Desktop squeeze the performance of a conventional PC into a package that’s approximately 6” x 6” x 2” in size, and weighs less than 1.5 pounds. What makes the Mini products run are “fanless” Intel CPUs that don’t require mechanical cooling. Despite their diminutive size, HP’s Minis can be upgraded/expanded and have numerous ports for attaching external devices. The company calls its new HP ZBook 14 and 15u the industry’s thinnest, lightest workstations, and is positioning them for mobile-minded engineers and designers. HP is pitching its new ultra HD monitors as “interactive virtual reality displays” that enable a variety of immersive experiences. The new Officejet 8040 AIO printer includes Neat software that allows the device to seamlessly integrate with mobile devices, and also supports HP’s Instant Ink discount ink replacement service.
  • Lenovo arrived at CES shortly after manufacturing its 100,000,000th Thinkpad laptop, and introduced a host of new products to that line. The pick of the litter is the new ThinkPad X1 Carbon which the company calls the world’s lightest 14-inch performance ultrabook. The ThinkVision 24 is an attractive new borderless display, and the company’s new Thinkpad Stack offers an innovative approach to taking accessories like backup batteries, storage and Bluetooth speakers on the road. Lenovo also highlighted new additions to its respected Yoga line, including the YOGA Tablet 2 featuring the company’s AnyPen technology which allows owners to use a common pencil or pen for handwriting and navigation instead of a special stylus. There were also two new YOGA 3 models (11” and 14”) and three new YOGA Thinkpads (12”, 14” and 15”) that are designed to blend the best aspects and features of the company’s signature laptop lines.

Final analysis

Like past Consumer Electronics Shows, CES 2015 proceeds with a relentless celebration of the new with hardly a backward glance. There’s a certain irony in that stance this week considering the return from the not-so-dead PC segment and its related vendors. The PC revivification is also not some sort of zombie apocalypse but a full-fledged resurrection enabled by innovations from component vendors like Intel and often remarkable, sometimes revolutionary designs by PC vendors.

Of the PCs, laptops and tablets we saw, a few clearly stand out. Dell’s new Venue 8 7000 and redesigned XPS 13 are both sleek, remarkable solutions that highlight the company’s continuing design leadership. HP’s Pavillion Mini and Stream Mini qualify as a reimagining of the desktop form factor. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon redefines the top end of one of the industry’s strongest lineups of business laptops.

Exactly what these and other offerings portend for the PC market in 2015 is hard to say. Considered in combination with Intel’s 5th generation Core processors and the imminent arrival of Windows 10, I believe it should be a good year for PC sales. But the market and some of its players are also in transition. HP, in particular, will be a literally different company by the end of 2015 than it is today, and competitors are making every effort to ensure that they benefit from that transition.

Whatever happens, the solutions and innovations at CES suggest that 2015 will be a standout year for laptops and desktops. Quite frankly, PC customers have never had it so good.

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