With CES now wrapped up and all of us home or headed home, Anand has tasked each of us with putting together some thoughts on what we saw at CES and where the market is headed. I’ve discussed much of what I’m going to say here in our recent podcast, but with my area of focus being laptops I’ve got both good news and bad news. Let’s start with the good news.

Last year at CES 2012, I gave my thoughts on some of the most exciting products of the show for me. Chief among these were the Lenovo Yoga, ThinkPad X220, and the Sony VAIO SE, both of which shared a common trait: IPS display panels. They were really the only two laptops I saw one year ago with IPS panels, and it was frustrating to see displays improving on other devices while the laptop languished in mediocrity. I read a book recently where the question was posed: what’s the opposite of success? If you answered failure like so many do, you’re only correct if we’re speaking in terms of the English language antonym. The author of that book posited—and I wholly support his position—that the opposite of success is mediocrity, and in fact if you want to succeed, your best bet is to increase your rate of failure. The people and companies that succeed don’t do so by accident; they do so by repeatedly trying, and in the process that might mean one, two, or many failures.

This year at CES 2013, not only have we reviewed several IPS equipped laptops over the past year, but there were numerous laptops on display where it’s apparent that the OEMs are finally starting to get the importance of display quality. The race to the bottom hasn’t finished, sadly, but with displays the OEMs are finally being forced into recognizing how critical the component that you stare at whenever you use a device really is. A walk through Intel’s booth for example had well over a dozen different Ultrabooks and laptops on display; many of these—and in particular the hybrid laptop/tablet devices—are now using IPS panels, or some other equally viable wide viewing angle technology (*VA or PLS). As such laptops begin to occupy retail space next to the budget TN panels, hopefully there will be enough uptake of the laptops with improved displays that we can finally halt the downward spiral we’ve been on in that area.

The bad news is that the reason we have this trend towards better displays is almost completely attributable to tablets. When consumers look at a $300-$400 tablet and see wide viewing angle displays with decent colors and good contrast and then they look at laptops with low-end TN panels, their eyes tell them all that they need to know about which looks better. The problem is that more and more people are shifting to tablets, and once they leave they’re basically gone for good. I said something similar to quite a few of the vendors that I met with, and the message bears repeating: if tablets offer better displays, better build quality, better features, and an overall better experience, for many people a $400 tablet (or $500 with a keyboard of some form) is the far more sensible choice.

I don’t think everyone will end up using tablets and smartphones in place of laptops, at least not in the near future, in part because many of us older folks just don’t have the vision to deal well with smaller screens. However, I also don’t think we’re anywhere near the final equilibrium in terms of tablets vs. laptops, and when we reach that point I suspect that tablets will be outselling laptops in the market just like laptops are outselling desktops today. The best way to stem the tide of departing laptop users is to improve the value of what they’re getting—not only by cutting the price of laptops, but also by offering better features and quality. Better displays, especially touchscreens, are a good way to keep people buying laptops. Better battery life and a more consistent user experience (e.g. good SSDs) also help. But mark my words: just as the netbook market has essentially imploded, going from dozens of netbooks from every conceivable manufacturer to essentially none at this CES, the budget laptop market is likely to do the same. Tablets are there to pick up the users, and the only real question is will those tablets be running Windows, Android, or iOS.

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  • Gc - Sunday, January 13, 2013 - link

    Why high-DPI screens? Two thoughts:

    - Printers tend to have at least 300 dpi, and many are 600 dpi or higher. In photo, map, art, etc. printing applications people may like the screen to match the output so they can see the result at the final size before printing.

    - While such high dpi may not be that useful for presenting more horizontal text, I suspect they can be useful for rendering textures, patterns, and lines, such as used in maps. If you made pixels the minimum size that your eye can distinguish at laptop reading distance, then patterns or lines that are not horizontal or vertical will have a larger minimum spacing or uneven spacing. (There might be some relationship to the Nyquist rate for sampling a 1-d signal such as audio, which says the minimum sampling frequency is twice the maximum frequency you want to record. But 2-d seems harder because patterns and lines can be at an arbitrary angle.)
  • NeBlackCat - Sunday, January 13, 2013 - link

    Yep I agree and have no problem with high DPI generally. I just don't want the only options for laptops to be low DPI (as now, crap resolution at about 100+ DPI) and very high DPI (= crap resolutions scaled X2 to lots of pixels).

    I want high resolution at moderate DPI too, eg. WUXGA at 1:1 pixels, or about 133 DPI.

    Unless someone has a panel that does WUXGA or QXGA at 1:4 pixels (7680x4800, or 530 DPI at 17") anyway. ;-)
  • Gc - Sunday, January 13, 2013 - link

    You're right, a web search turned up a higher-priced 1920x1200 pixel notebook:

    The current Toughbook 52 specsheet shows a 15.4inch 1920x1200 anti-glare screen, Intel i5 3xxxM (Ivy Bridge), 16GB max memory, many I/O ports for fieldwork, docks available.
    sqrt(1920^2 + 1200^2) / 15.4 = 147dpi
    (I think "Toughbook 52" refers to the shell design. This name has been on the market for many years, while the internal electronics have been updated over the years, so be careful.)
  • kyuu - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    While there was (and still is) a need to get out of the age of the shitty x768 TN panel, there's little reason for manufacturers to push resolutions above 1080p. There's even less reason for them to make a 16:10 panel outside of the workstation market.

    I'm not sure what the big obsession is with extremely high DPI screens on smartphone/tablet/laptop screens anyway. 4K makes sense on ~30" and larger monitors and very large TV screens, and needs to progress. But 1080p on a 5" screen? 1600p on a 10" or even 15" screen? What the hell for? There are others areas in which I wish displays would progress besides just pushing undiscernable extra pixels, such as: going beyond 60Hz, color accuracy/gamut, contrast ratio, black levels, response times.
  • NeBlackCat - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    Many people want to do serious work on their laptop. That means spreadsheets, documents, desktops, multiple browser pages, drawings, listings, etc, etc, that aren't artificially vertically truncated just because some manufacturer (*cough^ Intel ^cough^) decided that the most important things was to have a screen that fits a movie.

    Where do such people buy their laptops now? Oops...they can't buy them anywhere.
  • jjj - Saturday, January 12, 2013 - link

    Don't give too much importance to tablets, they are just a stopgap device just like netbooks were (the netbook enabled the tablet,showing that ppl will use a cheap,small screen,slower device). The screen tech evolves, the tablet ,as a form factor , is gone and the phone with expandable screen replaces it ( 3D holographic screens , wearable tech are beyond that).
    You are somewhat preaching higher end notebooks and i assume that''s the sin of living in a developed nation but the vast majority of users are a lot more cost conscious.They need a PC ( including tablets and phone in the PC category here) and they'll get the cheapest device that is enough for their needs. A 10 inch tablet at 300$ ,that's where prices are heading, offers a lot more value for the vast majority of consumers than any laptop with a price inflated by better screen,SSD and w/e.
    You also got quite a bit of computational power in new form factors and a push for wireless connections should enable us to connect tabs and phones to external displays a lot easier (for old folks like you).
    You are also assuming that somehow that somehow bigger screens are laptop exclusive but if you think about it that;'s not quite so.We are all used with A4 sheets of paper and that's about 14 inch diagonal so 11.6-13 + inch tablets should be feasible as long as the bezel is thin and the weight is kept bellow 700 grams while playing a bit with the center of gravity of the device (sub 600 grams would be even better) - such a tablet now is possible but the price would be a bit high ( getting rid of layers of glass can lead to lower yields, going carbon fiber frame/case is not cheap) ,non the less it should be doable at a good price soon enough.
    Sadly the desktop is being abandoned too. Intel isn't giving us more cores at a decent price and given their current strategy we might not get em anytime soon. Higher res screens are just not getting cheaper ( 30 inchers are stuck at above 1K$ since they first launched). The category isn't getting any attention and that hurts PC sales and the enthusiasm around PC in general.More cores,,higher res screens at decent prices could at least cause a refresh cycle for gamers and generate buzz around PC.
    But it's late, at this point even the web is getting stupid with so many sites optimizing for small screens and ruining the experience on desktop.
    Old form factors are dead, they can try milking it as much as they can, and they should but the focus should be on how to better the new form factors and how to push the next form factor. Sadly the industry is terrible at innovating ,they are afraid, too afraid to be able to think clearly . You have plenty of example of old technology that went extinct despite many arguing it won't be the case,wishful thinking doesn't change relaity no matter how hard an industry hopes it will.
    Ending this with a fun fact: the best selling product for Logitech is an ipad keyboard.
  • Sabresiberian - Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - link

    I think this sums up the U.S.A. in the last few decades. And, judging by the gamers I come across from all across the world, most of the the rest of the so-called civilized world, too.

    What's the the name of the book, if you don't mind sharing?

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